The Working Waterfront
Posted: July 1st, 2002 | ARTS, BUSINESS

The particular topography of a Portland wharf

by Joan Amory

Without sentimentality, David Wade's clear eye takes in the fishing community that works on Widgery Wharf. His photographs could easily do otherwise: Widgery Wharf with its rough, weatherbeaten planks seems a quaint anachronism in the middle of Portland's busy waterfront. The fishermen who own the wharf and their tenants look the part of old salts working out of ramshackle sheds.

The rundown appearance of Widgery Wharf makes unpretentious camouflage. It keeps the pedestrians swarming along Commercial Street from scrambling down to poke around. More attractive sites beckon nearby. There's no reason for anyone not related to one of the boats to even think of stepping out there.

It's just as well, because this is a working wharf. Fishing boats berth alongside. Bait is loaded aboard, and later in the day the catch is landed. Traps are stacked on boats in the spring and on the wharf in winter. Boats that do go out in winter return listing to windward, that side encrusted with ice. In worse weather fishermen repair their traps and do chores. Pilings are replaced when necessary.

David Wade records it all.

To give an overview of activity of Widgery Wharf for a June show at the Art Gallery in The Clown in Portland, Wade selected 14 photos from the hundreds he has taken. The photographs include fishermen working on the water, on the wharf and inside their sheds. Wade printed the black-and-white photos in duotone, he says, to give them more dimension.

A wharf, which is neither on land nor at sea, has its own particular topography, depending on the season. In one photograph the viewer looks up a steep cliff of traps to see a figure climbing down. In another, several stacks of traps form the wharf's own architecture against Portland's skyline.

Likewise the men working on Widgery Wharf make their own particular schedules that attend to tides, the weather and the season. Leland Merrill pulls a tote of bait, the lean of his body a line more angled than the lean of the sheds or the stove pipes.

Inside his shed David, another fisherman, repairs traps. The interior shows the philosophy of these men: keep everything because someday it will be needed. The trap David is working on combines the new -- plastic-coated wire -- and the old -- a wooden rectangular frame.

And they can do just about anything. In another photo of David's shed, Leland gives David a haircut. Hanging right in front of David is a tagged deer, waiting to be gutted and skinned.

Nature is always at hand. Winter's perils and trials are clear in photo of CELTIC PRIDE caked with ice. Her crew unloads a scant catch. Two eerie photos taken beneath the wharf at dead low tide show the work of worms on the pilings. As Al Urquhart baits traps aboard, a gull caught hovering in the sun's rays suggests the moments of beauty on the water.

Wade recently returned to Maine, which he has known since early childhood, after working for 10 years in Japan. This accomplished photographer, with many awards, shows and books to his name, has found himself drawn to Widgery Wharf for over three years. Wade plans a book to document these men, many well over 70, on Portland's oldest working wharf, dating from 1774.

Theirs is "a good society," he says; independent, resourceful, sharing and direct. "I wanted to capture it on film, and in the end it captured me."

You can see Wade's work at or reach him at or (207) 871-7113.