When Art Imitates Art, Good Fish Die

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.

Categories: +Uncategorized, Fly Fishing, Humor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “When Art Imitates Art, Good Fish Die

  1. To this day I still prefer a decent illustration to a photograph. Something about the hand made rather than photographed has an appeal. Even a digitally altered rendition isn’t quite the same. That being said, the remake of the old cover isn’t half bad. I’m not buying the “needed live fish” argument though.

    With outdoor illustrators you can always tell when they have a love of drawing and painting and probably not much formal training. The give away is when they try to represent people. The Outdoorsman cover is a case in point. If that guy puts his arm down, his hand will fall below his knee. And the woman’s face is a hoot.

    • I’m a big fan of illustrations, especially the old ones, but I agree with you about Ford’s recreation. It’s good. I don’t buy the need for live fish, either, especially considering all the manipulation that went into the image.

      I wonder how much one artist was paid for an illustration in 1933, and I hate to guess how much these reproductions cost. One person, in their studio with maybe a couple of models vs. dozens of crew, costume and light people, support staff, creative directors, etc. …

      I never looked that closely at the Outdoorsman cover, but his arm is long, his hand is humongous, and yes, she is a hoot. I’m still keeping it on my wall but now it will never be the same.

  2. Well, call me old school. Although I like and respect LL Bean, I’m an illustration kind of guy. There’s no replacing that lost art.

  3. Great post, I always wonder about these things but never have time to look into them!

    • I wouldn’t have given it a second thought until a friend sent me the Wall Street Journal link. I hope the time I saved you has been put to good use (fishing).

  4. You slipped in a gem of a thought, “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.” And a true one at that. Somehow, women now allow themselves to be much more objectified than before we burned our bras. Go figure, eh?

    • Women now don’t really know what’s gone on before, I guess. I’ve got something in the works about a team of guys in Speedos going around, representing the manufacturer of something-or-other at fly fishing events. I don’t think they are going to like it much.

      Dolly Parton says that when she burned her bra it took three days to put out the fire.

  5. Nancy Spivey

    What an enjoyable article! And of course the picture are great, too. I also love LLBean, and lots of what my husband and I wear comes from there.

  6. I know we’re not supposed to bring up the wild vs. hatchery trout argument here, but looking at those fish I’d say that the hatchery victims have definitely received the digital treatment for “wildness,” i.e., the flares of orange and other colors there don’t typically shine on fish that come from a can, even in fall.

  7. Warren A. Jacobs

    My interpretation was always that the old man was settling a “bet”

  8. Pingback: The View From Fish in a Barrel Pond – LL Bean Post « Don Bastian Wet Flies

  9. Thanks Quill for a great post. Loved it!

  10. And also, thank you very much for mentioning that I’ll be tying at L L Bean on March 16 – 18. Appreciate that!

    • What’s that, Don? You say you’ll be tying flies at L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine, March 16-18?

      Man, I have to take one for the team down here and won’t be able to make it. I’ll explain later.

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