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September 5, 2012

Smithsonian Lands McCloskey Collection

Fishing for king crab
Crews fish for king crab in the Bering Sea, Alaska. Credit: William McCloskey

Even before he shipped out from Baltimore as a merchant seaman when he was 18 years old, former APL communications staffer and congressional liaison Bill McCloskey (ret. 1989) says he “always had itchy feet.” By age 19, McCloskey had been all over the world, and his wanderlust propelled him to sea for most of the next 50 years, driving him to chronicle the lives of commercial fishermen through six acclaimed books and hundreds and hundreds of riveting photographs.

As of last year, the photographic bounty of his voyages is now safely stored in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH). “William McCloskey Fishing and World Fisheries Photographic Collection, 1952–2005,” was officially added to the collection in 2011 when the final box was delivered. Measuring at more than five cubic feet of photos (mostly slides), notebooks, and other materials, the collection is a unique and irreplaceable study of the evolution of fishing during the past 50 years. “To me, it’s a treasure trove,” says Paula Johnson, a curator at the NMAH’s Division of Work and Industry. “This is a wonderful collection of important material that reflects the collapse and crisis in the fishing industry.”

Picking salmon in Bristol Bay
Bill McCloskey (right) picks salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Credit: William McCloskey

Long before reality TV was a hit, McCloskey engaged in what viewers today may have only seen on “Deadliest Catch:” He joined working fishing boats seeking king crab and fish in Alaska (a place that he calls his “spiritual home” and that resulted in the novel “Highliners”) and joined crews sailing from New England and Newfoundland and the Grand Banks. He also sailed from shores far from his home, including Australia, Chile, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, and many other ports of call. “I was in love with seafaring, and fishing kept me close to the ocean,” says McCloskey in the living room of his Baltimore home, where he lives with Ann, his wife of more than 50 years.

Although he was often at sea, “APL was sort of my shelter,” McCloskey says. “Dr. [Ralph] Gibson [director from 1948 to 1969] was very supportive of my travels, and I think a bit intrigued by what I might come back with.” McCloskey traveled to several APL missile tests in far-flung, remote areas, and he wrote about remote APL outposts for "The APL News" during his 27 years at the Laboratory. His other passion, opera, led him to several appearances as a guest on the “Texaco Opera Quiz” radio program from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

The Smithsonian’s Johnson says the photographs have value as both historic documents and ethnographic records. “Bill really cared about documenting the crews, the engine rooms, the ports, the processing, the local people, and the village markets,” she says. “The character of the collection is fantastic. There’s a human dimension as well as a wealth of information on fish stocks and the industry.”

For the Smithsonian, one of Bill’s work habits—meticulous detail—was appreciated. “It was impeccably organized,” lauds Cathy Keen, associate curator at the NMAH who handled the archiving of the collection. “It’s appreciated.”

“He threw himself into this,” Johnson says. “Few have the physical and mental stamina to do what he did. Bill worked at getting the whole story from the people most close to it.”

To learn more about McCloskey’s career, photos, and books, visit http://www.williammccloskey.com/.