The Men Who Chased Shipwrecks

When a vessel went down off the Cornish coast, a Gibson would be there to document it. 
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The Jean Gougy, engulfed by waves at Land's End in 1962 (Gibsons of Scilly/Sotheby's)

For more than 100 years, nearly every time a ship ran aground off the coast of Cornwall, a man would arrive on the scene to document the wreckage. 

That man, most likely, would have the surname of Gibson. The family tradition—documenting shipwrecks, obsessively and artistically—started with John, a fisherman-turned-professional-photographer, who learned about the new technology in Penzance in 1860. Gibson trained his two sons, Alexander and Herbert, as apprentice photographers. The Gibsons, armed with their cameras, soon made a habit of traipsing out to every accident in the area as it occurred, capturing haunting scenes in the process. 

To get news of the wrecks, and share the results of their work, the family took advantage of another new technology: the telegraph. The sea surrounding their home in the Isles of Scilly was treacherous, and mariners made headlines when they sunk their ships after encountering storms or Cornwall’s notorious cliffs. The Gibsons speedily dispatched both themselves and their images with the help of newly installed telegraph wires.

A sailor is rescued by breeches buoy in Mill Bay, near Land's End, in 1912. (Gibsons of Scilly/Sotheby's)

Bella Bathurst’s book The Wreckers, a history of doomed ships off the British coast, describes the Gibson photographs as strikingly lovely and leagues beyond those captured by anyone else:

Shipwrecks in other parts of the country generally end up with nothing more than a grainy, indeterminate shot taken in bad weather from a difficult angle by the local newspaper’s resident snapper. Usually there are rocks in the way or the storm has obscured the detail, or the ship itself is too far away to be clear. Even when the pictures do reveal more than just storm-force conditions, most twentieth-century shipping would hardly inspire poetry.

But these photographs are unquestionably beautiful. Not, one supposes, that the crew and the passengers of these wrecks cared much for looks as they sped towards their graves. But in showing these ships and the people surrounding them with such care and veracity, the photographs do give them back some final dignity.

According to Bathurst, the Gibsons started out using the wet collodion process to take their pictures—“a method which proved cumbersome and wasteful in the field, but which also produced some of the most striking images of the sea ever taken.” It required a portable darkroom, which the Gibsons hauled along on a cart along with a glass-plate camera and tripod. They had to hustle, with a pony or in a rowboat, to reach their target before it sank or before night fell.

The wreck of the Hansey at Hounsel Bay, near the southernmost tip of Britain's mainland,  in 1911. See more of these at the Gibsons of Scilly website. (Gibsons of Scilly/Sotheby's)

Alexander’s son James carried on the work throughout the 20th century, and after his death in 1985, his son Frank carried the torch until his own death in 2012.

Next week, the archive of these now-famous Gibson family shipwreck photographs is going on auction at Sotheby's in London. The vivid images have been praised over the years by authors John Fowles and John le Carre. “Other men have taken fine shipwreck photographs," Fowles put it, "but nowhere else in the world can one family have produced such a consistently high and poetic standard of work."

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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