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Up Close and ­Personal with Chesapeake Bay

Photographer Jay Fleming documents life on — and in — the water

“There was no way I was going to get a real job,” said Jay Fleming. “I needed to ­document this way of life.”

Yes, at five-plus pounds, photographer Jay Fleming’s Working the Water makes a beautiful coffee table book. Open it up, and you see it is much more. With breathtaking photos of Chesapeake fisheries and the men and women who work them to earn a living — as the last hunter-gatherers — Fleming takes you on an eye-opening tour of nature and the human spirit from above, under and on the water.
    Jay Fleming, 29, from Severna Park, did not set out to join legendary Bay photographers Marion Warren, Robert DeGast and David Harp. But he is the rising star, with a distinctively new approach.
    Fleming grew up in the Anne Arundel County community of Epping Forest, fishing and crabbing from shore with his brother. Licensed to drive, he bought a kayak that, he said, “opened the world to me.” Photography came later.
    As a high school senior, he shot the environmental wonders of the creeks and rivers. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, he studied biology and in summer interned at Maryland Department of Natural Resources, where his mother, Carla, works. Still, he shifted his major to economics.
    That was a fateful decision. Back at DNR after graduation, shooting the shad and sturgeon he worked with, he could not climb the career ladder without that biology degree. His next step was summer work with the National Park Service to restore Yellowstone cutthroat trout. By then he was shooting underwater.
    When he decided to try for a career in environmental photography, he drew on a natural advantage. From his father, Kevin, a National Geographic photographer, he learned to eliminate the horizon line, consider the composition, find a clean background and use the light as you would “a verb in a sentence.” That was the extent of his education. The rest was trial and error.
    Writer Randall Peffer invited him to photograph the skipjack Hilda Willing dredging oysters under sail. Sliding by in his yellow kayak, Fleming impressed Capt. Stoney Whitlock. “That boy has the right smart of it,” the captain told Peffer, meaning he had gusto and grit. That first freelance job was bought by Wooden Boat magazine.
    Next he landed a day on the skipjack City of Crisfield with 92-year-old legend Capt. Art Daniels. The captain filled him with stories of nature, fisheries and watermen.
    “I was absorbing the information about fishing and the watermen’s culture so fast that I thought I was going to explode with excitement,” Fleming remembers. “There was no way I was going to get a real job now. I needed to document this way of life.”
    Capt. Bunky Chance, president of the Talbot County Watermen’s Association and, Fleming says, “a deeply religious man who loves the water, took me hand-tonging on Broad Creek in Talbot County and introduced me to other watermen to get my network started.”
    As boats, crews, packing and shucking houses, fish, crabs and oysters moved in front of his lens, Fleming was capturing a vibrant, sometimes hostile, way of life. He plays the role of educator in this subculture, documenting fish-population fluctuations, fishing techniques, business savvy and weather predictions. Because of his commitment to telling their story and how they get along with nature, he has gained the hard-earned respect of the men and women who make up that subculture.

    One was Matt Garrett, a young Talbot County fisherman killed in an automobile accident, leaving a loving, close-knit family including a one-year-old daughter. Fleming donated a print of a picture of Garrett to a fundraiser at Chesapeake Maritime Museum. Watermen chipped in and bought the picture for more than $10,000.
    “His family and his daughter will look at that picture forever. I knew then the importance of bringing the human element into my photographs to people,” Fleming said.
    Working the Water sold out its first printing in three months through the 2016-’17 holiday season.
    While he awaited the arrival of a second printing, Fleming took a sabbatical to Cuba to photograph its lifestyles and industries, with people living on $20 to $30 a month. He has no plans for a book on Cuba, but his photos of his visit are on display at the Annapolis Collections Gallery, Calvert Marine Museum, the Tripp Hillderbrant Gallery in Easton, the Will Hemsley Gallery in Centreville and
    He also holds photography workshops around Maryland for amateur and some professional photographers, “helping them take better photographic interpretations using natural light and so on.
    “With today’s technology there are lots of pictures out there. All you have to do is shoot away, plug a disc into your computer or phone and share with people anywhere. It’s awesome and not very expensive.”
    In the back of his mind, maybe not too far back, is a book similar to Working the Water, concentrating on fishing, fishermen and the environment all along the East Coast and, perhaps, offshore.
    “I want to broaden my story of how fishermen and the environment interact,” he says, “because you can’t tell the story of one without the other.”

Mick Blackistone has written about and worked with, for and as a waterman over the past 40 years. He is the author of seven books on the Bay and watermen.