Fish-Work: An Interview with Corey Arnold

By Corey Arnold, Paul Schranz Back to


Corey Arnold came across our radar when he was named one of 30 emerging photographers to watch in 2009. His understanding of the real world elements of involvement in a project both photographic and interactive gives Arnold a unique perspective. In between seasons, we were able to pose some questions to him:

PS: Which came first—fishing or photography? When and why did you decide to combine them? How comfortable are you with leading this “double life?”

CA: I was wearing diapers, no shirt and pair of awesome red Ray-Ban looking sunglasses in the earliest picture of me fishing. So, I’d say that fishing came first. My dad was obsessed with sportfishing in Southern California and I joined him on weekly trips at sea. Every trip was meticulously documented by my father and his little 35mm camera. There are hundreds of pictures of me holding fish throughout my life.

In the summer of 1995, a friend and I drove to Alaska in search of commercial fishing jobs to help pay for college, and after a month searching and doing shipyard work, I landed a job as a salmon fisherman in Bristol Bay, Alaska, and lived with a family in a remote swath of mosquito and bear- infested tundra along the mouth of one of the largest producing sockeye salmon rivers in the world. This was the beginning of my commercial fishing career, and eventually I decided to start documenting my seasonal life in Alaska.

Financially, commercial fishing helped me to survive art school and gave me more time to focus on personal projects, not having to rely on commercial photo assignments to survive. But the real reason I fish is the lifestyle. It’s a good challenge for the soul to spend part of the year doing purely physical labor in a harsh natural environment. The work satisfies my restless craving for adventure.

Dancing between the city slicker art world and working class Alaska has certainly given me an identity crisis, but hopefully I can tell this story from a unique perspective that people find inspiring.

PS: Explain the development of your Fish- Work project. What inspired it? What does it (will it) include and how has it found its direction?

CA: Fish-Work is the big picture title for my life’s work photographing the commercial fishing lifestyle around the world. So far, I’ve worked as a crab, salmon, halibut and cod fisherman in Alaska. I’ve documented the fishing and whaling industry of Northern Norway, and I’m currently covering the state of fishing in the European Union as part of a PEW Foundation Commission.

There are no strict parameters to the project. I like to research places that I’m curious about or can’t find a lot of information on…show up there, and see what happens. Maybe I’ll find a job on a boat, or maybe I’ll just be along for the ride with my camera.

This adventurous spirit that led me and most other fishermen to escape into a life at sea is the same spirit I’m trying to capture in images.

PS: Most people would consider what you do extremely difficult. What are its most challenging aspects?

CA: The most difficult part of what I do is that I’m actually trying to photograph my world while actually working as a fisherman. Work on a Bering Sea crabber is extremely demanding. Every spare moment to grab a bite to eat or take a nap and relax is savored like a cigarette in prison. We routinely work 20-hour days at a furious pace. So, spending my few free moments changing film, cleaning salt off of lenses and wrapping Ziplocs and duct tape around my cameras can feel like an immense effort. Not to mention the crew can get cranky if I’m not doing my job. I’ve also broken a fair share of lenses, and been knocked on my ass by waves and crab pots while looking through the lens.

PS: Can you talk more about the types of equipment you’ve chosen to use for various types of images and how well they operate under the wet and/or cold conditions that come along with your job? What about specific lenses? You work both with digital and film – when and why?

CA: When I first started shooting aboard fishing boats, I brought along a Mamiya 645 and shot mostly Kodak Portra film. I would use 1 or 2-gallon Ziploc® bags and duct tape them to the lens hood and around the viewfinder. The layout of that camera made it ideal for waterproofing. I tried to use a plastic bag style housing for my 35mm camera, but all that is too bulky and expensive. That said, I’ve recently purchased an underwater housing and will start to experiment with over/under shots, and shooting into the most extreme weather.

A Mamiya 7II is my field camera of choice. I’ve always been most fond of the feel of color negative medium format film, so film is my go-to medium if the circumstances allow. Nowadays, though, I shoot a lot more digital (Canon 1Ds Mark III) using all prime lenses. On a boat in low light with a ton of movement, it has been to my advantage to shoot fast and with A LOT of exposures, so digital makes more sense in the action situations. I’m a sucker for super quality and have recently been making huge prints. I’ve been amazed with how well the Canon digital images are turning out, massive on the wall of a gallery when using prime lenses. I mostly use my 35mm f/1.4 L, 50mm f/1.2 L, and 24 f/1.4L series lenses. The durability and waterproof seals of the L series lenses are worth the expensive price tag.

PS: Can you discuss the most significant challenges/ techniques of creating any single portfolio or single images that might be included in your images to be published in photo technique?

The most recent image in this group was shot while crabbing in the Bering Sea last winter. It’s a picture of my fellow deckhand Matthew throwing a sea gull over the side at night. Sea birds land on deck all the time, often blinded by the bright sodium deck lights, and we find ourselves collecting birds and throwing them over the side on a regular basis. It’s curious why they can’t just fly off of the deck; they seem to get stuck and just hobble around in circles. In this picture, I wanted to capture a bit of mystery in the act of tossing birds over the side. Is he releasing the bird–or tossing it in the black unforgiving depths of the Bering Sea?

PS: Can you elaborate more on how you control lighting – have you had to experiment?

CA: Much of our work day happens during the long winter nights. For the most part, I wait for the light. Since I’m out there working anyway, I’ve got time on my side. I wait until all the conditions are perfect before pulling out my camera. Almost all my images are taken using natural light. However, lately I’ve been experimenting with using high-powered strobes rigged to the mast in order to stop motion during the twilight hours and during the times when there are weeks and weeks of murky gray sky with no definition. It can simulate daylight or the deck lights of a boat nicely.

PS: What has been your most exciting project? What’s next?

CA: Recently, I’ve revisited my early commercial salmon fishing roots, and bought a skiff and permit in Bristol Bay, Alaska. I’ve started a new project here, which may span my entire life. Every summer for about five weeks, I and about 100 other fishermen squat in a remote, abandoned cannery at the mouth of one of the largest sockeye salmon producing rivers in the world. We pull nets by hand and de- liver boatloads of salmon to “tender” boats waiting offshore.

But this isn’t your typical romantic idea of Alaska. The landscape is barren tundra, packed with grizzly bears and crazy with mosquitoes. The fishermen include natives that live in villages upstream, Arkansas country boys, Bay Area neck-tattooed gangsters, Alternative Christian Portlanders, Minnesota farmers, Mormons and young adventurers from everywhere. It’s an incredible clash of American culture all converging in a wrecked old cannery for the summer. I’m as interested in the people themselves on land here as I am in capturing the fishing aspect at sea.

PS: Your images feature both humans and animals or a combination of the two. Explain this choice of subjects.

CA: I used to shoot birds with my BB gun when I was little, just to have a look at them close up. Then at night, I’d snuggle up with one of my four cats, two dogs, seven rabbits, or pet water snake (not so much snuggling with the snake). I loved animals, but my hunting instincts were strong. I’d usually feel bad after killing something, but later forget and do it all over again.

It’s a curious relationship we have with animals in the modern world. We treat our pets more and more like part of the family, often assuming that we have the same complex human emotions with our cats and dogs but continue to chomp on the flesh of animals we have less of a connection with. I like to set up scenes using animals and humans that remind us that we are all a bunch of strange animals.

PS: Your experiences have led you to a variety of international sites. As a result, have you learned any- thing that has affected your work?

CA: The novelty of being a foreigner is powerful when trying to get access to subjects abroad. I’ve found it much easier to get on boats in Norway and Scotland than in the U.S. People abroad are far less paranoid about insurance regarding me getting hurt aboard their ship and suing. The exception is Russia.

Last year, I flew to Arctic Russia to try to photograph the Russian Trawler fleet. It was a bust, as I found that the port itself in Murmansk is completely closed off to the public. I seemed to be the only one in town with a camera, and I started feeling paranoid that I had arrived on a tourist visa and not a press visa but was running around with my camera like a spy. My Russian skills were non-existent and it made it nearly impossible to get anything done. Note to self: at least learn a few phrases in the language of your destination country before you leave.

PS: Discuss your association with the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch and other media-related projects.

CA: Deadliest Catch arrived in Dutch Harbor in the winter of 2004 and suddenly there were cameras all over town. I had already been crab fishing for two years at that time and was building a body of crabbing pictures. At first, I felt a bit threatened by the camera crews. I had thought that I was the only person up there seriously photographing the crabbing scene at that time. I was hoping to put out a photo book someday and show the pictures in galleries, but I was afraid the Discovery Channel would over commercialize the subject matter.

Then our boat, the F/V Rollo was invited to actually star in the show and since, I’ve been hired regularly to shoot ad campaigns for Deadliest Catch. To my surprise, there was never any sort of art purist anti- reality TV backlash! I kept my personal work true to my vision and didn’t over sensationalize the pictures.

Galleries were still interested in the work, and the show just added more mainstream appeal to the subject matter.

PS: What’s next?

CA: Hopefully soon: a vacation without my camera in a warm place.

Product Resources: Cameras: Canon 1DS Mark II 5D Mark II, Mamiya 7II; Lenses: Canon L lenses; Film: Kodak Portra 160 nc, vc; Tripod: Gitzo, Bogen; Lighting: AliensBees strobes w/ Vebabond battery; Cases: Aquatech underwater housings DV-5, Thinktank, Lightware T4444; Software: MacBook Pro, Adobe Photoshop CS5, Adobe Lightroom 3.

About the Authors

Corey Arnold
Corey Arnold is a photographer and Alaskan commercial fisherman. During the winter, he can be found working aboard vessels in Alaska. The off-season is filled with travel, gallery exhibitions, magazine and ad photography assignments with a bit of backyard gardening, cat maintenance and skateboarding in Portland, OR. Recently nominated for both the Aperture West Book Prize and the Santa Fe Prize for Photography, he was among Photo District News’ 30 for 2009. His work has been featured in the Juxtapoz photo book, The Paris Review, Esquire, Italian Rolling Stone, Outside and The Collectors Guide to Emerging Art Photography. His latest Fish-Work Project from salmon fishing in Alaska, Graveyard Point, will open at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art in Portland, OR on Dec 2, 2010.
Paul Schranz
Paul Schranz is a photographer and a photographic educator. He holds a BFA in photography from Ohio University, Athens, OH and an MFA in photography from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL. He is Professor of Art Emeritus, Governors State University, University Park, IL, where he taught photography and digital imaging. He exhibits nationally and has received grants for documentary projects from the Illinois Arts Council. He is the former Editor of photo technique and Director of Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops. Schranz is currently a faculty member at Dona Ana Community College, Las Cruces, NM, where he teaches advanced digital imaging, photographic composition, digital printing, image enhancement and manipulation.