What's In A Picture?
The best journalists know that the most telling stories often happen when the notepads have been put away and the cameras stop rolling. That's why Casco Bay Weekly photographer Tonee Harbert decided to keep his lens focused on the seven-pound salmon resting on the table at lower right, even after his fellow cameramen had turned their attention to Governor John "Jock" McKernan, giving a speech just out of sight to the left. The 1990 event, a presentation of the first Atlantic salmon of the year caught on the Penobscot River, was guaranteed front-page news despite the fact that the exact same ceremony had happened every year since Taft was in the White House. President George H.W. Bush dispatched Vice President Dan Quayle, at left, to listen to the speeches, shake the hand of Medway fisherman Greig Barker, standing at center with his wife, Linda, and spend a few hours raising money in the Forest City for McKernan's upcoming reelection bid.What Harbert captured for the now-defunct Weekly, of course, is far more amusing than the posed photograph that ran on the front page of Maine's dailies the next day. From the strained body language of the people in the foreground - everyone, including the earpiece-wearing Secret Service agent at far left and Wildlife Commissioner Bill Vail, just right of center, has their hands crossed in the same stilted manner - to the casual off-stage conversation taking place behind them, the image conveys the behind-the-scenes banality of press events. Finally, the backdrop of Air Force Two serves as a reminder that this presidential scene is taking place in a most unlikely spot - on the tarmac at the Portland Jetport.
"It really was kind of a surreal moment. It was all this pomp and circumstance over a prominently placed dead fish," remarks Harbert. Yet that dead fish, caught by Barker six weeks earlier and frozen by biologist Randy Spencer, at far right, has captured the attention of the fisherman and his wife. Barker's expression seems to be one of pride ("I think it was closer to seven and a half pounds - it kind of grows with age," laughs Barker today), but his wife's seems somewhere between pity and boredom.
What none of the people captured in this hilarious photograph, part of a collection on display this winter at the Portland Museum of Art, could have known is that the frozen salmon before them would be one of the last to be caught on the Penobscot. Just a few years after Harbert took this photograph the salmon fishing season ended, the victim of a series of dams, pollution, and over-fishing. Last year, though, a new Atlantic salmon season was held. One thing remains certain: if Atlantic salmon return to the Penobscot in serious numbers, a photograph of a dead fish will become front-page news once again.