It’s cold at the shipyard in mid-February. The north wind off of Sturgeon Bay whips around the lake effect snow and subtracts a dozen degrees from the thermometer reading. Thousand-foot freighters are docked side by side as if huddled for warmth, their hulls frozen in place by 8 inches of ice. The locks and channels that connect the Great Lakes are closed for the season and these ships are in for their winter maintenance. Despite the frigid weather, the shipyard buzzes with activity—cranes removing scrap from the boat decks high above, trucks and forklifts scurrying around the limestone yard and hard-hatted workers crawling all over these iron leviathans, getting them ready for the spring fit-out which is now only a month away.
Working in the midst of all this activity is a lone photographer, Christopher Winters, who’s been documenting the work here for the past decade. Bundled in insulated coveralls, a battery-heated jacket and his Red Wing Ice Cutter boots, Winters fires his camera in frenetic bursts, darting up and down the gangways, inside the engine rooms and under the massive propellers in the dry dock. He’s no impostor here. The workers accept his presence and respect his work because he respects theirs. The Milwaukee-based Winters is one of the foremost maritime photographers and historians in the Great Lakes region, a published author of two books who drives and sails port to port, April to December from Duluth sometimes as far as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, camera in tow.
“In the early to mid-1900s, the Great Lakes was the one of the busiest seaways in the world. I want to preserve the memory of these boats and the men who work on them before that culture disappears,” says Winters as he swaps camera batteries, his back to the icy wind. “I’m documenting the kind of honest work that defined this region, and in many ways, the United States, for much of the twentieth century.”
Winters makes the two-hour drive to the shipyard from Milwaukee several times a season to capture key moments in the boats’ maintenance. Today he’s here to photograph the removal of the boiler from the John G. Munson, a 768-foot long freighter. The Munson has always been steam-powered but is one of the ships here being repowered, its boiler (“teakettle technology,” as Winters calls it) replaced by a modern diesel engine. Winters disappears into the belly of the ship to photograph workers cutting away the boiler’s piping and supports with torches. This is dangerous, unglamorous work but which Winters renders in his pictures with a certain industrial beauty.
Next to the Munson, the SS Wilfred S. Sykes is also abuzz with activity. The Sykes was built in 1949, a historical relic bristling with old technology like a wind-up ship’s clock and manual ship’s telegraph in the pilothouse and a steam engine belowdecks. The 671-foot long vessel was the largest on the Lakes when she was launched, built to haul ore from Minnesota’s Iron Range at first, and later grain and limestone, in her hold. Winters walks her deck from the stern to the pilothouse, peering into the cargo hatches, chatting with a foreman and firing off a few frames of the ship against a brittle blue February sky.
In two weeks, Winters will be back in Sturgeon Bay, shooting the fleet from a helicopter, capturing all the boats locked side by side in the ice, a group “portrait” he’s done since 2002. He calls the boats that gather here from January to March, the “Winter Fleet,” since they scatter to the far corners of the Great Lakes during the shipping season. This working title is an obvious reference to their seasonal sojourn in Sturgeon Bay but one that fits neatly with the photographer’s own name, something not lost on Winters.
Asked why he favors Red Wing boots, Winters says, “Besides their comfort and durability, Red Wing represents the same things I’m trying to capture in my photography—a timeless legacy of hard honest work.” His Ice Cutters show evidence of a winter at the shipyard—dusty and scuffed—and will be put away right around the time the ice breaks up and the ships set sail on the lakes for another season. But like the fleet, Christopher Winters, his boots and his camera will be back here next January, ready to work.