Two hours into her first day as a fish packer, Wendi Blair thought she was going to die.
“What am I doing?” she wondered to herself, 300 crates deep and surrounded by a crew of burly men who knew her only as “Paparazzi”—dubbed for her milling about the Montauk docks the past six years as a curious photographer.
Those days were behind her. It was time to put her camera down and get hands-on. She wanted the hard work. She wanted the pain. And that is exactly what she got during her year as a fish packer.
Eight hours and 1,200 crates later, Ms. Blair had been inducted into the local fishing industry. Her hands were filthy, her blonde hair was knotted, and her mind was broadened—adding an extra level of depth to the thousands of photos she had taken of East End fishermen since 2006. A selection of her photos is now on display through September at the Montauk Library.
“To me, these sum up what Montauk was, is, and, God willing, will stay: a fishing town,” Ms. Blair said on Wednesday morning during a private tour of the exhibition. “I really wanted this to be about the guys because we had a really rough winter. I feel like we were all beaten down within this last year, just beaten down from every angle, so I just wanted to give this community a pat on the back because they’ve given me a pat on my back. They’ve encouraged me.”
Taking in the last few photo collages, fisherman Dave Lundeen turned the corner of the exhibit and touched one of the driftwood-rimmed frames hung with 40-pound fishing line.
“Wendi, this is great,” he said, bending down to embrace Ms. Blair. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but honestly, I love this. It’s beautiful.”
Walking through the photo collection reawakened Mr. Lundeen’s urge to get back to the sea—a passion that never died, he said, but one that was forced to take a backseat ever since April 10.
It was a Wednesday and almost noon, 39 miles off the coast of Montauk Point. Mr. Lundeen and the modest crew aboard the 52-foot-long commercial fishing vessel Sea Smoke were setting a gill net out into the water when someone yelled, “A link on the chain is stuck!” He dropped one of the net’s anchors and popped the link out, but the built-up pressure on one of the ropes nearly threw him overboard, he said.
“It almost ripped me off. I didn’t even realize what had happened,” Mr. Lundeen recalled. “I looked down and saw my glove. And then I saw my middle finger just sticking out—not going the right way. I was just upset because I knew I was gonna be out of work for awhile. Like, this was it.”
The United States Coast Guard airlifted the 23-year-old to Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, where they reattached his finger. Today, it is still a little crooked and doesn’t bend much, he said. But he’s on the mend.
“Things are looking up, even though I missed the whole season,” he said. “It can suck when you’re out there—you’re cold, you’re wet, you’re miserable—but I do miss it. Fish are a lot easier to deal with than people. They don’t talk. They bite, you know, they’re fish. But I love it. I’ve always been fishing, all my life. I love fish. Catching ’em, just being around the ocean. You can’t beat it.”
Ms. Blair grew up vacationing in Montauk, walking the rocks at age 1½, she said. As a young girl, she had a particular fascination with the docks, and watched the fishermen from a safe distance—always knowing she wanted to be involved in some capacity, but never realizing she would experience it first-hand.
“I did go on two scallop trips and a lobster trip. It was nuts. It was just nuts,” the 49-year-old said. “It’s so dangerous, you know?”
For the fishermen, danger is simply part of the job. The local community is still reeling from the rescue of fisherman John Aldridge, who fell overboard on July 24 and was found alive 12 hours later and 43 miles south of Montauk after a 660-square-mile search.
One of Ms. Blair’s collages is dedicated to him.
“People are connected here,” she explained. “When people get hurt or get in trouble, we all come together, no questions asked. There’s something special about this place that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
The photographer smiled and toyed with the exhibit’s guest book.
“One special thing that sticks out in my head: when a boat would come in and they’d throw me the rope,” she continued. “And I’d get it around the piling. And then I knew they were home safe, you know? ‘Welcome home!’”
She glanced up, fighting off tears. “That’s one of the most special things, when I’d see them come into harbor, day or night. And I’d be ready for them.”
Photographer Wendi Blair’s exhibition, “A Tribute to All Fishermen,” will remain on view through the end of September at the Montauk Library. For more information, call 668-3377 or visit montauklibrary.org.