Jonathan Atkin Creates a Maritime Legacy with The Hero Project

December 2, 2013

By Barbara Goldman

© Jonathan Atkin

 Desmond Richardson on the SS United States.

Captain Jonathan Atkin shoots ships. Atkin is a seasoned maritime photographer who started his career at the age of 19, when he sailed as an ordinary seaman, aboard an American flagged Zim ship carrying PL 480 #2 wheat from Galveston to Haifa and back. Since that time, he has produced worldwide aerial and ship-to-ship photo assignments for and about cruise lines, cargo ship operators, and a variety of work boat operators including towing companies, barge  and dredge companies, cable laying companies and the military. He has done hundreds of  meticulously planned travel, arts, rollerblading and dance assignments for The New York Times Arts  & Leisure and Travel sections, as well as dozens of shoots for Smithsonian, Exxon USA, National Geographic’s World and Scholastic. It is his maritime photography that holds a special place for him and captures his love of the sea, the ships and the brave men and women who sail them.  Clients love the grace with which he photographs these massive ships as remarked by Joe Stancic, Systems Coordinator of Intercontinental, who recently purchased a license for one of his aerial photos, “I’ve complimented you on your work in the past but I wanted to specifically share how moving your photos are… For me, it’s not the image alone that is impressive, it’s where the image takes our imagination and your photos are extremely captivating in that regard.”

Atkin’s in-depth knowledge of the local ports of  New York, New Jersey and other east coast, gulf and west coast ports, along with his impressive USCG Master’s License put him in demand for photo assignments with clients who can be assured of security clearance and the best and safest levels of maritime practices. He also carries the Transportation Security Administration’s newest port security certification, TWIC ID card, plus all types of safety gear that includes: Personal Flotation Devices (PDF), a full body Mustang survival suit, hard hat, marine radio, and when flying, a HEED canister with emergency air. Most of his photos are taken from a helicopter, and he actively takes helicopter flying lessons and studies the flying characteristics of the prevalent helicopter types in order to best communicate with pilots how to safely track moving vessels.

Atkin’s first priority is the safety of ship and crew. He communicates and liaisons with all regulatory agencies and harbor safety organizations before any shoot, checks the course of the vessel, weather and any traffic that could obstruct his visual line.  He has to know how to engage the “situational awareness” concepts of the U. S. Coast Guard to alert all traffic of any impending low-level aerial photo activity.  As Robert Pouch, Deputy Commander/New York Naval Militia/New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs says, “Jonathan is the Ansel Adams of maritime photography.”

© Jonathan Atkin/ McAllister towing the Intrepid from Manhattan to Bayonne.

In addition to his numerous maritime assignments, Atkin is a strong advocate for the preservation of many of our neglected historic ships.  He has found a surprising and very unique way to promote two of his great passions. This seafaring photographer who can be challenged by extremely rigorous photo shoots also has a background in dance, which makes sense when you think of the kind of precarious footings he has to do to get a shot. Atkin’s  mother was a student of Martha Graham, at Bennington College when it was the epicenter of the shining lights of modern dance, including Graham, Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey and Hanya Holm. She later taught the first modern dance classes at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Those dance genes are hard wired into  his body and soul.

Subsequently  Atkin has produced photography for and about dozens of dance companies including Alvin Ailey, Dance Theater of Harlem, Eleo Pomare, Garth Fagan, Philadelphia Dance Company, Erik Hawkins, Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown. He is now working to bring the world of dance and maritime legacy together with The Hero Project.  The Hero Project features some of the most talented and world-renowned dancers coming together and doing  incredible moves aboard some of our most historic ships — a marriage of strength, courage and beauty to bring awareness to a personal endeavor.

World-class dancer and former star of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, Desmond Richardson, has provided his talents, insight and perceptions with total support to the project on board the SS United States. Richardson is now the co-founder and co-artistic director of the cutting-edge Complexions Contemporary Ballet Company.  He has found time between gigs in Vienna, Tel Aviv and Los Angeles to go to the port of Philadelphia, where he jumped, caressed and brought his statuesque movement  to the top of the forbidding crow’s nest, as well as on the decks of the great ship SS United States. Warren P. Miller, former Philadelphia Dance Company star also gave time to assist with the shoot.

Atkin got access through the good offices of the New York Maritime Association (NYMAR) and thence to Susan Gibbs, Director of the SS United States Conservancy, who happens to be the granddaughter of the man who designed the ship. Atkin has photographed four other historic ships with the cooperation and welcome appreciation of Carolina Salguero, of the, Mary Habstritt of the, the in Bremerton, Washington, Capt. Jonathan Boulware, Director of South Street Seaport and many more.  He has several ships waiting in the wings that will become part of the project once the weather warms up, including the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, the Olympia in Philadelphia and, the SS Columbia in Detroit. 

© Jonathan Atkin/ Desmond Richardson on the SS United States.

He plans to promote the Hero Project with print sales to defray costs and hopes to earn enough to be able to pay dancers for their participation. He also plans to contact various traditional and non-traditional exhibition venues such as hotels and office buildings, dance companies, theaters and arts events that might be interested in exhibiting the work.

When Atkin is not photographing ships or dancers, he can be found working with the steering committee of New York’s Working Harbor Committee to promote access and knowledge of the harbor, participating in the USCG Harbor Ops meetings and speaking out in support of historic ships.  He also is a contributing  writer and photographer to various maritime publications.

You can see more of Jonathan Atkin’s historic ships and the extraordinary grace and footwork on their decks at The Hero Project and more of his commercial maritime and and aerial work at

© Jonathan Atkin/ Peggy Choy,  Ze Motion and Spydey on Tall Ship Peking