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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Out with the Big Fish

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 14, 2012

Blue Marlin by James Prosek

Author and artist James Prosek and I are working together on a National Geographic project.  So I was interested to see that he has a show that just opened at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Here’s part of the press release for the new show, which runs till Jan. 21:

PHILADELPHIA (October 3, 2012) – James Prosek has had a personal experience with each of the saltwater fish he has painted and hand-picked for a new exhibit opening Oct. 13 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

“You could even call each one a self-portrait,” said the Connecticut naturalist, artist and fisherman whose latest book, Ocean Fishes: Paintings of Saltwater Fish, debuted this month (Rizzoli New York). Fourteen life-size watercolors from the book, including a stunning 15-foot-long Blue Marlin, are featured in the exhibit James Prosek: Ocean Fishes in the Art of Science Gallery through Jan. 21. The exhibit is free with museum admission.

Dubbed “the Audubon of the fishing world” by The New York Times, Prosek wants visitors to know that his highly-detailed paintings of Atlantic sailfish, king mackerel, mako shark, swordfish, and more are not meant to represent a species as in a field guide. “I am painting an individual fish that I had a personal experience with,” he said. “The paintings are not as much about the fish as our relationships as humans to the fish.”

The show is based on Prosek’s new book, Ocean Fishes.  Here’s an excerpt:

If I try to pinpoint exactly where this project started, it would have to be when I stopped at a Citgo station in Cape Cod, to inquire about an old, red Chevy truck for sale in the lot in 2001. It was there I met the owner, Norman St. Pierre, in his office. On the office wall were the most intriguing photos of a man standing on a platform that reached far off the bow of a boat, throwing a spear at what looked like a very big fish. There were also photos of a deck full of giant bluefin tuna, 700- to 900-pound fish that dwarfed the fisherman standing over them. I could not believe these fish were so huge, much bigger than big men. They looked like sculptures—polished marble sides, glistening steel backs, fins like blades of metal, eyes like miniature Earths with atmospheres and seas and forests and deserts. Besides running the gas station, Norman was a tuna spotter—a pilot who flew his small Cessna over the ocean, spotting giant bluefin tuna and directing a harpoon boat to the fish. After a brief conversation, in which I evidently voiced my passion for fishes, Norman offered to take me up in the plane the following summer, and to ask the fishermen he worked with if I could go out on their boat.

The giant bluefin tuna is not just any fish to me. It is an emblem of the ocean, in that it seems to embody the element it lives in. The patterns on the side resemble the reflections on the surface of the water and the rays of sunlight penetrating beneath. I decided that it needed to be painted, not as an illustration for a field guide or a poster, but at life-size, all of it. And I knew that to make such a painting, seeing the fish dead at the dock wouldn’t do. I needed to see it in the water from above, and also on the boat. I needed to be on the boat at the moment that the fisherman harpooned it and the moment that it first came out of the water and sparkled in the sun.

I bought that old Chevy truck, and Norman brought it down to my home in Connecticut. It took me three years to make it back to Chatham, but Norman kept his word. I spent three days in the plane with him looking for schools of tuna in the vast and beautiful bay framed by the Cape Cod peninsula. Cape Cod Bay had been known for many years, he told me, as a kind of old folks’ home for tuna. The tuna would come into the bay in summer to feed on herring and bluefish and squid and whatever else they could swallow. We circled around the bay and then out beyond the Cape over the ocean. We saw basking sharks and whales and seals and schools of small bluefin, but no giants—individuals over 400 pounds. For the last two of my five days I accompanied the captain of the boat Norman worked with, and his son. We motored their 42-foot boat out of Barnstable and around the bay, looking for birds working near the water or any sign of surface activity. For most of those two days neither the boat nor Norman saw any fish. And then, in an instant, I watched unfold one of the most astonishing, athletic, adrenaline-filled, perfectly coordinated predatory events I’d ever seen.

Norman communicated the position of the fish with the captain’s son, who was at the wheel, via radio. As the son pushed the throttle down, the father ran out onto the 40-foot platform and held on. (In New England, the harpooning platform off the bow is called the “pulpit.” In Nova Scotia, where they harpoon swordfish, it is called a “stand.”) The event was out of another time. These were the last of the old New England whaling men, and though now they were pursuing a fish, it still came down to a man holding a spear with a bronze head, called a “lily,” and throwing it at a great ocean creature. “Seven boat lengths, straight ahead.” I could hear Norman’s voice over the radio, directing the boat as it sped ahead. “Four boat lengths, two boat lengths, OK, you should see the fish now, about eight feet under the water.” At fifteen knots, with a fish moving just as fast beneath him, the captain threw the spear and hit the fish. Moments later, they hauled the tuna onto the boat, a beautiful 750-pound giant. In the next minutes they harpooned a second one—in the last hour of the last day that I was with them, after five days of seeing very little.

I took photos, made sketches and meticulous notes on color and form, and a hundred measurements of fin size, total length, length from nose to front of eye, back of eye. And when I got home, I got a big sheet of watercolor paper—five by twelve feet—laid it on the floor, and started to sketch it out, working on the floor with the drawing of the fish as it materialized. As I sketched and painted I was vividly reliving the experience—for the months it took me to complete the work—of seeing this living fish. I have always wondered why humans had a compulsion to depict nature. What evolutionary value did this have? I wondered if what I felt in painting the tuna was like what our ancestors in the caves at Altamira and Lascaux felt when they drew the creatures that they were pursuing. Had depicting and ritualizing nature played a role in making us more acute observers of the world around us?  Did this practice of depicting nature help us become better predators?  Documenting nature  helped us internalize the parts and movements of animals and the ineffable aspects of experience—the things we feel as hunters and fishermen for which there are still no words, thankfully, in the modern world.  I was making more than a painting of a fish. The glint of turquoise from my jacket, reflected in the fish, represented me in its world. I chose to paint that fish—and, subsequently, all of the fish in this book—not in the water, not in its habitat, but at the moment most relevant to us in our legacy as predators, the moment when the fish leaves its element, the water, and enters ours, the air, and when the vibrations of color coming through its skin harmonize with the sunlight. It was a moment that could not, and cannot, be captured in a photograph.

That tuna was the beginning of this project. Several years passed between that painting and the others in this book.  The real impact of these paintings is felt in person, in front of the life-size depictions. But for those who aren’t able to see the exhibitions, I hope the full-scale abstractions in this book convey some of the beauty along these fish’s sides, landscapes, and other worlds, and most often the waves and currents of the sea itself, the surface of which abstracts ourselves to the fish and the fish to ourselves.

In a way, the paintings are my conservation statement, just showing the fish, many of which we are rapidly losing from our oceans.

One Response to “Out with the Big Fish”

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