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A Small Look Back: Our Top Photos of 2020


Since its inception in 1930, The Mariners’ Museum and Park has employed photographers to document the institution’s Collection and progression and tell our stories visually. Through the waters, through our shared maritime heritage, we are all connected. Our photographs aim to bring that point home. Amanda and I are lucky to work for an organization that understands that a picture is often worth a thousand words.

Although 2020 has had its share of challenges and obstacles, we have done our best to continue the tradition of visual storytelling. In March, we closed our doors to the public amid the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our staff headed home for two weeks. Two weeks turned into much longer. I believe I speak for both of us when I say that we were elated when we got the green light to return to continue photographing our Collection and various happenings around the Museum.

Now, as we begin looking forward to 2021 with the hope for better days, we want to pause briefly to take a look backward. Our workflows were different this year, but we still captured thousands of photographs. We would love to share with you our top ten favorite images from this year (in no particular order).

You will hear from both myself and Amanda, our Marketing and Events Photographer. Amanda had the unique experience of beginning her career with the Mariners’ a mere couple of weeks before the shutdown. So, without further ado, why don’t you kick us off, Amanda?


Hey, everyone! What a year, huh?

As Brock mentioned, my journey with The Mariners’ Museum and Park begins in mid-February, which is also where I’m starting my story of images to share with you all.

The Mariners’ Museum in snow. Image: Amanda Shields/The Mariners’ Museum and Park

About my third day of work ever at the Museum, Hampton Roads received a couple of inches of snow overnight. And if you’re not from this area, you’ll have to understand, that’s A LOT of snow for us. Luckily, the snow had melted from the roads by morning and left plenty of snow cover on the ground for photos.

As I drove around the front of the building coming into work that morning, I couldn’t help but notice the way the sun was shining through the clouds and reflecting off the snow was magical. It was that moment when it occurred to me that it was quite literally my job to run inside, grab the camera, and take photos in the snow. It just confirmed to me that I was in the right place!


Shot down the barrel of the Dahlgren Gun after boring. Image: Brock Switzer/The Mariners’ Museum and Park

It is hard to remember how much has happened this year. Time has become an immaterial construct, and I struggle to remember what day of the week it is. In February, our conservation department undertook something spectacular and unprecedented. After years of careful planning, building, calculating, and preparing, they were ready to remove concretion from inside the barrels of the two Dahlgren guns recovered from the wreckage of USS Monitor.

I was fortunate to be the photographer documenting the process and watch this historic work up-close and personal. This photo takes a look down the barrel of one of the guns. Different sized, hollow drill bits created the concentric rings. The smaller bits gave the final, spade-shaped bit, something into which to bite. I like this photo because it shows that you can find beauty and artistry places you may not initially think to look.


Modelmaker John Cork building a canoe model. Image: Amanda Shields/The Mariners’ Museum and Park

We have wonderful volunteers here at the Museum, and they are such a wealth of incredible stories. So I’d like to share one of those from one of our talented model makers, John Cork. Here he is working on a Cedar Strip Canoe model. With the Coronavirus looming in the back of everyone’s minds at this point, these would be the last set of images I would take before the galleries closed to the public, and we would all start working remotely.

While John was working, he told me a sweet story about a special guest who showed, as John tells it, “an unbridled curiosity of someone of eight-and-a-half years old.” Addison and her five-year-old brother started visiting the Museum periodically with their grandmother, and during each visit, she’d work on something new. She signs her first name and age on every piece of wood she works on, rightly proud of her art! Then she gets to work sanding, bending, applying the glue, and clamping the wood in place. Addison, now around 11, has been scheduling visits to come back and help build more pieces faithfully. I loved the story behind the photo, and I loved chatting with John. All the while setting up my shots, taking my time, enjoying the moment. It’s such a different feeling from photographing programs and events.

We’re looking forward to when it’s safe to do it all in person once again!


Objects Conservator Paige Schmidt examines a pocket watch through a microscope. Image: Brock Switzer/The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Portraits are hands down my favorite genre of photography. Working with people, getting to know them, and then taking a photo that expresses how I see them is always a treat. It’s one part photography and one part psychology mixed together. Well, then along came a pandemic. Do you know what you can’t do during a pandemic? Photograph other people.

Our conservation Clean-lab recently got an update that will allow our guests to experience the conservation process at our Museum as never before. Our exhibition design team put together an informative display outside the lab as part of the changes. They needed photos of our conservators to help tell the story. Take pictures of real live actual people? Count me in. This is one of my favorite photos because it was one of the very few portraits I’ve shot this year, and I’m a sucker for unorthodox lighting and high contrast.


The Mariners’ Museum through a “Crystal Ball.” Image: Amanda Shields/The Mariners’ Museum and Park

June 2, 2020, marked The Mariners’ Museum and Park’s 90th birthday! I wanted to make some special images for such a big occasion. I adore abstract photography/art, and this was a great excuse to experiment with my “crystal ball.” I had no idea how the images were going to turn out. That’s always a little exciting yet a little scary when it comes to trying new things with your craft. I imagined the crystal ball as a symbol of looking to the future at such a significant milestone in the Museum’s history. I was really excited and pleased with how it turned out. I hope to do some more experimenting with it in the future.


A guest walks with his dog on a snowy Noland Trail in Mariners’ Park. Image: Brock Switzer/The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Not long before we all began quarantine this year, Newport News experienced something that I consider to be all too rare: snow! I’m from western Pennsylvania, originally. I grew up just close enough to Lake Erie to experience significant amounts of lake-effect snow. To say that I love it is an understatement. One of the most challenging parts of moving to Virginia was the lack of what I would call a proper winter.

Typically, once per year, we have a nice snowstorm, and this year I was lucky enough to get to photograph it in our park. I love this photo of someone walking their dog in a winter wonderland. It captures the beauty of our living Collection, wrapped in a blanket of snow. The only thing missing was my dog!


A ghostly figure walks through the dark Ship Model Gallery. Image: Amanda Shields/ The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Once some of the staff was allowed back inside the Museum with some restrictions, I would walk through the quiet, still galleries. Emergency lights cast deep shadows, and I was inspired to start a Behind the Scenes blog series. One of our IT team members walked by as I took photos in the Ship Model Gallery. That simple act was the inspiration for this photo. I chased him down and recruited him to help me get the shot I imagined.

This technique is always trial and error between the amount and placement of the light and the shutter speed. Sometimes there wouldn’t be enough light to see his figure at all. Sometimes there would be too much, and he would seem too solid. It wasn’t as ghostly as I would like. In the end, we achieved the look we were after, and we had some fun with it.


Silver Fruit Bowl from the Steamer Senator. Image: Brock Switzer/The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1941.0113.000001

If you’ve read my blog, An Ode to Silver, then you know that silver and I have, well, a rocky relationship. Silver is beautiful, but, boy, is it ever hard to photograph. Between the mirror-like surface reflecting everything into the lens and the specular highlights that create those little star-shaped lens flares, it can be an absolute nightmare. Not to mention when it’s this angular and sends reflections shooting off in all directions.

A mere couple of weeks into my return, this beauty graced my studio. There was a pretty substantial amount of time thinking, “ok…silver…right. I know how to photograph silver, don’t I?” Well, it turns out, I do. Many scrims and lots of trial and error later, and I got an image of which I’m pretty proud. This is one of my favorites of 2020 because it reminds me that I haven’t lost my touch.


Two Wreathed Lions on Lions Bridge. Image: Amanda Shields/The Mariners’ Museum and Park

The holidays look a bit different this year for everyone. It wasn’t any different for us here at The Mariners’ Museum. The Wreathing of the Lions is traditionally a massive, annual community event with games, face-painting, and lots of other activities for kids and adults. For obvious reasons, a large festival couldn’t happen this year.

“Quaint” would be the term I’d use to describe this year’s Wreathing of the Lions. Only a few members of our Bronze Door Society’s Steering Council and a small skeleton crew of staff members were there. This was my first Christmas on the Mariners’ team and, therefore, my first Lion Wreathing. The “quaintness” didn’t make it any less memorable for me! I was excited to capture our Lions getting all decked out for the holidays!

As with my other images, I try to use my interest in the abstract to find new ways to “see” things. That was my goal with this image of both our Lions all dressed up. I mean, how many different ways can one photograph a single statue or building, right? So I see it as my job to discover new ways to photograph them, tell a different story, or, sometimes, simply make a pretty picture!


Red Ship’s Light. Image: Brock Switzer/ The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1935.1462.000001

My job is mainly technical photography. I need to do certain things to ensure that my images meet set digitization standards when photographing objects. The images that I capture of our collections aren’t just pretty pictures. They serve as digital surrogates to the original piece, which means that people have access to information from anywhere in the world. It also helps us to protect and conserve these items by being able to limit their physical contact.

However, once I’ve satisfied those standards, I get to play. I get to flex my creative muscles. This is not just one of my favorite 2020 images; it’s one of my favorite photos ever. I wanted this red lantern to look lit. It took some serious experimentation. However, when I finally got that red glow in the shadows? Thrilled!


It’s been an eventful year, to say the least, and there’s no plan on slowing down. I’m grateful to work for an organization still involved in serving and educating the community. The Mariners’ Museum creates an environment where team members can explore, experiment, and run their creative projects.

Having a mentor, friend, and partner-in-crime like Brock to help guide me through the waters of museum life, especially when most of it has been remote, has been invaluable. 2020 came with many ups and downs, but as photographers, we are here to create, document, and help tell all the stories at The Mariners’ Museum and Park!

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