GLOUCESTER — Portraits are about "who." That's obvious. What's not obvious is that they don't have to be only about who. That's true of the 71 photographs in Jim Hooper's "Portraits of a Working Waterfront." Hooper's handsome and eloquent photographs are also about "where" and "what." The show runs through Feb. 1 at the Cape Ann Museum.
The where is Gloucester, and the what are the various fishing-related trades. Hooper's subjects work in them, or did until they retired, or have family members who work in them. The portraits are good-sized, 24 inches by 25 inches, and hang in two rows along all four walls of one of the more handsome of the museum's galleries. The space has an oculus and trussed cathedral ceiling, with Brad Story's sculpture "Seabird" hanging from above. It offers a companionable presence, as well as a kind of presiding spirit, for the photographic population.
Starting on the project in early 2013, Hooper took a year and a half to complete it. The photographs seem to reflect that duration. They have the unhurried but far from inactive air of workaday life. Hooper shot the photographs in color, but the colors are restrained — as if shot beneath a mackerel sky. The restraint was conscious on Hooper's part. "Faded colors," he explains in the show's catalog, "are the inevitable result of a prolonged time in the salt and sun, and subdued colors are perhaps a metaphor for the entire fishing industry these days."
To ensure the emphasis stayed on the sitters, Hooper posed them in the same studio setting, with a large wooden spool to stand on or lean against and a gray canvas sail in the background. Why would Hooper need to vary the decor (to use a rather grand word) when the people he photographs provide all the variety he needs? And photographing them where they work or outdoors, besides being difficult in some instances, would have been to focus less on the individuals.
These people — mostly men, but a fair number of women — have faces with great character. Is the character innate? A function of time and experience? Something coaxed out by Hooper? Some combination of all those, no doubt. What's indisputable is that the camera can hardly get enough of these faces. When the retired seafood buyer Samuel Favazza, also known as "Sam" and "8 Ball," points to the camera, you can all but feel the camera pointing right back. It's as if a duet were being performed.
Hooper photographs fishing crews, fishermen's advocates, the employees of an ice company (try to imagine commercial fishing without abundant ice), seafood company workers, a mechanic specializing in boat engines, the owner of a marine electronics business, a shipyard boss, a marine salvager, sign painters, fishermen's wives. That last group portrait, of the board of directors of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, hangs outside the gallery, greeting viewers before the rest of the images, thus giving the women pride of place.
Some of the sitters pose with the tools of their various trades: a scuba tank and wet suit, waders, paints and brushes. Usually, though, it's just the people themselves, along with the occasional dog. Which is as it should be. Even though where and what matter in "Portraits of a Working Waterfront," who matters most of all.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.