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Woods snapped this stormy scene of lobstermen out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, more than 15 years ago. (Note the wooden lobster traps.)

Woods snapped this stormy scene of lobstermen out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, more than 15 years ago. (Note the wooden lobster traps.)

Joel Woods

Maybe the photos you see here began for Joel Woods when he first watched a lobsterman coil rope—an action performed so often, for so many years, that it was as natural as breathing. Woods saw the expertise that had been handed down through generations, and the raw beauty of boat, sea, and purpose merged in the act of coiling rope attached to a lobster trap. With a disposable camera, Woods snapped a photo. “I was seeing the fisherman’s world with brand-new eyes,” he says. “Work they have done for years—and they have stopped looking at it.” He saw the colors of fish, how nets dance on water, thousands of sunrises and sunsets, waves rising terrifyingly high 150 miles out to sea. With a camera, he found a way to remember it all.

Or maybe this melding of brutal work with fragile art began long before, when Woods was a teenager, one who knew the inside of detention centers and courtrooms, and the aftermath of bad decisions. What he sought was a life as unpolished as he felt. “Fishing was for me the biggest, baddest, the most hard-core thing I could do. That’s why I was drawn to it. I wanted to prove myself.”

The ocean seems to boil around a lobster trap as it’s dropped overboard. “I had to learn how to be quick,” Woods says. “The moments are only there for a few seconds.”

The ocean seems to boil around a lobster trap as it’s dropped overboard. “I had to learn how to be quick,” Woods says. “The moments are only there for a few seconds.”

Joel Woods

That was over 20 years ago. Woods has since worked out of every major New England fishing port—Gloucester, New Bedford, Portsmouth, Portland—and hauled lobster traps up and down the Maine coast. “I’ve been trawling and gillnetting and scalloping, slime eeling, sea urchining,” he says. “Practically anything you can do in New England, I’ve done it.”

But with his photos, he also was catching moments of startling beauty in a world where storms pummeled seas and boats, and where the men and (few) women who made a living in that world had tough hides and tougher personalities. When he showed the pictures to his fellow fishermen, they too saw the wonder. Today his boatmates will shout, “Joel, look over here!” even as his hands are plunged into trays of fish, covered with slime and blood.

Woods used the setting sun and deck lights to capture this portrait of Sarah Waterman, daughter of a multigenerational Maine fishing family. She was on the Defender II, captained by a member of another fishing family dynasty, Troy Ames.

Woods used the setting sun and deck lights to capture this portrait of Sarah Waterman, daughter of a multigenerational Maine fishing family. She was on the Defender II, captained by a member of another fishing family dynasty, Troy Ames.

Joel Woods

He goes through as many as 10 cameras a year. “The shortest time I had a camera before it was destroyed was one week. If I had a fear of destroying a camera, I wouldn’t get a shot.”

What you see on these pages are images that show not only what Joel Woods has witnessed, but also what he has come to know about himself: that he can be both fisherman and artist. “If it wasn’t for photography,” he says, “I wouldn’t be the human being I am.” —M.A.

While working on the Western Venture, Woods anticipated the feeding frenzy of birds that began as the nearby herring trawler Endeavour brought fish on deck. “The most difficult thing for me is to get images that are new and fresh and vibrant from something I’ve done for thousands of days.”

While working on the Western Venture, Woods anticipated the feeding frenzy of birds that began as the nearby herring trawler Endeavour brought fish on deck. “The most difficult thing for me is to get images that are new and fresh and vibrant from something I’ve done for thousands of days.”

Joel Woods

When the lobster boat No Worries broke down on Penobscot Bay, Adam Roberson raised a torch in hopes of bringing help.

When the lobster boat No Worries broke down on Penobscot Bay, Adam Roberson raised a torch in hopes of bringing help.

Joel Woods

These fishermen on the herring trawler Osprey, out of Gloucester, typify the wariness that some feel when Woods first takes their photo. But he says he’s never gotten a bad response. “I always show them the image, and they’ll go, ‘Great shot.’ It’s just normal to the fishermen now.”

These fishermen on the herring trawler Osprey, out of Gloucester, typify the wariness that some feel when Woods first takes their photo. But he says he’s never gotten a bad response. “I always show them the image, and they’ll go, ‘Great shot.’ It’s just normal to the fishermen now.”

Joel Woods

from left: “It’s always good to have a gun on a boat,” Woods says of this photo; a sign posted on the remote Maine island of Matinicus, where residents keep close watch on who fishes its waters; a one-in-a-million shot of a mackerel snagged in the rope of a lobster trap buoy.

From left: “It’s always good to have a gun on a boat,” Woods says of this photo; a sign posted on the remote Maine island of Matinicus, where residents keep close watch on who fishes its waters; a one-in-a-million shot of a mackerel snagged in the rope of a lobster trap buoy.

Joel Woods

Woods’s memory of taking this portrait of Jennifer Fisk, a former girlfriend who used to work alongside him: “Jennifer was standing on the boat. It was windy and rough. I said, ‘Don’t move’—and I got the shot.”

Woods’s memory of taking this portrait of Jennifer Fisk, a former girlfriend who used to work alongside him: “Jennifer was standing on the boat. It was windy and rough. I said, ‘Don’t move’—and I got the shot.”

Joel Woods

Dawn was just breaking as Noah Ames rowed supplies and halibut fishing gear out to the No Worries, waiting at a mooring in Tenants Harbor, Maine.

Dawn was just breaking as Noah Ames rowed supplies and halibut fishing gear out to the No Worries, waiting at a mooring in Tenants Harbor, Maine.

Joel Woods

Woods and Noah Ames still joke about the decision to go out from Matinicus the day this photo was shot, when the No Worries had to race ahead of a fierce southeast wind to keep from being swamped. “We’ve had better ideas.”

Woods and Noah Ames still joke about the decision to go out from Matinicus the day this photo was shot, when the No Worries had to race ahead of a fierce southeast wind to keep from being swamped. “We’ve had better ideas.”

Joel Woods

On another day of rough weather aboard the No Worries, Woods loaned Stevie Ames the life jacket he wears in this picture, working steadily as water comes pouring over the wheelhouse.

On another day of rough weather aboard the No Worries, Woods loaned Stevie Ames the life jacket he wears in this picture, working steadily as water comes pouring over the wheelhouse.

Joel Woods

“I couldn’t believe I got this,” Woods says of a gannet and a sea gull battling over a fish dinner.

“I couldn’t believe I got this,” Woods says of a gannet and a sea gull battling over a fish dinner.

Joel Woods

While fishing on Georges Bank aboard the Dana Conant, Woods spotted once again a perfect combination of sunset and deck lighting. Just joking around with crew member Brian Neal, he ended up with this dramatic tableau.

While fishing on Georges Bank aboard the Dana Conant, Woods spotted once again a perfect combination of sunset and deck lighting. Just joking around with crew member Brian Neal, he ended up with this dramatic tableau.

Joel Woods

For more of Joel Woods’s work, visit joelwoods.net.

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