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People on hill looking at shipwreck

The Family That Hunted and Photographed Shipwrecks

This is part of the archive that forms the most spectacular collections of shipwrecks off the coast of the British Isles.

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.

Crowd of people on beach looking at wrecked ship.Masts of sunken ship above the water Wrecked ship on black rocks


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