Photographer Jay Fleming chronicles the Chesapeake Bay

“Virginia has so much to offer,” says Jay Fleming, who has a particular affinity for the Chesapeake Bay.

The photography phenom has been in the water, his camera in tow, since he was a teen. The Annapolis native “fell in love with the Bay,” he says, adding that being around water is something he comes by naturally.

Fleming’s lapstrake sailing dinghy. Called Ditch Tiger, the 10-footer’s name is a nod to the hull’s lines that resemble stripes and its ease in navigating water ditches—aka shallow creeks and streams.

His father, Kevin, is an award-winning National Geographic photographer, who’s worked all over the world. “He’d sometimes take me on assignments when I was a kid,” says Fleming, who inherited his father’s hand-me-down Nikon when he was 13 and never looked back. 

From fishermen to underwater creatures to boat bows, the younger Fleming has found his stride photographing the world of water, much of it around the Chesapeake Bay—its waterlife and wildlife, its vessels and industry, its coastal communities and dwindling cultures. His photography workshops are wildly popular, selling out as soon as they’re posted. From a few days on Smith Island spent in search of pelicans and egrets, to a week on the coast of Maine photographing lighthouses, to a photo trip to the Galapagos, Fleming shows aspiring shutterbugs the ropes. “I like connecting with people,” he says. 

A diamondback terrapin in the shallows around Smith Island.

Fleming will do just about anything for the shot—including rising well before dawn or spying on crabs in their grassy aquatic homes. And then there was the time he jumped into a pound net, neck-deep in menhaden, to get their perspective of the fishermen—from the perspective of the fish, that is. “Boat, kayak, in the water, or even underwater—you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get the shot,” he says. 

He chronicles his work through gallery shows and images he sells on his website. There are also calendars and two books, the latter rich in images and words that have become coffee table staples among his fans.

 In his most recent, Island Life, he documents the sinking island of Tangier, home to just over 400 people. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of the island’s landmass has disappeared, displacing nearly 75 percent of its once robust population (for an island) and decimating the livelihood of the crabbers and pickers and fishermen who have lived there for generations. Working on Water, his first book, documents the Bay’s bounty through the watermen, seascapes, and workboats of the region’s seafood industry. He can practically operate his media empire from a boat, where he shoots and posts and watches his Instagram grow. He has nearly 50,000 followers. 

Fleming often gravitates toward the theme of change. His images of the Bay’s barrier islands illustrate their uncertain future, with rising tides and shrinking populations. He captures weathered women in their kitchens and living rooms—the crab pickers—who “process” the harvests by hand from the crabbers, usually their husbands and other family members. And he chronicles the effect the wind and waves have had on the forgotten and abandoned ships and the homes that dot the coastline. “I tend to find subjects that are either changing or on the verge of change,” he says, adding that the fishing industry and Tangier Island are prime examples. “I noticed that kind of stuff changing,” says Fleming, adding, “I realized once it was gone, it wasn’t going to come back.” 

Fleming encountered all types of weather while working on his book, Island Life, where he explored how the communities of Tangier and Smith islands have been impacted through the years—by economics and climate change. Flooding has become commonplace, and pictured here, after Hurricane Dorian wreaked havoc in September 2019, a boy navigates his bike along one of Tangier’s flooded streets.
Aerial view of Tangier Island and its crab shanties, where watermen keep their gear and shuttle back and forth on skiffs. 
Close-up of female crab claws (the red tips differentiate sexes; lipstick are females) at a picking house. This bunch is for a customer who uses them as fishing bait. Fleming says he was captivated by their texture, color, and lines.

From the once-robust industries that dotted the Chesapeake Bay’s coastal communities to the disappearing populations of vanishing island communities like Tangier and Smith, Jay Fleming has documented the changing tides of these working waterfronts, revealing both the beauty and perils of a way of life that is constantly changing and challenged by the rhythms of the tides. For a deeper dive, explore Island Life, by Jay Fleming (2021).

One of the last houses standing on Cedar Island, where developers had once set their sites on turning it into a bustling beach community. The orange sunset reflects off the windows and onto the wet sand, which illustrates how Fleming manipulates his camera and position to catch the perfect shot.
On a rough winter morning, Castella and her crew found themselves between waves off Tangier Island while dredging for oysters. The locals are known to work in any and all weather.
A waterman showcases a backlit crab as the crew cleaned their pots. Watermen dip their algae-caked crab pots in pot cookers, in water just shy of the boiling point, which not only results in squeaky clean, gunk-free pots, but also creates a steamy, misty environment just right for photographing.
A collection of vintage oyster cans represent the industry’s history when metal cans were used for packing oysters, which became a booming business in the late 1800s. A variety of companies operated out of Chincoteague, but they’ve all since shuttered. Each differentiated their brand by creating eye-catching designs. “I’m a collector of these myself,” Fleming says, who adds that some fetch thousands of dollars.

I tend to find subjects that are either changing or on the verge of change. I realized once it was gone, it wasn’t going to come back.

Jay Fleming
Fleming spent eight days on a boat sleeping in a bunk to document scallop dragging. “The key is finding the right boat,” Fleming advises, “with the right crew.” This boat is out of Seaford and part of the Seaford Scallop Company’s fleet.
Fleming set up a remote-controlled camera on a tripod in front of a pelican nesting site, which allowed him to observe their natural behavior without being impeded by his equipment.
Sunset silhouette scene of an ibis rookery on a duck blind in Chincoteague. “It’s like they were posing for me,” Fleming says.
A minke whale was killed by a ship strike and washed up on Tangier. About 18 feet long (on the smaller side of its family, believe it or not), Fleming captured its skeleton using “light painting,” a photography technique that uses an LED light source and a long exposure.
Crab and rockfish in the shallows of Tangier Sound. Unlike seawater, which is usually far more clear, the deeper Fleming goes into the Bay, the more color and light he loses. In order to capture the Bay’s waterlife, he is typically immersed two to four feet deep.

From ibis, pelicans, and egrets, to blue crabs, shellfish, and terrapins, the marshes and underwater grasslands of the Chesapeake Bay provide habitats for a plethora of important species. Shallow waters around islands and shores are home to submerged meadows of eelgrass and widgeon grass that provide ideal nurseries and hiding places for dozens of creatures. Vegetation not only offers habitat, but it also oxygenates the water and provides erosion control by suppressing wave energy before it reaches the shore.

A bay scallop photographed in the shallows of Wreck Island. The mollusk can actually propel itself by shooting out water. And yes, these blue dots are its eyes. Fleming documented scallops during a restoration effort for eelgrass, the bay scallops’s habitat.
© Jay Fleming
An old wooden work boat intentionally discarded sinks in the Chesapeake Bay, on the Maryland-Virginia line. This is the last picture in his Island Life book, which Fleming sees as a metaphor for life on the Bay’s vanishing islands. “It represents profound change,” Fleming says. “You see a little above the surface, but most of it is under water.”

This series was inspired by a Wooden Boat magazine project in Maine, where Fleming was on assignment to photograph a sailing dinghy. A simple image of Sjogin’s bow led to “Boat Bows,” one of Fleming’s most dynamic and popular series. Since that original assignment nearly a dozen years ago, Fleming has photographed boat bows all over the world, constantly adding images to the series. “The conditions have to be perfect,” he says, adding that he’s discovered secret locations all over the Bay where the horizon meets the water, setting just the right stage.

Fleming shot boat bows for his “Boot Stripe and Bottom Paint” series by looking up at the boats while they were dry docked on land at marinas and boatyards.

Boat, kayak, in the water or even underwater—you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get the shot.

Jay Fleming

This article originally appeared in the August 2024 issue. 

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