Skip to main content

The photographer of the early years

Peter Barlow’s images of boats — under sail, in repose, radiating the grace and beauty that first drew the young photographer to the water — were among the earliest to appear in Soundings, evoking the harmonious meeting of wind, water and boat.

Image placeholder title

“As a boat photographer, I wasn’t interested in people,” says Barlow, now 83 and living in Pawcatuck, Conn. He was not drawn to the boating lifestyle. “I was interested in the boat, the lines of the boat, its design. I wanted to see it looking well,” in its element.

Much of Barlow’s work embodies a classical aesthetic. “That’s one of the reasons I like classic boats,” says Barlow, who has served as a judge at the Mystic (Conn.) Seaport Antique & Classic Boat Rendezvous 38 times.

But he covered a lot of ground in the photo spreads that became his signature work for Soundings: one design sailboat racing classes; sailing rigs, for instance catboat, sloop, cutter, ketch, schooner and square rig; classes of boats — sandbaggers, sneak boxes, skipjacks, catamarans and double-enders; designers and their designs — legends such as Sparkman & Stephens, Philip Rhodes, Bill Tripp and Doug Peterson; and races, regattas, rendezvous and lighthouses.

Barlow was still getting his sea legs as a marine photographer 50 years ago when Mary Turner, wife of the publisher, Jack, asked him to contribute a monthly spread of photos to this new boating broadsheet called Soundings. Mary and Peter had known each other since high school. Their fathers were artists. Mary, herself an artist, contributed cartoons to Soundings, so they were kindred spirits.

Barlow, as best as he can remember, was Soundings’ first staff member after the three founders — Jack, Scott Hyfield, the ad salesman, and Bill Morgan, the one-man production crew — and their wives, who Barlow remembers making a huge contribution in free office labor to help get the publication off the ground.

Barlow and Jack struck a mutually beneficial deal: Barlow would deliver a photo spread each month — for free — but retain editorial control over its content and layout, which he learned from Morgan so he could do it himself. The deal held for five years, long enough for Barlow to make a name for himself and for Soundings to afford to pay for his photography. Their association would continue another 12 years after that.

Barlow suspects he shot photos for 30 to 40 covers after Soundings went to color on the front page and 200 black-and-white inside spreads at a time when the interior pages were black-and-white only. Every month, without fail, he contributed photos and often text for the standing “Focus” page, named after Barlow’s photo boat.

Barlow had begun shooting from a 17-foot 1930 Chris-Craft runabout, but in 1968 he replaced it with a 22-foot Aquasport that 45 years later is still his platform for shooting on the water. Barlow says he had to have one after an Aquasport dealer loaned one to Soundings for the summer one year. It was not unusual then for a dealer to give the staff a loaner boat in exchange for ads in the magazine. “I loved that boat,” he says.

Barlow never got rich working for Soundings — at one point he made a $3,000 loan to the company to help get it through a rough patch — but he had free reign to do the kind of photography he liked. It gave his work wide exposure, and he had some fun times, to boot.

Back then, readers paid a quarter for their Soundings and put the money in a tin can at the marina, boatyard or dealership where they bought it. Hyfield was supposed to empty the cans whenever he visited on his ad sales rounds, but sometimes checking the cans was just an excuse to get out on the water. “Scott and I would get in a Donzi borrowed from Zeke Westerson [a boat dealer in Old Saybrook, Conn.] and zip across [Long Island] Sound to empty a canister half full of quarters and come back with it,” Barlow recalls. “It wasn’t any way to make money, but it was fun.”

Neither Barlow nor hardly anyone else at Soundings was on an expense account, so he sometimes had to make do to save on travel costs. On assignment to photograph the Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle on a training cruise from Portsmouth, N.H., to New London, Conn., Barlow spent a day aboard Eagle in very rough seas and shot all of the photographs he needed while nursing a tender stomach. Eagle’s captain told him the cadets would be drilling for the next few days — not much grist for him photographically — so he left the ship at a stopover in Boston. But his wife had dropped him off in Portsmouth and left their car in New London for him to pick up, so he hitchhiked back to the car.

Image placeholder title

The company did not issue its photographers or reporters press credentials, so Barlow — a talented sign painter — made do with a credential he made himself, writing “PRESS” in big block letters on a piece of brown paper that he stuck on his windshield. It looked authentic enough that it got him into most press conferences and events he needed to attend. “I don’t think people are impressed with credentials like that anymore,” he says.

Building on his exposure in Soundings, Barlow took on assignments for Yachting, Motor Boating & Sailing, Rudder, Nautical Quarterly and other publications, all the while building a business selling photos of boats to their owners — a sideline he was able to work very well, especially in tandem with shooting races for the magazine.

Barlow did not always have a passion for marine photography. He had planned to follow in his father’s footsteps as an artist, but one day he looked out over the water and saw sailboats of different sizes and types, their sails changing shape with their attitude to the wind. “That seemed very appealing to me,” he says. He started painting boats but found that to do it well he first needed to take photos of them.

A career was born. Barlow still shoots boats. He has been photographing a restored Herreshoff-designed New York 50, Spartan, and he’s compiling a book on yacht designers. His first one, “The Marine Photography of Peter Barlow,” MB&S, New York, 1973, is still available on used-book lists. And he says he has seven more books in his head.

Barlow’s still focused on boats.

August 2013 issue