So many ships were wrecked off the coast of the English county of Cornwall that an Isles of Scilly family began a hair-raising tradition: to document with photographs each one of the ships that sank close to the coast. The family was surnamed Gibson and the tradition lasted more than 100 years.

The obsessive documentation of the shipwrecks – that became more and more artistic and impressive as the collection grew – began with John, a fisherman who became a professional photographer and then taught his two sons, Alexander and Herbert. Armed with cameras, the Gibsons would run to see the sinking and climb onto the closest reefs to capture the catastrophe. In order to receive news of each accident, the family took advantage of the new technology of the telegraph and over the years perfected their technique. In this way they also quickly sent their images to European newspapers and magazines. But their photographs were not mere testaments to each sinking, but were dramatic scenes and were beautiful, despite being the bearers of terrible news.

In her book The Wreckers, Bella Bathurst describes the Gibsons’ photographs better than anybody:

Shipwrecks in other parts of the country generally end up with nothing more than a grainy, indeterminate shot taken in bad weather from a difficult angle by the local newspaper’s resident snapper. Usually there are rocks in the way or the storm has obscured the detail, or the ship itself is too far away to be clear. Even when the pictures do reveal more than just storm-force conditions, most twentieth-century shipping would hardly inspire poetry.

But these photographs are unquestionably beautiful. Not, one supposes, that the crew and the passengers of these wrecks cared much for looks as they sped towards their graves. But in showing these ships and the people surrounding them with such care and veracity, the photographs do give them back some final dignity.

“The ship”, said José Emilio Pacheco, “is the universal symbol of our journey across the Sea of Storms: life. They simultaneously evoke the cradle, the coffin and mobility forever threatened by the abyss.” At the time that John Gibson began to take photographs, shipwrecks were living terrors that happened frequently: even today, with other types of transportation, their prominence continues in metaphors for isolation and destruction. Ships continue to sink in poetry and the imagination. However, there can still be survivors.

The Gibsons continued their work during the 20th century until the death of Frank, the last of the photographers to continue the tradition. Recently, England’s National Maritime Museum acquired the archive amassed by the Gibson family during more than 125 years in an auction at Sotheby’s. The collection consists of 1,360 glass and film negatives of more than 200 shipwrecks off the treacherous coasts of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Here is a selection of it.

12341605_944202825648472_2835789369933191699_n 12377619_944202842315137_2423154230045491497_o 12346448_944203085648446_1147141158732481524_n 10286755_944203068981781_6418471850825572110_o 12363010_944203032315118_2624508562456606931_o 11143204_944203015648453_378722948670167582_n 12365924_944202995648455_5147276403113761414_o 12342770_944202988981789_4143240475530773887_n 12241279_944202962315125_6959503644592866296_n 12342520_944202902315131_4678003787819775999_n 12346358_944202878981800_2925981634072399069_n 12391164_944202868981801_1250639431057957221_n 3465_944202855648469_7219215584595843492_n,

So many ships were wrecked off the coast of the English county of Cornwall that an Isles of Scilly family began a hair-raising tradition: to document with photographs each one of the ships that sank close to the coast. The family was surnamed Gibson and the tradition lasted more than 100 years.

The obsessive documentation of the shipwrecks – that became more and more artistic and impressive as the collection grew – began with John, a fisherman who became a professional photographer and then taught his two sons, Alexander and Herbert. Armed with cameras, the Gibsons would run to see the sinking and climb onto the closest reefs to capture the catastrophe. In order to receive news of each accident, the family took advantage of the new technology of the telegraph and over the years perfected their technique. In this way they also quickly sent their images to European newspapers and magazines. But their photographs were not mere testaments to each sinking, but were dramatic scenes and were beautiful, despite being the bearers of terrible news.

In her book The Wreckers, Bella Bathurst describes the Gibsons’ photographs better than anybody:

Shipwrecks in other parts of the country generally end up with nothing more than a grainy, indeterminate shot taken in bad weather from a difficult angle by the local newspaper’s resident snapper. Usually there are rocks in the way or the storm has obscured the detail, or the ship itself is too far away to be clear. Even when the pictures do reveal more than just storm-force conditions, most twentieth-century shipping would hardly inspire poetry.

But these photographs are unquestionably beautiful. Not, one supposes, that the crew and the passengers of these wrecks cared much for looks as they sped towards their graves. But in showing these ships and the people surrounding them with such care and veracity, the photographs do give them back some final dignity.

“The ship”, said José Emilio Pacheco, “is the universal symbol of our journey across the Sea of Storms: life. They simultaneously evoke the cradle, the coffin and mobility forever threatened by the abyss.” At the time that John Gibson began to take photographs, shipwrecks were living terrors that happened frequently: even today, with other types of transportation, their prominence continues in metaphors for isolation and destruction. Ships continue to sink in poetry and the imagination. However, there can still be survivors.

The Gibsons continued their work during the 20th century until the death of Frank, the last of the photographers to continue the tradition. Recently, England’s National Maritime Museum acquired the archive amassed by the Gibson family during more than 125 years in an auction at Sotheby’s. The collection consists of 1,360 glass and film negatives of more than 200 shipwrecks off the treacherous coasts of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Here is a selection of it.

12341605_944202825648472_2835789369933191699_n 12377619_944202842315137_2423154230045491497_o 12346448_944203085648446_1147141158732481524_n 10286755_944203068981781_6418471850825572110_o 12363010_944203032315118_2624508562456606931_o 11143204_944203015648453_378722948670167582_n 12365924_944202995648455_5147276403113761414_o 12342770_944202988981789_4143240475530773887_n 12241279_944202962315125_6959503644592866296_n 12342520_944202902315131_4678003787819775999_n 12346358_944202878981800_2925981634072399069_n 12391164_944202868981801_1250639431057957221_n 3465_944202855648469_7219215584595843492_n,

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