Bering Sea Birthday 2006 Chromira C-print
Signed, titled, dated, and numbered on mount verso.
Photo: courtesy of Charles A. Hartman Fine Art
In mid-June, four days after his interview for this profile, photographer Corey Arnold left Portland for a two-month odyssey to Bristol Bay, Alaska. As this issue goes to press, he is on a commercial fishing boat, catching and gutting salmon by day, sleeping in an abandoned salmon cannery by night, and photographing these eerie environs—and their eccentric habitués—whenever he can steal a moment to click a shutter. With their exotic imagery and narrative quality, Arnold’s portraits, seascapes and landscapes have an offbeat appeal that sometimes veers into the absurd, mythic and grotesque. Represented by Charles A. Hartman Fine Art in Portland, Richard Heller in Santa Monica, and Sara Tecchia Roma in New York City, Arnold and his photographs have been featured on the Discovery Channel TV show “Deadliest Catch,” adding populist appeal to his work’s growing critical renown.
Born in San Diego in 1976, Arnold grew up sailing and deep-sea fishing with his father. Interested in the natural sciences, he was also drawn to the dual technical and aesthetic properties of photography, and studied the subject in the course of earning degrees from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. After graduating from the Academy, he worked as a commercial photographer’s assistant, then moved to Norway, where he worked summers as a fisherman to earn extra cash. Eventually, Alaska beckoned, and Arnold spent nearly a half-dozen summers in a row working a crab boat called Rollo, savoring the physicality and contemplative quality of living off the grid. “I don’t do it for the money,” he says, “I do it for the adventure... I’ve been in storms where the boat’s pitching over 45 degrees and the waves are 40 feet high. I know captains who claim to have seen 100-footers.”
With his Mamiya 7 camera wrapped in a 2-gallon Ziploc to protect it from salt water and fish blood, Arnold snaps arresting images of boat and sea and his fellow crewmates. The print Bering Sea Birthday shows a blindfolded fisherman batting at a piñata on an icy deck amidst monster waves—doggedly vying to hit his mark and set loose the festive treats, even as the ship bucks and heaves willy-nilly. It is difficult not to see the scene as a metaphor for human life. Arnold’s work, in fact, teems with symbolism, archetypes, and Freudian subtext. Matt and Halibut shows a crewmate lying in mock-amorous embrace with a bloody fish. Another shows a fisherman with fish entrails noosed around his neck like a gruesome boa. In another harrowing piece, a man lies in the boat’s hold atop a living, crawling bed of 60,000 crabs. His eyes closed, arms spread out Christ-like, he reclines serenely as errant crustaceans scurry up his groin. This is not National Geographic; this is semi-staged allegory in the Roger Ballen manner, with Arnold narrating man’s quest to surmount the sea and all its monsters: the hidden deep, the feminine, the unconscious.
Sometimes when he’s far out on the Bering Sea, Arnold says he wonders which of his lives is real—the summers of endless Arctic light, scales and viscera, and working-class male bonding; or the rest of the year spent hobnobbing with gallerists and collectors, emailing his agent, and jetting off to lucrative commercial shoots. It is a surreality and dualism reflected in his haunting, unforgettable work.
Corey Arnold’s solo show entitled “Fish-Work,” was on view at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art in Portland, from November 19 - December 20, 2008. His photographs will next appear in a group show at that gallery entitled “Faces: Vintage And Contemporary Photographic Portraits,” from August 5-29, 2009.