By Erica Fugger
Last Thursday, the Visual Arts Atrium Gallery held a reception for the ongoing alumni photography exhibit, “The Merchant & the Leviathan: Photographs of a Global Shipping Industry.”
James Burleigh Morton ’10 was awarded the prestigious Watson Fellowship to pursue one year of travel through thirteen countries, photographing all facets of shipping in the process.
Inspiration for the fellowship came through his fascination with the industry after learning of his grandfather’s seven years of sea service following World War II.
Through his photography compilation, Morton sought to demonstrate by image the massive differences in scale throughout the industry. He toured the shipbuilding yards of Southeast Asia, while also documenting the life cycle of ships.
To complete his project, the artist used a large-format view camera, complete with a bellows, dark cloth, and brown glass that would show the inverted image of the subject. The photographer compared the slow process of this type of classic photography to the “lumbering, vast size of the things I was photographing.”
Morton spoke of the everyday occurrences the contemporary consumer is unlikely to contemplate—the refrigerated containers that could malfunction at any moment while at sea and the daunting nature of living within an import-oriented society.
The photographer’s talk also reflected on the poor conditions in which shipping laborers function, spanning workforce accidents and the oppressive fumes that seemed to make the air “one thousand times thicker that you could ever imagine.”
During his time at sea, Morton spoke with the workers, some of whom were away from home between nine to then months at a time. The photographer described, “Loneliness was the largest problem even despite the advances of modern technology.”
He reflected on the evolving nature of the industry, speaking to the societal changes that hid the world of shipping both in the United States and now aboard.
Yet, through Morton’s many interactions with the people who make possible this global society in which we now live, he learned that, “For something that so industrial, sprawling, large, it still touched on a human side of its existence.”
Although pursuing a history major while at Union, this alumnus was “notorious for haunting the visual arts department,” as the department chair, David Ogawa, stated at the reception. His work post-Watson includes a position as assistant photo editor at Fortune magazine.
“Merchant & the Leviathan” continues through March 12, and is free and open to the public Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.