Relaxing on a porch in the Delta town of Locke, James Motlow’s mellow demeanor seems a contrast with his 30 high-stress years as captain of a Blue and Gold ship on San Francisco Bay. I’ve come to ask him about what connects the bay with the Delta, and about his perceptions as both a fine art photographer and a ship’s captain, with so much exposure to sea, sky and elements.
He returned to Locke in 2010, though in some ways he’d never really left, not since moving here in 1971 as a young photographer, one of the few non-Chinese among exclusively Zhongshan dialect speaking neighbors. Aging Chinese workers who had built levees, planted asparagus and pears and sent their children to college on wages of a dollar a day became his subjects. He’s taken their pictures ever since and preserved their stories in books, media and exhibitions, both locally and internationally.
Big skies and expansive landscapes, yes, but it’s wind that he loves. Wind created by Japanese ocean currents slamming into the continental shelf, forcing cold water from depths to meet warm, moist air.
Our conversation wanders from his lifelong connections to Chinese communities to the famous restaurant, Al the Wop’s. From the meaning of WOP, a derogatory term for Italian immigrants “without papers,” to Al’s father, the Italian fisherman who saved Chinese passengers from a shipwreck in the Bay.
In 1979, Motlow moved to San Francisco to pursue an MFA in photography, and rented a tiny room in a multi-storied tenement in Chinatown that included former Red Guards and boat people. He started working as a deckhand for the new Blue & Gold Fleet, where he worked until he retired in 2011.
The challenges of commanding a ship? His first solo voyage: responsible for the safety of 300 college kids on a dark night cruise. Flood tides from the ocean meeting shallower waters from the south Bay, negotiating steep swells and short troughs that punch at a ship sideways. Delicately approaching a pier in high waves, fog and storms.
I ask him about changes to the bay since 1979, and he says that because of environmental laws, creatures have come back, like the harbor porpoises a few years ago, for the first time since World War II. And since he retired, bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales.
Behind his house, we walk to his favorite place, a dead-end finger of Snodgrass Slough. Great blue herons fish gracefully. He points north to Sacramento where we both grew up. He points south where sloughs take you to the Mokelumne and San Joaquin rivers, all the way to the San Francisco Bay in the west. That’s where the wind comes from, wind that cools and makes our hot summer evenings tolerable.
Big skies and expansive landscapes, yes, but it’s wind that he loves. Wind created by Japanese ocean currents slamming into the continental shelf, forcing cold water from depths to meet warm, moist air. Wind propelling fog through the Golden Gate, east across the bay, up Delta waterways and under Delta bridges. All the way to Locke. “Breezes that caress and hold me tight,” he says.