In 1986, Edwin Remsberg, a former Baltimore Sun photographer, was assigned to photograph the Holly Run to Tangier Island, Va. — a small island in the Chesapeake Bay, only accessible by boat or plane, a little more than one square mile, with a population of just over 700.
Now here I was, Edwin’s former intern, doing the same assignment 29 years later with him as my pilot. (Read on below)
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of heights, yet there I was climbing into a single-engine airplane to fly over the Bay to the island. The cabin of the white and red-striped plane was smaller than the inside of my subcompact car; it had just enough room for two (of average size).
I had two cameras with me, equipped with 16-35mm and 100-400mm lenses. There was no room for a camera bag. We popped out the back windows of the airplane so I could have more room to photograph the aerial views of the islands during the flight. For the next hour I was strapped into a red seat with wind swirling around me.
The flight was a lot smoother than I expected. That fear of heights simmered as I focused on not letting my extended 400mm lens get ripped out of my mitten-clad hands. Imagining the splash of the camera into the green tides below was enough to make any photographer forget about their fear of heights.
This was not the same Chesapeake Bay I had been familiar with all my life, but a new one — one that showed a mixed palette of sea greens, blues and grays. I could see the rock formations, patterns and the curl of the rivers through the marshlands. From the sky, everything looked intentionally placed. Miles above land, my photographs resembled an active petri dish or some type of abstract art — far from the same roads and marshlands I traveled with my parents to vacation as a child.
Tracking down Edwin’s original negatives of the aerial views from 1986 required a bit of detective work but they were eventually found thanks to Sun librarian Paul McCardell and the librarians at UMBC, who keep the archives of Sun negatives. They were scanned over to me just in time.
It was a challenge matching my images with Edwin’s originals; rising sea levels can really do a number on land formations in almost 30 years. The side-by-side comparisons really put into perspective how much change can occur in such a short about of time.
Forty-eight years ago, the rising sea levels on Tangier Island halted any growth of traditional holiday evergreens. The Holly Run, started by Eastern Shore pilot Ed Nabb Sr. in 1967, has been delivering holly and supplies to residents for the past 47 years. This year, the mission was to bring school supplies to the Tangier Combined School. Residents aren’t able to just run out to the store, so the Holly Run is a welcome relief to receive items that are in short supply and high demand.
The island seems a place that would only exist in movies and books. There are no drug stores, department stores, hospitals or even traffic lights. There’s one ATM. Their economy is driven by crabbing, oystering and the various Air BnBs that lodge tourists over the summertime.
There was one landing strip on the edge of the island where pilots took turns landing. Residents of the island — warm and friendly — greet pilots on golf carts. The carts are a primary mode of transportation, along with bikes and mopeds, as many of the wooden bridges on the island are not able to handle the width and weight of cars and trucks.
While the island may be small, it wasn’t hard to find subjects to photograph. Many of the buildings are painted with bright colors, and gift shops and restaurants have vibrant hand-lettered signs. The sign for Lorraine’s, a popular restaurant, is painted bright white against a teal background.
Colorful bikes contrasted the grey gravel. Bright yellow crabbing cages popped against the blue sky. Pastel signs giving brief historical facts dotted the island.
A short church service was performed, as it is every year, following the Holly Run. The pastor spoke of memories as a small boy, of his first time receiving a gift of want over need for Christmas. It was a miniature farm set from the Sears Roebuck Wish Book, which cost $9.95 — a steep price back then.
The flight back was smooth. The sun was setting behind the plane, illuminating the wheat fields, giving dimension to the landscape with shadow and light. The air was cold and damp, much like it was on the island we had just departed.
If I learned anything that day it was to have appreciation for all of the things I take for granted, because for some, a simple bough of holly isn’t so simple.