Step into the walk-in fridge at the world headquarters of Barren Island Oysters—a single-story concrete shack on Hoopers Island—and owner and founder Tim Devine’s goal of growing the best oysters in the world doesn’t seem so far-fetched. In fact, it seems like he might be onto something. On three sides of the arctic-air cupboard, oysters are stacked head high, and their smell suggests the essence of the bay—the cold, clean heart of the Chesapeake.
Devine—a lean, tan, 40-year-old, wearing for-the-moment-clean waders and boots—also seems born of the Chesapeake’s brackish waters, like some hack writer’s dream of the ideal waterman. He grew up in nearby Easton; he sailed on the Chesapeake Bay as a kid; and he walks with the carriage of a man who knows he belongs here. But the road he traveled to oystering was far longer than the 40 miles between Easton and Hoopers Island.
After high school, Devine went off to Georgetown University, from which he graduated in 2001 with a degree in classics. But as his final semester there wound down, he asked himself a very important question: “What the hell am I going to do with my degree?” In that final semester, he took a photography class and decided to run with it. So he left D.C. for New York, where he showed up at the studio of famed Time portrait photographer Gregory Heisler, then basically hung around until Heisler had no choice but to give him an apprenticeship.
“It was a great way to spend my 20s,” remembers Devine, who set a rigorously direct course through the competitive world of New York photography. He spent years apprenticing with various rock-star photographers, developing his technique, his eye, and his network. When it came time to strike out on his own, Devine’s first assignment was a Wyclef Jean cover shoot for Keyboard magazine. Soon he was shooting for Time, People, New York magazine, and Sports Illustrated. In 2006, American Photo lauded him as part of the “next generation of great American photographers.”
“He creates these really cinematic portraits,” says Jim Surber, deputy photo editor at ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Surber would often assign Devine tough shoots with lots of moving parts.
“People want to pose and smile. Tim doesn’t want any of that,” Surber says. “He wants them jumping off a diving board and lighting a fire. Humanity is a goofy thing, Tim likes to control all that chaos and get to the story that’s underneath.”
It’s true. Survey Devine’s work and a pattern emerges of pedestrian scenes shattered by a bolt of chaos: eight people lazing artfully about a pool, save the one flailing man plummeting toward the water; a bored suburban family beginning its morning in a kitchen overrun by dogs as the father carries in a large golden retriever; an awkward boy in a movie theater, failing to put his arm around his disapproving date while, two rows back, a couple makes out in a way sure to earn them an NC-17 rating.
The key to Devine’s work is his unerring ability to command all of the variables, but eventually he realized he was losing control of himself. His work had taken over, manipulating him the very way he orchestrated his shots. It was an uncomfortable realization and, just as he was struggling to come to grips with it, his wife asked for a divorce. For perhaps the first time in his adult life, Tim Devine found himself adrift.
“I suddenly realized I’d been an asshole,” Devine says candidly. “I was burnt out on New York. I was burnt out on photography. I was putting all this work into this narcissistic pursuit—taking pictures. It was all about my ideas.” Instead, he says, he “wanted to work with my hands . . . to build something.” After photographing a pig farm in upstate New York, he began to think about pig farming. But that didn’t feel quite right. Then, on a trip home, lightning struck. “I was visiting my parents and I read this story about oyster farming in The Star Democrat. If other people were doing it, well, I could, too.”
Devine especially liked that oyster farming would help the bay. Oysters are a keystone species for the Chesapeake. They’re filter-feeders and reef-builders that clean the water and provide habitat for other species. Sure, there were lots of logistics to work out, but it was an idea swimming in romance. In that moment, Devine became an oyster farmer.
When he showed up on Hoopers Island in 2011, the locals were understandably skeptical, and Devine knew he had a lot to learn. Oyster farming is a relatively new form of aquaculture for the Chesapeake—Devine’s farm was one of the first 13 in Maryland—and each farm is radically different from the next. Oysters can be grown on existing wild oyster beds; in cages, racks, or bags below the surface of the bay; or in tanks, and each method has its own challenges. Devine couldn’t get much advice out of fellow oyster farmers, who tend to hold onto their secrets like a prospector guards his gold, so he mostly learned through good-old-fashioned trial and error.
“Out here, there’s no such thing as tried-and-true,” he says. “There are great technologies for doing this. But they don’t work everywhere.” For instance, oyster cages from the warm waters of Australia seemed a perfect fit until the bay froze. Another option he considered—river floats that keep the oysters near the surface—work far up tributaries, but on the open Chesapeake, they flounder in the face of big storms. Oyster farmers also have to deal with salinity, turbidity, predators, and weather. They have to navigate the balance of oyster biology and state regulations, maintain fickle machinery, keep a crew, and create an ideal oyster that stands up in a fierce marketplace.
But just as Devine could turn an anarchic photoshoot into oddly ordered beauty, so too has he been able to harness the messiness of Mother Nature into an outstanding oyster.
“Barren Islands, they’re crowd-pleasers—they’ve got ideal size, they’re that perfect medium between salty and sweet,” says Patrick Gruner, executive sous chef at Easton’s Brasserie Brightwell, one of the first restaurants to serve Devine’s Barren Island Oysters. “They’re not that strong, pungent, kick-you-in-the-face oyster, but they stand up to what I’m doing. We do Parmesan oysters, espresso barbecue, fennel orange beurre blanc—strong flavors—but the Barren Islands hold their own. In season, we get great, wild, diver-caught oysters, but I keep Barren Island on the menu year-round.”
If there is a secret to his oysters’ appeal, Devine attributes it to Barren Island itself—180 acres of sinking terra firma just across Tar Bay from Hoopers Island. Devine leases eight acres of bay bottom there and grows his oysters in 3- by 4-foot cages, stacked two cages deep, about 8 feet below the surface. The site was a risky choice, and a surprising one for a self-described control freak like Devine, but it has paid off. “All this sediment,” says Devine, waving out across the waters to the last speck of the fading island, “It’s what’s in my oysters. The island is literally flavoring them. You’re tasting Barren Island.”
Barren Island, the company, is a three-man operation, though it took Devine years to find the right crew. “These guys do the work. I just pose for pictures,” says Devine, standing on the deck of his company’s 40-foot jalopy of a boat, named—appropriately enough—Paul’s Old Boat.
Tony Carpenter drives the boat. He’s a lean, sandy-haired kid in his mid-20s, a lifelong Hoopers Islander with a big smile and a motor mouth that competes with the boat’s twin Yamaha 150s. Adan Landell is his bookend—6-foot-2 if he’s an inch, with arms thick as a bear and a bristle-black beard—who talks about as much as the oysters.
After reaching the Barren Island oyster fields—the Hoopers Island lighthouse set picturesquely on the horizon—Devine and his crew begin hauling in the first pair of stacked cages from the bottom. They dump the oysters into a vat and begin to scrub the thick muck from the cages with hard wire brushes. Pulling up the cages allows them to clean off sediment from the oysters, and tumbling the oysters through the vat separates the weak-shelled from the sturdy-shelled specimens.
Each cage is pulled about three times a year, and Devine is out here nearly every day, year-round. It’s cold work; it’s hot work; it’s filthy work. This year, Devine will plant 3 million oysters on his eight acres of bay bottom. A million of them probably won’t make it to market.
Devine grabs a clean oyster and a wry smile comes to his face. The oyster is the right size, exactly the width of Devine’s hand, with a deep cup and a straight shell. “I’m taking pictures again,” Devine mentions, adding that, for the first time in a long time, he’s happy with them. He no longer builds the perfect image, he says. It finds him.
“These oysters, my oysters? They’re as good as I can get them, and I spend a lot of time trying—more than anybody else. And I’m pretty good at stuff,” Devine says as he pops open the shell cleanly. The meat inside is plump and glistening. The taste is mild, clean, and buttery—the perfect oyster.