Like a Mirror

Johanna Wolfe, Pushing Water. July 2011. Published by Beta Pictoris Gallery, Birmingham, AL.

Photo courtesy Johanna Wolfe, Beta Pictoris Gallery

Glass reflects the midday glare. Captain Beebe maneuvers his boat through the harbor. A deckhand crushes a can in his fist. Below, motors rumble and water churns while above the gulls shriek. High-rises stand aloof as a tug make its way up the Miami River. On the bank a fisherman waits. The smells of garbage, fish, and boat fuel comingle. Back out in the harbor, Wally casts another line.  

In Johanna Wolfe’s latest series of photographs, she returns home to investigate the tugboats in the Port of Miami and on the Miami River. Wolfe’s previous collections divide into two distinct categories: the landscape of the Everglades and portraits of her little brothers and sisters. Well before the Miami photos, Wolfe gained access to the crumbling buildings at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. For this current series, Wolfe returns home and melds portrait with landscape by photographing tugs, their crew and their environment. “I find that when you photograph people at work they don’t see what the interest is because its so commonplace for them,” said Wolf. “But with photography, and that idea of access, it’s not commonplace for us as viewers—unless we work on tugboats.”

Part of the intrigue of this series is in that the general public doesn’t have access to the commercial port or river. Miami remains such an image driven city that its glamour overshadows its infrastructure. The glitter of Miami Beach or the sleek high-rises of downtown take precedence. The guts of the city are hidden, like a crawl space in a large home. In this case, the crawl space is the Miami River.

Miami is not an especially large port, so when picturing boats in that city the cruise ships lining the MacArthor Causeway come to mind or yachts that dock in the city’s many marinas.  But deep into the Miami River, past the high towers of downtown, a narrow steel canyon composed of small ships emerges near the Miami International Airport. There’s not much trade coming in on those boats, perhaps a bit of seafood, cocoa, and the like, but what goes out supplies several small countries of the Caribbean. “This is strictly a Miami thing,” Captain Al Beebe said of the river’s small-scale international trade. Beebe guides the huge container ships in the harbor. Wolfe spent several trips nosing around his boat (she even photographed the head), before the captain suggested a trip up the river.

In many ways, the human scale of the riverfront trade is a natural fit for Wolfe. This is not to say that she isn’t aware of the larger aspects of the trade. In fact, she talks with a sailor’s swagger of photographing Panamax, Pre Panamax, Post Panamax, which, for the uninitiated, refer to the size limits of the ships in relation to the Panama Canal. By 2014, even larger ships called New Panamax will enter the lexicon. But Wolfe likes the romantic ideal of the small and nearly obsolete. Her decision to focus her camera on the-little-river-that-could parallels her decision to shoot film and use C-print paper in a digital age.  She recently berated a representative from Fuji when the company decided to discontinue the printing paper she favors. “I spoke to them several times and said what are we supposed to do as artists,” she said. “I kept hoping that he’d realize that they were making a mistake.”

When confronted with the vast landscape of the harbor and its huge cargo ships, Wolfe focused her camera on the details, such as the saturated red of the ship’s hull as it violently meets the the turquoise water, with a thin line of numerals measuring depth vertically slicing the composition. “I’m driving the boat and I see this girl out there and she’s taking all these pictures and I’m like what could she be seeing,” recalled Beebe. “What I see though my eyes, it’s just a job. And what she sees, I have no clue.”

Not everyone sees just the job. The effect of the shifting winds and current place deckhand Wally Reynolds into a kind of trance. “I stare until I turn blue because I see stars,” she said. When Wolfe arrived on the scene Reynolds was overjoyed to see another woman on board. It was merely a coincidence that she landed on her boat. Reynolds believes there are only about four or five female deckhands at Moran, one of the oldest tug companies in the States. “You’ve got old salts, they’re accustomed to have men all the time,” she said.  “I know Johanna must have been terrified, because in the beginning I was. I think it took a lot of courage.”

When Wolfe talks about difference she sees between landscapes and portraits, she describes them both as reflections of the photographer, as if in a mirror. “The types of reflections that you get from a landscape are different from what you get from a person. With people it’s almost too much. It walks the line between subtle and overly dramatic,” she said.  “Landscapes convey a state of mind, portraits are more about imagining yourself in their shoes.” It’s telling then that one of the strongest images in this show is of Reynolds holding one of the ropes that she throws every day, a large circle with an “X” over her shoulder like a target. “I got the mirror,” said Wolf “She’s a woman and she’s a woman in this odd world for a woman to be in. I think that that strangeness or that awkwardness in that world I really latch on to.” There she stands, on deck, this woman in a man’s world, staking her claim, no doubt, on the captain’s chair.