Before color photography (and the ability to print it cheaply), outdoor catalog and magazine covers featured the work of illustrators. Never receiving the same attention as their contemporaries who did “fine” art, and certainly never able to command the same prices for their works, those illustrators created lasting images of our sport, using paint, crayons and pastels.
Their age alone evokes nostalgia, but there is a rich quality to the illustrator’s art — like the cover above, by Lynn Bogue Hunt – that other media just can’t match. Of course, if a similar image were to appear today, not only would it be a photo instead of a painting, but someone would probably be wearing a bikini.
Any image imaginable is possible today, with modern digital photography and editing software. Advertisements have become more absurd than ever, with talking reptiles and flying trucks; pixel by pixel manipulation of photos has become the norm. Where photography once provided an interpretation of what the artist saw, it is now used to create what the artist wishes us to see and, to me, much of what passes for “photography” these days should more properly be called “digital art”. By the time some of these “photos” are published, not much of the original image remains, and we seem to take for granted the inclusion or complete fabrication of elements that may not have existed before. It takes skill and a keen eye to produce such false images that look so nearly real, but what happens when a modern, 21st Century photographer uses his chosen medium to reproduce one of those iconic images from the past?
Photographer Randal Ford took on just such a task when he signed on with L.L. Bean to recreate the cover of their Spring 1933 catalog as part of L.L. Bean’s 100th anniversary celebration.
A variation on an image that has appeared in angling art and literature a hundred times before, we all know this one about the kid who caught fish, using a stick and some worms, and the guy with the fly rod who buys them to pass off as his own. Recreating this image, in this way, only perpetuates the stereotype of anglers as fops and liars, but I don’t have nearly enough evidence to the contrary and must let it ride. What sticks in my craw is the fish.
According to this article that appeared in the January 19, 2012, edition of the Wall Street Journal, photographer Ford insisted that the fish used for his photo not only be real, they also had to be alive, because he just knew stuffed fish would be easily spotted as fakes. L.L. Bean’s creative directors were able to identify the fish in the original artwork as Eastern Brook Trout and procured 14 of them from a local hatchery, along with a biologist and former game warden to keep them alive during the shoot.
(Anglers, please save the “wild fish vs. hatchery fish” arguments for somewhere else. We’re talkin’ principle here. It’s not their fault they were hatchery fish — baby, they were born that way. And I don’t care what anyone says, that Lady Gaga dude still creeps me out.)
The fish were “lulled to sleep in a cooler” before being pulled out and photographed “in the 30 seconds to a minute before they awoke and began flopping about.” Of course, the fish (all 14!) unfortunately “expired” — which sometimes happens when you spend your morning being pulled in and out of a cooler and held up by a piece of string running through what passes for your lungs.
But the important thing is that Mr. Ford got the shots he needed. The young boy’s outfit was returned to the costume shop at the Metropolitan Opera, the old man’s rod, reel, and waders were tucked back into Bean’s archives, and Randal Ford headed home to his computer, where, according to the video at the end of this post, he used Photoshop to “finesse” the image.
The original 1933 cover:
Randal Ford’s recreation:
No mere snapshot, this. Randal Ford has created a multi-layered fantasy of nostalgia, with a modern, digital twist. What was probably an impressively sharp photograph has been softened and muted, with the background pulled apart and set back, deep within its own layers, every leaf and needle of fir impeccably groomed, not a pixel out-of-place. The rock in the foreground occupies a space of its own, set in digitally rippled water that reflects the background almost too well and, in the middle of it all, it must have taken hours to finesse the heck out of the old man’s coat like that.
Folds in clothing, bark on trees, freckles, hair, that silly tie, even the daisy in the old man’s button-hole; I don’t think a thing in this “photo” has gone untouched, and I could be very, very wrong on this, but I have a sneaking suspicion that also includes the fish. The fish that absolutely, positively, had to be real and alive so they wouldn’t look fake amongst all that fakery.
The fish that died for Randal Ford’s art.
I hope he at least served them up with a big batch of fiddleheads.
Here is L.L. Bean’s video on the making of their four special 100th anniversary covers:
(I like L.L. Bean an awful lot. I own boots, shirts, socks, and even what we used to call “long-johns” but now refer to as “base-layers” from them. Their stuff is good, they stand behind it, and they do everything they can to take care of any problems (rare, in my experience) in a friendly, efficient manner. Our friend Don Bastian will be at their flagship store in Freeport, Maine, tying flies on March 16. Go see him at work; you will be impressed.)
For more on my feelings about the feelings of fish, please read my story Fishing Hurts.