Working the water with photographer Jay Fleming

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The first few times I worked with photographer Jay Fleming, I began to toy around with the possibility that he might be a vampire. “Meet me at my place at 4 a.m.,” his text read after I asked him to tag along for a story I was writing about a World War II ship graveyard off the Potomac River.

Photographer Jay Fleming does whatever it takes to get his shots.

A couple of months later, we were working together on a story about Tangier Island, Virginia, when Fleming told me, “Let’s meet at Lonnie Moore’s crab shanty at 4:45 a.m.” And for the story you’re about to read? Fleming went easy on me; we agreed to meet at his house at 5:30 a.m.

Despite his apparent love of darkness, Fleming isn’t a vampire at all. The prolific 29-year-old Chesapeake Bay photographer could be better described as a light junkie, ever in search of the perfect light to illuminate the subjects in his photography. That means getting on location before the sun comes up, so he’s in place as it starts to peek over the horizon.

Photographing everything from wildlife and underwater creatures to landscapes, people, and the Chesapeake seafood industry, Fleming has a knack for taking pictures that beg the question: How in the hell did he do that? Simply stated, Fleming’s Chesapeake Bay photography is breathtaking, whether it’s an underwater shot of a blue crab swimming or an astronomical event, such as a supermoon rising behind a weathered Bay lighthouse.

Photography, it turns out, runs in Fleming’s family. His father, Kevin Fleming, is a former National Geographic photographer who has published stunning books with themes relating to Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware coast, among other topics. “Of course I used to follow Dad along on his assignments,” Fleming says. “I learned a lot about his work ethic and what’s involved with being a professional photographer. But I only took a couple of high school photography classes. I learned most of what I know by messing up and trying over and over again until I got the shot I wanted. I guess you could say I’m persistent.”

After earning an economics degree at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, Fleming had to figure out what to do with himself, and he knew sitting behind a desk crunching numbers or developing policies wasn’t going to be his cup of tea. Given his interest in the environment, wild places and being on the water, photography seemed the perfect fit.

He began to hone his craft during two summers studying the native cutthroat trout population in Yellowstone National Park. Fleming turned the trout into his subjects, capturing a remarkable series of underwater photographs that showed the fish as they’d seldom been seen. That perspective became one of Fleming’s enduring traits as a photographer: capturing scenes from viewpoints few other photographers would consider.

His yearning for unique shots might mean jumping into a pound net full of menhaden, snorkeling the shallow depths of Tangier Sound looking for blue crabs or wading through a marsh while being attacked by hundreds of biting horseflies. It’s this willingness to go where others wouldn’t dare that makes Fleming’s work unique.

He employs a variety of tools to make these shots happen, but you can usually find him in his 18-foot Privateer skiff or one of his kayaks when he’s at work; they’re perfect for getting him where he needs to be. Fleming once kayaked 12 miles to get a photo of the last standing house on Holland Island, just a day before it collapsed into Chesapeake Bay, the island long ago abandoned by its residents.

Fleming’s work provides a unique view of the Chesapeake, on the water and under it.

“I’ve done all sorts of crazy things, but jumping into a huge pound net full of menhaden was probably one of the strangest,” he says. “Still, I’m in the water a lot when I’m taking photos. It helps provide a completely unique perspective, especially when photographing people on their boats harvesting seafood.”

The focus of Fleming’s work during the past two years has been traveling Chesapeake Bay to photograph and document the area’s seafood industry and the people who work in it. Whether you’re talking crabs, oysters, fish or any of the other Bay fisheries, the industry has been in slow decline for at least 70 years because of pollution, overfishing and tightening government regulations. To get photographs that show this reality, Fleming visited crab-picking houses, oyster-shucking operations and aquaculture facilities, and he went aboard countless watermen’s boats, much like a press team inserted with a forward military platoon for the evening news.

His work in covering the industry has been so thorough, in fact, that Fleming was able to publish a 280-page book on the subject, covering all four seasons in the Chesapeake seafood industry. Working the Water not only provides a window into the lives of the people who rely on the Bay’s bounty to make a living, but also reveals the species they target and the methods they employ to catch them. Beginning in winter and running through fall, the large-format book has spreads of Fleming’s unique and beautiful photography, along with detailed captions that explain what’s happening in the images. The pictures also highlight Fleming’s skill in capturing people and faces. One of my favorite photos in the book is of a yellow perch fisherman tagging fish, his long, gray beard covered with beads of rain.

What’s next for Fleming? “I want to do a similar book, but on the Atlantic Coast,” he says. “I’m getting set up to go harpoon fishing for bluefin tuna already, and I’ll plan to cover as many fisheries as I can for another book.”

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He loves many things about his work, but his favorite part is not being at a desk. “I get to work on the water and outside in beautiful surroundings, photographing subjects I’m passionate about,” he says. “It’s a perfect mix for me.” n

Jay’s visual narrative Working the Water is available directly from the author at workingthewater.com. Cost is $50.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue.