A Rock and Hard Place

But a beautiful place too, in the work of one Memphis photographer.

photograph by Bruce Meisterman

(page 1 of 2)

I knew absolutely nothing about Newfoundland,” admits Bruce Meisterman, remembering back 12 years ago, when he first started thinking about a subject to photograph. He was interested in documenting a western culture in isolation, and his first thoughts ran to Nova Scotia. Then he thought: No, Nova Scotia’s too touristy. Newfoundland, though: If Meisterman knew nothing about it, it must be isolated and, for us here in the States and especially in the South, unknown territory. And it is.

Now it’s nine years later, and Meisterman — Memphian, photographer, and director of advertising for MBQ, the business magazine and sister publication of Memphis magazine — knows Newfoundland more than most in these parts. He’s visited the island, which together with Labrador forms the easternmost province of Canada, three times. He’s taken well over 5,000 photographs of it. And a selection of those photographs make up Arn? Narn., from Virginia-based publisher John Gosslee Books.

The rough isolation of Newfoundland is there in Meisterman’s striking black-and-white photos of icy seascapes and rocky shorelines; weather-beaten villages, boulder-strewn landscapes, and misty horizons. That much — beautiful as the images are — could have been predicted. But it was after Meisterman’s first visit to Newfoundland in 2004 that his focus shifted. As he says: “I’d captured Newfoundland’s starkness. But there was no core to the project. If I wanted to make this meaningful, I thought, ‘I have to go back.’”

So Meisterman did, in 2005 and 2007. He got to know the people of the island, which is about the size of Tennessee. He got a better sense of Newfoundland as a place. And he heard from an innkeeper, who one day said to the photographer: “Everything you see here . . . it will be gone in 10 to 12 years, because the fish are gone.”

That’s when Meisterman understood that what he should be documenting is not only an uncompromising setting but a disappearing culture, and that fact is suggested in the very title of his book: Two fishing boats meet in a Newfoundland harbor. The captain of the outgoing boat calls out, “Arn?” (“Any fish?”) The captain of the incoming boat answers, “Narn.” (“No fish.”) The fish in question is cod.

Fishing for cod has been a way of life on Newfoundland for 500 years. But in 1992, the Canadian government instituted a moratorium. Overfishing by other countries, trawling of the seabed floor, and very likely global warming had contributed to the depletion of cod in Newfoundland’s waters. And to this day, the cod have not returned. Families have left their settlements altogether. The fishermen who remain try their hand at harvesting shrimp, lobster, and crab, but it’s a short season. That makes for an especially resilient, independent population, Meisterman discovered, and he found out something else.

“The moment I stepped off the plane in Newfoundland for the first time, I felt like I’d come home,” he says. “I thought: This is the place where I belong. And that feeling has grown. My affinity for Newfoundland is enormous.”

But even for this New Jersey native — who lived in the Northeast for years and whose photographs have appeared in The New York Times and, locally, MBQ, the Memphis Flyer, and The Commercial Appeal, in addition to exhibitions at Theatre Memphis and Eclectic Eye — the cold climate of Newfoundland presented problems.

“My first two trips were in the winter, with the express purpose of avoiding anything that looked like tourist activity,” Meisterman says. “Maybe it’s a masochistic streak in me to have been there then, but it wasn’t bitterly cold. Surprisingly, days here in Memphis can be colder. The only technical challenge was keeping the cameras warm enough, so they wouldn’t lock up. I’d sometimes wander around looking like I had an alien inside me ready to burst out of my chest! That’s because, except when shooting, the camera was underneath my parka to keep it warm.”

“Warm” is the word to describe the Newfoundlanders Meisterman met and those he photographed at work and at their leisure, a favorite pastime being “kitchen parties,” which start in the early evening and routinely end a full 12 hours later. The catch: Everyone invited has to perform, which, in Meisterman’s case, meant telling jokes or unleashing his “less than beautiful voice.”

What do those Newfoundlanders think of Meisterman’s portrait of them and their land and seas?

“They’re curious and, so far, appreciative,” he says. “They like what I’ve done.

“But I don’t mean this to be a negative book at all. Yes, it’s a cautionary tale, and, yes, there’s a certain sadness to it. But the disappearance of the cod isn’t the fault of the Newfoundland fishermen. Despite a 200-mile offshore protective border, the Canadian government should have been more vigilant about the fish being caught in enormous numbers by outsiders. No way could the local fishermen have wreaked the damage that’s been done.”

And no way can we accurately predict the impact that mismanagement, in general, has had on global fish stocks. According to one researcher in Nova Scotia, the stock of wild, edible fish around the world could be, by the middle of this century, in total collapse. To the question: Arn? The answer, worldwide, could be: Narn.

Bruce Meisterman’s work, including images from Arn? Narn., will be on display at Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects, December 11th through January 4th, with a booksigning there on December 14th at 5:30 p.m.

photograph by Bruce Meisterman


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