News | Pilot documents life along the ship channel in photos
September 01, 2014
By Syd Kearney | Houston Chronicle
Lou Vest had been piloting ships up and down the Houston Ship Channel for about eight years when a thunderstorm changed his routine.
"It was one of those stormy afternoons," the U.S. Naval Academy graduate said. "The stevedores were unloading a ship. There were cranes moving around. All of this work was going on and right in the middle was an ice cream truck. All these big burly stevedores were standing around eating popsicles.
"I thought, 'Oh, man, I should take a picture of that.' "
That moment 20 years ago is when he started bringing a camera to work. Since then, he's documented everyday life and labor along the channel: dolphins swimming alongside huge tankers, shrimp boats trawling for a catch, seamen working on a foggy morning.
The 65-year-old's photographs and recollections are part of an exhibit, "Stories of a Workforce: Celebrating the Centennial of the Houston Ship Channel," that opens Tuesday at the Houston Public Library's Julia Ideson Building.
Although it's 52 miles long and boasts 20 miles of docks, the Houston Ship Channel is "hidden away," Vest said.
"Do you know which is the country's busiest port? It's the Houston Ship Channel. But you'd never know that talking to most Houstonians.
"Most people don't even think of the ship channel," Vest said. "When it comes to the city's biggest industries, people think energy, space and the medical center. Historically, port cities are rich places. The port adds to a city's diversity. It makes it more cosmopolitan."
Pat Jasper, curator of "Stories of a Workforce," agreed with Vest's assessment that the port is all but invisible to most Houstonians. "For as little as people know about the ship channel," Jasper said, "they know even less about the people who run it."
Jasper interviewed more than 50 people, ranging from maritime lawyers to third-generation longshoremen, for her Library of Congress-funded "Working the Port" project.
"I tripped across Lou early on in the project," said Jasper, director of folklife and traditional arts for the Houston Arts Alliance. "He clearly has the bug to document the ship channel. He was quick to say 'I will help you in any way I can.' "
Jasper called the pilots she interviewed "extra smart."
"There's no more challenging a job than piloting a huge ship through the Houston Ship Channel," Jasper said. "(The pilots) must be strategic. They're weighing a lot of variables."
It takes about 5 1/2 hours to navigate the ship channel, Vest said.
"It takes 1/60th of a second to get my shot. A lot of my best shots are just fortunate timing."
Vest began posting his photos online in 2005 on Flickr, where he gained "a bit of a following." Later he was approached by the Arts Alliance to participate in FotoFest.
Although he plans on retiring next year, the 65-year-old won't be hanging up his camera along with his pilot's cap.
He'll continue to photograph his travels. The father of two adult daughters has a second home in his wife's native country, Colombia.
"Being an artist is serious stuff," Vest said. "I know people who make a living as an artist. I'm no artist. I'm a pilot."
"Stories of a Workforce: Celebrating the Centennial of the Houston Ship Channel"
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesdays; and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays though Jan. 31.
Where: Julia Ideson Building, 550 McKinney.
Artist talk: "Eyes of the Port," a lecture and slide show by Lou Vest, will be at 6 p.m. Oct. 15 in the Reading Room of the Julia Ideson Building.
More information: The exhibit is part of "Transported & Renewed," a mix of community-based and contemporary art projects organized by Houston Arts Alliance; haatx.com.