Even seasoned Bainbridge-to-Seattle ferry commuters will, when pressed, admit that their daily round trip has few aesthetic parallels.
Aside from the regional novelty of getting to ride a big boat to work, they’re privy to the visual alchemy that occurs when mountains, city, and water meet amidst ever-changing shades of light. And to photojournalist Michael Diehl, these elements together make a story that he felt compelled to tell.
“It’s simply that it was at first a gut-level response to the beauty I saw,” he said of his newly self-published collection of photo-essays titled “Crossings: On the Ferries of Puget Sound.”
“As I took photographs and collected them, I would look at them, and they would make me ask questions.”
Among the first “Crossings” pictures the islander took on his own daily commute was a prop wash that appeared as his boat was leaving the Bainbridge dock one day in summer. To him, it wasn’t just churn.
“You look out at it and say, okay, what causes this?”
That question led to another. The boat causes this cushion of water between itself and the slip. What is that? And the water changes color. Why?
What’s really going on with these pretty tracks that endlessly appear behind the boat, and what is their relationship to the elements around them, both natural and human-made?
“It’s this interconnedtedness that takes you on and on,” he said.
Diehl kept his camera out during each passage over time, walking the decks and shooting everything from windblown passengers to cars loading off to the juxtaposition of railing to sky.
Turning the camera outward, he captured birds, moon, water, weather, houses, mountains, and the Seattle skyline shining with both day and nighttime light.
Most of the images in the book – all color – are accompanied by musings and facts. But it’s not necessarily this text that gives “Crossings” its cohesion; rather, it’s Diehl’s arrangement of the images into the subtle chronological structure of two round trips.
He begins with a morning commute from the island to the city that includes ferry facts, notes on geology and weather. Sidebars also point out a round of motifs that travelers typically encounter if they’re paying attention.
The section is followed by three other narrative “trips” that give Diehl ample room to explore the ways in which the vessels teem with life, inside and out.
The effect is dynamic – no static, merely pretty pictures here – but also holistic and cohesive, largely because one of Diehl’s main objectives is to tell a story whose whole is larger than the sum of its parts.
This approach, and perhaps even Diehl’s affinity for boat photo-narratives, goes back to his early days in print media photojournalism, including a stint in the U.S. Navy from 1970-1974. Work done during that period resulted in a first-place award in the University of Missouri “Pictures of the Year” competition in its division for photographers serving in the military.
Diehl relatively recently switched from film to digital photography, saying he went into “Rip van Winkle” mode by sticking to Kodachrome II film until about three years ago, when he decided that he and digital technology would work well enough together to produce his vision.
“I’m not what I think of as a Photoshop person,” he said. “I want to shoot what is there.”
When he shot “Crossings,” Diehl immersed himself in the anonymous feeling of being a tourist. A lovely by-product, he said, was that other “tourists” frequently came over to chat.
“I see through them the enthusiasm the experience gives. That’s what I’m really trying to portray,” he said. “It’s not a crew member, or a deck person; it’s this amazing experience that can happen to anyone.”