Chris Miller photographing the troll fishery in Southeast Alaska. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

Chris Miller photographing the troll fishery in Southeast Alaska. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

Pride of Bristol Bay: True stories from a fishing photographer

The lens doesn’t like. Fishermen on the otherhand…

By Bjorn Dihle

Photographing commercial fishing takes a special sort of person — one who doesn’t mind the salty spray of waves, the blood and slime of fish and the “colorful” nature many fishermen possess. Chris Miller, an acclaimed photographer who lives in Douglas, is such a man. Some say Neptune himself molded Miller in his own form and set him forth on his destiny to roam the oceans with a camera in one hand and a trident in the other. When asked about this legend, Miller gets a faraway look as he stares out on the ocean.

“I’m a fisherman. I’ll only lie to you,” he says.

Chris Miller photographing the Bering Sea crab fishery. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

Chris Miller photographing the Bering Sea crab fishery. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

It was a debt no honest man could pay that first brought Miller to Bristol Bay. He’d just graduated school and was wondering what his next step in life would be, as well as how to pay off college debt. Going fishing seemed like the natural thing to do. He’d grown up in Southeast Alaska and, since high school, deck-handed on gillnetters and seiners on the waters near his home. He’d heard stories of Bristol Bay’s sockeye fishery — how it was the biggest in the world and a crew member could make good money during the six-week long season. He packed his rain gear and camera and bought a plane ticket to King Salmon. Even though he was no stranger to the hard work and stress involved in fishing, Bristol Bay came as a shock.

“My mouth was open half of the time during those first few days. It was insanity,” Miller said.

There were boats everywhere, setting their nets atop of each other and on the verge of ramming each other. The scene was more akin to sharks in a feeding frenzy than the “gentlemen’s fishery” Miller was used to in Southeast Alaska. Miller soon learned that despite what appeared to be chaos, somehow it all worked.

Ghosts of Bristol Bay’s past. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

Ghosts of Bristol Bay’s past. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

Between picking a seemingly endless procession of fish from the net and being sleep-deprived, Miller became fascinated with Bristol Bay. Maybe it was the flood of salmon, or the surrounding wild country inhabited by a dense population of giant brown bears, or the interesting people who lived and worked in the region. Since then, he’s returned 14 seasons and counting.

[Pride of Bristol Bay: The bears of McNeil]

One of the big reasons Miller keeps coming back is photography.

“The money wasn’t that great when I started. Salmon returns were half of what they are now. But it seemed like the natural place to shoot (photographs),” Miller said.

A gillnetter in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

A gillnetter in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

During Miller’s first season, he realized that photographing Bristol Bay wasn’t something a lot of people were doing. “Shooting” the bay presented some difficulties. When the salmon were running, Miller had no time to do anything besides pick fish. Still, during shoulder seasons, and one summer thanks to the help of a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation, he amassed an impressive catalogue of images.

Miller applies the work ethic he learned from fishing to his photography. Not long after he began photographing Bristol Bay, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) contracted him to photograph fisheries across the state. Over the years, he’s traveled far and wide to document everything from mom and pop power trollers in Southeast Alaska to industrial pollock trawlers in the Bering Sea.

“Once upon a time I dreamed of photographing every fishery in the state,” Miller said.

Photographer Chris Miller knows Bristol Bay is something worth celebrating. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

Photographer Chris Miller knows Bristol Bay is something worth celebrating. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

It’s a dream that still may come true, but Miller is also invested in photographing a variety of other subjects unrelated to commercial fishing. His work often focuses on wild places, and the way local people balance recreation and conservation with their lives and the economy of the region. Frequently, Miller explores contested places like the transboundary watersheds shared by Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last stands of old growth forest in Southeast Alaska and the long fought-over proposed road from Cold Bay to King Cove on the Alaska Peninsula. He’s often featured in the New York Times, Alaska Magazine and other publications.

Despite his varied career, Bristol Bay still has a strong hold on him. He’s been considering a book project on the Bay for years, but there are always more aspects of the place, its people and its fishery he wants to explore in greater depth with his photography.

“I’d love to spend more time upriver, and in the lakes, when the salmon are spawning. I want to get back and spend more time photographing set-netters on the Nushagak River. It’s a different, more family-oriented scene there,” Miller said and, after some thought, added, “I think it would be kind of interesting to cover the enforcement side of things, too. It’s super important to the fishery. Especially the fish counters at the counting towers.”

Fishermen picking sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

Fishermen picking sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

Someday Miller might quit fishing the Bay, but he says he’ll never quit Bristol Bay.

“I’ll always have a connection to that fishery and place. Even if I didn’t fish next season, I’d still be there photographing,” Miller said.

Gillnetters at work in Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

Gillnetters at work in Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / Chris Miller)

• Chris Miller’s work on his website, csmphotos.com, and follow him on Instagram @csmphotos. Pride of Bristol Bay is a free column written by Bjorn Dihle and provided by its namesake, a fisherman direct seafood marketer that specializes in delivering the highest quality of sustainably caught wild salmon from Bristol Bay to your doorstep.

More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of Sept. 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

People work together to raise the Xa’Kooch story pole, which commemorates the Battle of the Inian Islands. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)
Resilient Peoples & Place: The Xa’Kooch story pole — one step toward a journey of healing

“This pole is for the Chookaneidi, but here among us, many clans are represented…”

A bracket fungus exudes guttation drops and a small fly appears to sip one of them.( Courtesy Photo / Bob Armstrong)
On the Trails: Water drops on plants

Guttation drops contain not only water but also sugars, proteins, and probably minerals.

A chart shows what critics claim is poor financial performance by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, especially in subsidizing private industry projects intended to boost the state’s economy, during its 55-year existence. The chart is part of a report released Tuesday criticizing the agency. (MB Barker/LLC Erickson & Associates/EcoSystems LLC)
AIDEA’s fiscal performance fishy, critics say

Report presented by salmon industry advocates asserts state business subsidy agency cost public $10B

Police vehicles gather Wednesday evening near Kaxdigoowu Héen Dei, also known as ]]Brotherhood Bridge Trail, while investigating a homicide. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Police: Woman was walking dogs when she was killed

JPD said officers are working “around the clock” on the criminal investigation.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard Cutter Kimball crew-member observes a foreign vessel in the Bering Sea, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter on routine patrol in the Bering Sea came across the guided missile cruiser from the People's Republic of China, officials said Monday, Sept. 26.  (U.S. Coast Guard District 17 via AP)
Patrol spots Chinese, Russian naval ships off Alaska island

This wasn’t the first time Chinese naval ships have sailed near Alaska waters.

An Alaska judge has ruled that a state lawmaker affiliated with the Oath Keepers, Rep. David Eastman, shown in this February 2022 photo, may stay on the general election ballot in November even though he's likely ineligible to hold public office  (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Judge keeps Oath Keepers lawmaker on November ballot

Judge ordered delaying certifying the result of the race until a trial scheduled for December.

Water rushes down Front Street, just a half block from the Bering Sea, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 as the remnants of Typhoon Merbok moved into the region. It was a massive storm system — big enough to cover the mainland U.S. from the Pacific Ocean to Nebraska and from Canada to Texas. It influenced weather systems as far away as California, where a rare late-summer storm dropped rain on the northern part of the state, offering a measure of relief to wildfire crews but also complicating fire suppression efforts because of mud and loosened earth. (AP Photo / Peggy Fagerstrom)
Repair work begins in some Alaska towns slammed by storm

ANCHORAGE — There’s been significant damage to some roads and homes in… Continue reading

j
Sniffen indicted on sexual abuse counts

Sniffen will be arraigned Monday.

Most Read