- A Camera on the Banks: Frederick William Wallace and the Fishermen of Nova Scotia
In mid-December 1912, the decrepit schooner Effie M. Morrissey hit rough waters en route to the fishing banks out of Portland, Maine. Frederick William Wallace, a Montreal-based writer and novice seaman aboard ship, thrilled to that 'inspiring sight': 'We could feel the vessel trembling throughout her hard-driven hull. And when she topped a big comber, we hung like bats to the jack-stay and caught our breaths as she swooped down into the sea with the suds boiling up and through the hawse pipes.'
Although I read this passage from M. Brook Taylor's engaging A Camera on the Banks while sitting in sheltered safety by the still waters of an Ontario lake, I could all but feel the North Atlantic's unforgiving gusts as I clung for dear life to my beach chair and SPF 30. A Camera on the Banks is a popular social history of the Canadian maritime fishery during the waning days of unassisted sail. Told in image and text, it often reads like the boys' seafaring adventure stories that made Frederick William Wallace, the figure at the core of Taylor's narrative, famous almost a century ago.
Taylor, a historian at Mt Allison University, eulogizes the fleet of fishing schooners based in Digby, Nova Scotia, on the shore of the Annapolis Basin during the 1910s. Taylor provides rich historic detail about these majestic vessels and the 'masculine world of work' aboard: schooner design, financing, the intricacies of navigation, the workings of a two-man dory, even the seamen's daily menu. But the early years of the twentieth century were the last for unassisted sail. Even as the [End Page 334] Effie M. Morrissey fought the waves and earned an impressive $1,500 for its catch in late 1912, steamships were the future of the fishery; sail was already the stuff of romantic legend.
It was the romance of sail that captivated Frederick William Wallace, through whose words and photographs we see the Digby fleet. Wallace, the son of a much-storied maritime captain, longed for the sea, but parental trepidation and frail health confined him to the land-locked existence of a writer. With an invitation to report on the 1911 Digby regatta for Canadian Century magazine, that changed. Wallace talked his way on board the Dorothy M. Smart, a Digby schooner, for a three-week fishing trip to the banks and followed this with six more voyages on Digby fishing schooners over the next five years. On each he carried notepad and camera to record his thoughts and make illustrations for future publications. Wallace's experiences in the 1910s fuelled a stream of sea narratives, including the non-fiction Wooden Ships and Iron Men (1924) as well as the popular novels Blue Water: A Tale of the Deep Sea Fishermen (1914) and Captain Salvation (1925).
As its title suggests, A Camera on the Banks features Wallace's photographs prominently. Portraits of the weathered seamen, dramatic perspectival views of the great schooners, and celebratory documents of their catch fill the pages. In writing the book and organizing an accompanying exhibition at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Taylor was initially 'inspired by an academic question: what would a historical narrative look like if one began with photographs rather than documents, put images rather than words at the centre of the tale?' Yet, as happens all too often in historical writing, discussion of Wallace's photographic technique, the visual language of his images and their subsequent use are underdeveloped here. Instead, the images are made to stand as flat factual documents of a passing practice rather than enunciations from a distinct perspective.
This aside, A Camera on the Banks is a rollicking account of the last days of unassisted sail in the east coast fishery that could sweep even the most hopeless landlubber up in the romance of sea and sail.