If you’ve ever been on the water in New York Harbor, or sailed the Hudson River, Kill Van Kull, or other waterways, you’ve been dwarfed by the massive container ships, barges and tugboats that operate with balletic precision in one of the largest ports in North America.
Chris Baker has worked these waters for more than a decade, first as a deck hand, and more recently as a tugboat captain and harbor pilot at McAllister Towing of Staten Island. The fleet’s work takes boats and crews from Maine to Texas in all seasons. Baker’s photographs, which he shares on his website and on Instagram, offer a rare look at the beauty and inner workings of the tug industry.
Baker, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son and rat terrier, recently discussed how photography fits into life on the tugboat.
PDN: What is your photography background?
Chris Baker: I discovered photography in an 8th grade darkroom class. We built pinhole cameras with cardboard and my best friend and I took “ghost” pictures of each other in front of an empty primary school next door. I took a handful of printing classes during my extensive years of undergraduate study. In my final year I was lucky enough to take a photojournalism class with Fred Robertson at the University of Southern Maine.
It was through the school’s media studies program rather than the art school, so it didn’t matter to him if assignments were taken with a disposable camera and printed at the drug store. He emphasized effort and storytelling, which sort of took any pretentiousness out of our work and allowed people just to take pictures of things they felt strongly about. I consider myself lucky to have learned from him.
PDN: When did you start making pictures on the boat?
CB: My very first tugboat ride was on a homework assignment for a darkroom class I was taking in Portland Maine around 1998. I had been working on harbor ferries for a few years by then, and it subsequently allowed me to harass the tug owner until he gave up and let me start working part-time as a deckhand. I am still working for the same parent company, now in New York.
PDN: Are there many opportunities to photograph? Or is it difficult to get the camera out a lot of the time?
CB: I usually keep a wide-angle point and shoot within arm’s reach in the wheelhouse. If I’m not physically handling the boat, or watching traffic or whoever’s working outside on deck, I’ll try to find something interesting to shoot.
PDN: What’s interesting to you about making photographs on the boat?
CB: This work takes place quietly around the clock—and here it’s practically in the shadows of Manhattan—and hardly anyone thinks or knows about it. It seems like people enjoy seeing something they would not otherwise be exposed to. I’ve always been drawn to the scale of the work and the designs of the various machines doing it. When tugboating gets repetitious, and sometimes outright boring, finding something to photograph helps keep things interesting for me.