New England & the Sea
“From the arrival of the Pilgrims in Plymouth in 1620 to the present, the coasts of New England have been the site of defensive forts and the home base for commerce, fishing, whaling, and shipbuilding industries. Maritime history and industry are on display in every state.” -Visit New England
By Madison Marone
Arthur Griffin’s legacy lives on through the Griffin Museum of Photography. As an Exhibitions Assistant for the museum, I’ve created this exhibition to highlight and provide context for his work so viewers may experience it in new and exciting ways.
Griffin’s photographs capture the essence and vibrancy of mid-20th century New England. Illuminating the Archive of Arthur Griffin: Photographs 1935-1955, views the region’s cultural heritage, traditions, and aesthetic through the lens of Griffin’s lesser-known work. The six-part exhibition explores how photography affects the way we relate to and understand the past. Each exhibit features historical, sociological, and creative interpretations of photographs from the museum’s collection. This installment focuses on New England’s working waterfront documented through Griffin’s photos. It is divided into three sections: the fishing industry, shipyards, and coastal tourism.
New England’s location and longstanding fishing heritage make it one of the United States’ top regions for seafood. The Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Maine provide nutrient-rich waters for fish and shellfish to thrive. The catch is predominantly lobster, scallops, and groundfish. Towns such as Gloucester and Portland serve as central locations for commercial fishermen.
Griffin joined the fishermen on their outings to capture the drama and excitement of their work. It is a dangerous profession with high risk and reward. He documented the entire commercial fishing process from ships to piers, as well as canning and distribution centers. His photographs provided a behind-the-scenes look at the journey seafood takes from the ocean to our dinner plates.
The following photographs showcase the labor and process of the fishing industry in the mid-20th century. In the first photograph, a lobsterman and his reflection are captured in contrast to the vast ocean. The second focuses on the catch while fishermen work diligently in the background. The next photo is an action shot evoking the drama of life out at sea. A photo of the fishing pier serves as a transition to the gathering and distribution of the abundant catch. The final two photos document workers processing and canning fish before being sold to the public.
Historically, shipbuilding has been important to New England’s economy due to its role in trade, travel, and fishing. Shipyards have thrived in this region due to the volume of protected harbors and the abundance of raw materials such as lumber. The process of building wooden ships requires a variety of skilled workers including carpenters, painters, riggers, and sailmakers. Although modern shipbuilding has changed immensely, institutions such as the Mystic Seaport Museum work to preserve historic methods.
Griffin’s photos provide insight into the history and culture of New England’s shipyards. His images showcase the artistry of the craft. Through the use of dramatic lighting and candid photography, he evokes a sense of admiration and awe for the workers.
The following photographs depict a range of jobs needed for these large-scale projects. In the first image, Griffin captures the immense proportions of a coal barge in contrast with the men working on it. The second photograph emphasizes the delicate focus of a man painting the hull, his body framed in shadows cast from nearby ships. The next two feature workers precariously balanced while painting and creating the frame of a ship. In the fourth image, Griffin pointed his camera to a man working aloft with the sky as a backdrop. The final image shows the silhouette of a man leaning off of a ladder.
Tourism is an important part of New England’s working waterfront. Seaside monuments and museums attract visitors while teaching them about maritime history. Historic vessels such as the USS Constitution and the Charles W. Morgan provide hands-on learning experiences by allowing visitors to climb aboard. These institutions help preserve history while inspiring connections to the sea. Excursions, ferry rides, and fresh seafood help foster an appreciation for coastal New England.
Griffin often photographed these popular spots. The following images feature a variety of activities for visitors and locals alike. The first image is of a family taking photos at Gloucester’s Fisherman’s Memorial that commemorates lives lost at sea. The second and third are photographs of two historic vessels still open to the public: USS Constitution and Charles W. Morgan. The next image was taken inside of the Nantucket Whaling Museum as visitors learn about the artifacts. The fifth image is of the SS Steel Pier in Provincetown as it sets out to transport people back to Boston. The final image features crowds enjoying fresh lobster on a dock in Maine.
Griffin’s work cultivates an appreciation for the labor, artistry, and legacy of maritime New England. His photographs encourage us to engage with the history and delights of the region’s coast. If you’re interested in exploring further, please visit New England Maritime & Seafaring History for an extensive list of attractions and historic sites.
Special thanks to the Boston Public Library for digitizing a large portion of the Arthur Griffin Archive so it may be accessible to the public. If you would like to view more photos and library material, visit the Boston Public Library for the Digital Commonwealth and the Digital Public Library of America.
Madison Marone is an Exhibition Assistant at the Griffin Museum of Photography and a graduate student pursuing her MSc in museum studies at the University of Glasgow. She holds a BA in film studies and sociology from the University of Vermont. Her interests include early to mid-20th-century art history, film theory, and exhibit design.
1. “New England’s Maritime & Seafaring History.” Visit New England, www.visitnewengland.com/all/maritime-and-seafaring-new-england/
2. Dunnack, Emily. “Lobsters and Oysters and Clams: A Short History of Seafood in Connecticut.” Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project, 24 May 2019, connecticuthistory.org/lobsters-and-oysters-and-clams-a-short-history-of-seafood-in-connecticut/.
3. “What to Do, Eat, and See in Gloucester, MA.” Discover Gloucester, www.discovergloucester.com/.
4. Visit Portland, www.visitportland.com/.
5. The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, by Stanley L. Engerman and Joseph E. Inikori, Duke Univ. Press, 2007.
6. “Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard.” Mystic Seaport Museum, 30 Dec. 2020, www.mysticseaport.org/explore/shipyard-gallery/.
7. USS Constitution Museum, 24 Mar. 2021, ussconstitutionmuseum.org/.
8. “Charles W. Morgan – The Last Wooden Whaleship in the World!” Mystic Seaport Museum, 28 Jan. 2021, www.mysticseaport.org/explore/morgan/.
9. “Whaling Museum.” Nantucket Historical Association, 3 Mar. 2021, nha.org/visit/museums-and-tours/whaling-museum/.
10. “Boston Boat.” Town of Provincetown, MA – Official Website, www.provincetown-ma.gov/1014/Boston-Boat.
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