Oystering and Ossabaw

Oystering: A Way of Life

After the Rain, by Jack Leigh ©After the Rain, by Jack Leigh ©

REMEMBER as a child seeing the oysterman depart in his long wooden boat, pushing off 
into the distant waters. I felt him to be a special presence, a mysterious spirit who knew 
secrets I had yet to dream. He would disappear into the fog and light of the river,
 drawing my wonder and imagination with him.
The river seemed his place, and I longed for a chance to go with him: to breathe the 
salt air as he breathed it, to visit such places that would yield what I knew to be great 
treasures. And what of this bounty he would bring back – his boat so full that water 
lapped over the sides? Oysters came then to embody a great secret – the secret of the 
salt, the secret of the river, and home. The image of the oysterman made an enduring 
impression, bringing me back years later for that chance to go with him – to go in 
search of the hidden treasure.

THE EBB AND FLOW of centuries have shaped and reshaped life upon the 
coastal wetlands of South Carolina, giving vent to a unique and sustaining 
character, a character born of a balance and an understanding that only what 
is needed is taken. The human lifestyles that have evolved in the tidelands 
have been rooted in this knowledge of give and take: that nature will provide, 
and provide abundantly – if cared for and nurtured. In keeping, the human 
beings who have acted on this provision have long cultivated this delicate 
balance, this natural communion.

OYSTERING, as it is now practiced on the rivers and islands of South Carolina’s 
low country, is done in virtually the same manner as it was practiced by the
 first settlers who carved dugouts from the huge cypress logs and gathered the
 oysters by hand. The oysterman’s boat is a rough-hewn, flat-bottomed vessel 
known as a bateau. Rugged and river-worthy, these boats, with their long,
 wide shape, fit perfectly the nature of their function: to receive enormous 
loads of oysters. They must be loaded with skill and precision; an improperly 
balanced boat might tip and sink in the choppy water of the incoming tide.
Oysters are gathered seasonally in what is customarily known as the “R”
months – September to April. Each fall the bateaux are pulled from beneath
 the oaks where they have rested during the hot months, and pushed into the 
cooling waters by men who watched their fathers and grandfathers take to the
 river in search of oysters. It is a tradition of pride and hard work, and a tradition 
cloaked in secrecy. A lone oysterman searches not just for any oyster, but
 for the best oyster, and in places known only to him. Most oystermen oar alone, the only sound being the cast-iron claw-tongs crunching into the oysters 
and the thud as the oysters are slung in one graceful movement into the 
bateau. “The salt air brings me back in the fall,” one man says. “The river is in 
my blood.”

INSIDE THE WALLS of the shucking house music resounds – a music that has 
been created by generations of proud women as the shells are cracked open
 and the oysters removed by sure hands. The women have engendered their 
own working tradition from the river, in harmony with the tide and their 
men. On the high water, as the oystermen return in their loaded bateaux, the 
women gather outside the small, whitewashed cinder-block structures at the
 river’s edge. Expectant gulls send shrieks through the cold, salt-cured air.
 Around the shucking house, bleached shell mounds give testimony to the
 fervid activity that is soon to begin.
The tools are simple – a small, strong-tempered knife an a wooden-handled 
hammer grooved to each hand. Shovel-loads of oysters are heaved 
onto long cement tables. The women take their places as the mounds grow in 
front of them. Gleaming steel pails are secured among the mound, and the 
music begins in a slow, rhythmic pounding, building to a crescendo of hammers 
and shells.

IN THE COOL SHADE beneath the dry-docked wooden tug, an oysterman digs 
out the inevitable decay of years upon the salt water. Long strands of
 oakum are hammered firmly in place, giving renewed life to an old friend.
 Soon the tug will pull a string of bateaux behind it and push a lengthy barge in 
front. The captain pilots the barge by an instinctive and intimate knowledge of 
the sinuous creeks leading to the more remote oyster beds. The crew who
 oar from the barge scull their bateaux along the oyster beds, working the 
low tide and eating and sleeping at high tide. For days at a time the cycle is
 repeated: eat and sleep on the high tide, gather oysters on the low tide, until
 the arduous task of loading the barge is complete and the men head home.

THE STEAM FACTORY looks as if it crawled out of the river. Rust is pervasive; 
the factory is an ancient behemoth constantly breaking down. Huge, belching
 cauldrons are tended by spectral figures consumed in hissing steam. The oysters 
are ingested and are popped out of shells in the fiery bowels of this tired 
and gasping creature. The steam is all-engulfing, and the permeating smell 
must be that of the South itself.

THE OYSTERMAN, the tradition of oystering, the man on the river whose image 
I had carried so long within me, is nearing an end in my time. Island life, 
once reserved to itself, is changing rapidly. Most of the men working the 
rivers are old. Their sons and grandsons have left the islands. As a photographer 
I felt beckoned by an urgency. I knew I must photograph now, before it is 
too late.
I spent two seasons on the creeks and rivers, photographing men and 
women working to the rhythm of the tides rather than the clock. There was
 one morning that I remember best of all. My boat was packed with supplies 
and cameras. It was still, before the light, and the fog was thick and dreamlike.
 I had been leaving each morning from a place called Mink’s Point and had
 been following one man who worked the mud-flat oyster beds. He had left a 
few minutes earlier, and soon the sound of his boat moving through the water 
became muffled, without direction. I followed in my small boat, hoping for a 
glimpse, a coherent sound, but I was pulled deeper into the fog. A primeval
 quiet surrounded me. I felt the eternal power of the river, and sensed how 
close I was to dissolving into that timeless mist.
 A vague marsh line appeared and I headed there. As I moved closer, an 
oblique, lone figure materialized upon the mud-flat, his bateau beside him.
 He worked peacefully. I made my way to him, running aground many times 
until I found water deep enough to go through. When I finally got to the edge
 of the mud-flat, I got out of my boat, anchored it, and began my unsteady,
 half-buried walk toward him. He continued to work, as he had for all his life. I
 felt then I was walking toward the heart of this life: toward the man who
 possessed an untellable secret, deeply at home in himself and his own way of 

Jack Leigh

Ossabaw Island: October 2002

Birds and Tidal Marsh, by Jack Leigh ©After the Rain, by Jack Leigh ©

have just spent a final ten days photographing on Ossabaw Island. This last visit brought to conclusion a year and a half of work on one of Georgia’s most primitive islands.

What started out as weekend visits to the island early last year with my friend Alan Campbell, a painter from Athens, Georgia, evolved into a project of mutual inspiration as each trip to the island revealed new insights and discoveries.

For me, it was the first time in my career that I have ever worked on a project with another artist. I have always gone alone into my different areas of work, be it landscape or portraiture. The project on Ossabaw was a revelation as Alan and I would most often go our own separate ways, but the mutual excitement we felt for this magical place fed our respective creative juices. The experience of being on this island and working with another artist became richer and more rewarding than I would have ever imagined.

It was also refreshing to remember the need and necessity of what I would call pure photographic time. From before dawn each day and into the falling darkness that night, I would be in pursuit of images. No phones ringing at the studio, children’s carpools, grocery shopping, impending bills that needed to be paid – I had left the real world behind on the mainland and traveled by boat an hour away into another state of being.

In planning my days around pure photographic time, I was reminded of how rare this kind of time is. Even in the very busy life of being a professional photographer – running a gallery, getting prints ready for shows, several long days a week in the darkroom, being involved with children’s photography programs at two institutions in Savannah, publication deadlines, and a lecture schedule – the concept of pure photography time often hovers in your consciousness like a distant mist. But I had planned for months to be able to spend these ten days in October on Ossabaw Island, and I was ready to take advantage of this opportunity.

I would sketch in a daily shooting schedule: certain places at certain times, at certain tides, secure my multiple cans of bug spray and head out into this island that has been lost in time. Ossabaw Island is more or less as it has been throughout its history: a tangle of ancient oak trees, salt marshes, swamps, tidal creeks, rivers and endless beaches strewn with boneyards of sun bleached trees felled by the relentless tides.

Changes in light, changes in wind, changes in atmosphere kept transforming the place by the hour. I would often return to the same location throughout my stay to see something completely different and alluring. As my mind and spirit adjusted to the rhythm of the island, my photographic eyes responded. I was able to see ever more subtle nuances of the island that just can’t be seen until you are able to let go.

I’m off the island now, back to my real world, but I’m not the same person. My time on Ossabaw has renewed me, both as a photographer and as a human being.

Jack Leigh


Jack Leigh began his work in photography in 1972 following formal studies at the University of Georgia. He later studied with George Tice, Eva Rubinstein, and Jill Freedman. From the beginning of his career his objective was to seek out and record the people, environments, and rapidly passing lifestyles of his native region – the American South.

Leigh’s award-winning photographs are in numerous private and corporate collections. His work has appeared in museums and gallery exhibitions, magazines and newspapers across the country and abroad. He was the author of six highly acclaimed books of photography – Oystering: A Way of Life; The Ogeechee: A River and It’s People; Nets & Doors: Shrimping In Southern Waters; Seaport: A Waterfront At Work; The Land I’m Bound To, and Ossabaw: Evocations of an Island (a collaboration with painter Alan Campbell and author James Kilgo).

Jack Leigh passed away in May of 2004 after a battle with colon cancer. His spirit will forever reside in the work he left behind.

Please visit Jack Leigh’s website at http://jackleigh.com.