September 21, 2009


Box Camera Image, 1930 "Crab Netting"At the Whim of the Waters

In 1987, environmental reporter Tom Horton, decided to move to Smith Island with his wife and their children... "John Steinbeck, in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, wrote of his expedition collecting marine life along the shores of the Gulf of California: "It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again." What he meant was that we can spend the next ten thousand years identifying individual creatures and dissecting them down to the level of the gene and the atom, and we may similarly roll back the curtains of heaven itself with our telescopes and spaceships; but the fullest wonder lies in comprehending nature's patterns, the wondrous webs of interdependence that entangle humankind in all creation, above and below. Smith Island, whose marsh bound residents for about three centuries have paid serious attention to both God and crabs, and where the little white villages on clear, calm days float magically between sea and sky, seemed well stationed to observe tide pool and stars alike; and my kids were reaching marsh-mucking age." {an excerpt from An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake by Tom Horton}.

Just as Tom Horton experienced in 1987, our high school friend Barbara A. Bohrer experienced in 1990—"I fell in love with Smith Island on a weekend getaway. Smith is a tiny, remote island in the Chesapeake Bay. Capt. John Smith charted the island in 1608, but it was named after Henry Smith. British settlers from Cornwall and Wales originally came to Smith Island to farm. They grazed livestock and sheep, and grew vegetables in the fertile soil."

"In the 1800s however, the islanders were forced to turn from the land to the sea, as the surrounding marsh began to encroach on the tiny land mass. At the whim of the waters then as they are now, the effects of tidal erosion set into motion a change that defined this unique island culture over the next 200 years. The isolation and self-sufficient spirit of these people has preserved their lineage, evident in customs and speech patterns. Their island life strongly tied to the cycles and rhythms of nature, astoundingly with Washington DC only 56 miles away as the crow flies."

Box Camera Images "Women" 1930, "Slick Cam" 1930, "Sail Scrape" 1929

This weekend on Saturday, September 26, 2009 [6-8pm] opens: At the Whim of the Waters, Smith Island Remembered. Curated by Barbara A. Bohrer, she says "this exhibit honors the journey and contemplates the peril of Smith Island and its keepers. "It has been nineteen years in the making, which began when I purchased a small summer home lock, stock and barrel on the island. As I explored my new estate, I discovered a pile of rubbish with Q-tip boxes filled with shards of glass, talcum powder and black and white negatives – all to be thrown away. Destined to the incinerator, I quite by chance happened upon over a hundred nitrate negatives from the 1930s from which this exhibit was born. Along with the negatives were boxes of prints providing detailed information about the negatives. It has taken nineteen years for this project to come to fruition. These are powerful, personal and universally relevant images of the powers, perils and relationship between nature and humankind."

Barbara Bohrer & Smith Island photos
by Marty Coleman

More than just curator of At the Whim of the Waters, Bohrer is also steward and conservator of these Islanders' history and culture. As someone who was paying attention, Bohrer had the sense to sort through this pile of rubbish with great awareness—an awareness so precious because today... "most of Smith Island is just one foot above sea level. The islanders’ homes huddle on the small bits of land that are two to four feet above sea level. During the early 1900s there were almost 1,000 people living on the island. Today it is under 300. Coastal ecologists predict that the Chesapeake Bay has risen more than half a foot during the past century. Some say the last crab shanty on Smith Island will disappear even before the Grand Canal knocks on the door of St. Mark’s in Venice. The inevitable is that by 2100 only a few high spots of grass will be visible above the water, but not much more"...Barbara further relates.

Bohrer has partnered with Richard Olsenius, an award-winning photographer, filmmaker and former photo editor at NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE. He also specializes in fine art printing and image restoration. Olsenius’ images are currently represented by the National Geographic Image Collection and can be seen here.

To look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again, please visit:

At the Whim of the Waters | Smith Island Remembered
A Photographic Exhibit of a Disappearing Island Culture
Curated by Barbara A. Bohrer
September 23 - October 4, 2009
The Cultural Center of Cape Cod, 307 Old Main Street, South Yarmouth, MA

Note: The exhibition will travel to Salisbury University in Maryland for an exhibit there October 8 - November 20, and then will go on the road—a global warming story and warning that "We are All Smith Islanders".

Funded in part by a grant from the Sumner T. McKnight Foundation


  1. What an interesting story and a great thing that all those negatives were rescued! I can appreciate, as a fellow "rescuer of trash".

  2. Viv, Funny... I thought of you while writing this!

  3. This is very cool. I'd never heard that quote, but I love it!


I love reading your comments. And, I thank you so much for visiting!