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Fisherman as Artist: Corey Arnold

Corey Arnold might have the best job in the world. The southern California native follows his two passions, fishing and photography, for his living. Arnold cites his father, an avid recreational fisherman, for his early introduction to fishing. When Arnold was thirteen, his family took its first trip to Alaska. “It was then that I realized that it is possible to go to Alaska and make good money fishing commercially,” he explained at “Fish Work,” an event highlighting Arnold’s photographic work in fishing communities around the world, hosted by the Island Institute at the Strand Theater in Rockland on August 9. “I was obsessed with fishing at a young age,” Arnold said, as he scrolled through grainy family photos shot by himself and his father from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s. The photos on the screen show a toothy, grinning, blond boy wearing knee-high tube socks and a trucker hat fishing from a small boat. Today Arnold, 35, in a plaid shirt with a trim brown beard, looks like he fits right in on the coast of Alaska or Maine. As a high school student, Arnold took his first photography course. While he describes most of his work from that time as being “an obsession with the absurd,” his teachers showed a real interest in his progress. He recounts not getting much guidance when it came time to think about colleges. Arnold’s parents were pushing him to attend community college, but he felt a need to get out of California. A last minute decision sent him to Northern Arizona University where he considered pursuing a fisheries-related discipline like marine biology or policy while continuing his photography work. After two years, he transferred to the Academy of Art College San Francisco to concentrate on photography. “My dad is a big wildlife photographer and I’ve always been interested in the human and animal relationship,” Arnold explained. True to form, that interest remains a consistent theme in his portfolio of photographs. In 1995, Arnold, then 19, drove to Alaska in the summer searching for work on a fishing boat. He quickly realized that he had arrived in Homer at the wrong time of the year. “Everyone was headed to Bristol Bay for salmon season, and I was stuck in Homer grinding and painting  fish holds. Eventually I found a guy who flew me out to work for him set netting in Bristol Bay. That summer, we made no money,” he said. “The next year, the Kvichak River salmon run collapsed and I went to Cook Inlet and same thing, no money.” The audience at the Strand laughed. Several local lobstermen in attendance nodded and smiled, perhaps recalling their early days fishing. Arnold’s dry humor and quick wit were the perfect guides to the images that narrate his fishing life and photography career. At times, it was hard to figure out which came first—fishing or photography?

While his summers in Alaska didn’t exactly pay for college the way that he had hoped, Arnold fell in love with the seasons and the hard work. One summer, he worked for Eric Nyhammer cod jigging on his boat F/V Two Bears; the following summer he took a spot on Nyhammer’s other boat, F/V Rollo, and went crabbing for six years. “There’s a real love/hate relationship with crabbing, but when you’re done, you have this incredible sense of accomplishment,” he said. “Fish-Work Bering Sea” documents that period of seven years. His photographs capture 20 and 40-foot waves towering over the boat sitting in the trough, ice-covered wheelhouses, and the sense of being stuck at sea for weeks on end. “Bering Sea Birthday” depicts one of Arnold’s fellow crew members, blindfolded and swinging for a piñata hanging from the crane in a pitching sea. “Kitty and Horse Fisherman” is almost surreal. The king crab season ends on Halloween, so the boat’s crew always brought their costumes on board and would hit town immediately following the final off load. Arnold took his cat with him that fishing season. The cat happened to walk by on deck, where one of Arnold’s fellow crew members stood, fully clad in oil gear, wearing the head of his Halloween horse costume. The man picked up the cat and Arnold shot the eerie image. “It’s the sense of the humorous side of fishermen coping with the torturous nature of the job,” Arnold said of the photograph. All of Arnold’s Alaska images were shot during short five or ten minute breaks from fishing. Now that Arnold is the captain of his own set net operation, shooting while fishing hasn’t become any easier. “There’s rain, mud, spray, fish slime. So many times shooting is impossible. It’s hard to fish and shoot. The most interesting stuff is at the peak of the season, but it’s just too busy,” he said. When he wasn’t fishing in Alaska, Arnold spent the rest of the year in Norway documenting its fishing culture and continuing his work on the relationships between people and animals. He has photographed reindeer hunters, mushers, and rural communities around the country. In 2005, he received a grant from the American Scandinavian Foundation to photograph fishermen and whalers of northern Norway. In 2010, the PEW Foundation commissioned Arnold to document fishing operations in Spain, Greece, Poland, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, and Germany which lead to “Fish-Work Europe.” Arnold talked about the challenge of shooting on assignment versus fishing and shooting. “Being a non-participant , I wished I could put down the camera and help out. Luckily, I have been welcomed aboard most of the boats I’ve tried to photograph. Crabbing opened doors for me – every fisherman around the world is glued to their TV dreaming of crab and wanted to talk crabbing,” he said, referring to the popularity of the television show “Deadliest Catch.” Shooting on assignment and covering a variety of fisheries in eight countries proved difficult. “Sometimes you go out and you don’t find fish,” he noted. “Some of my best opportunities to get good shots were on the long one-to-two week trips and often I did not have that much time.” A member of the audience asked if Arnold, with his experience documenting fishing communities around the world, thought that protecting working waterfronts was a rarity. Arnold talked about his respect for sustainable fisheries and small boat fleets. Those fleets support communities that are able to live close to the waters that they fish, something that he perceives as increasingly rare among consolidated fisheries worldwide. He went on to discuss the work that he and his fellow fishermen in Bristol Bay, in conjunction with Trout Unlimited and other organizations, are doing to fight the Pebble Partnership, a coalition of mining corporations who are seeking rights to access mineral deposits in the Bristol Bay watershed. Arnold’s work has been in National Fisherman, Alaska Fishermen’s Journal, People, Fortune, Paris Review, Men’s Health and many other publications. His assignments have all resulted from his presence on the Web, word of mouth, and Google searches. Arnold currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He plans to invest in his set net operation in Bristol Bay, a fishery he returns to every summer. He will continue the series on the Norwegian whaling industry and has a variety of upcoming gallery shows around the world. To view Corey Arnold’s photographs, visit


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