Al Laudert is known as the shrimp whisperer.
Rather than relying on human models as characters in his art, Al wrangles the brightly colored crustaceans into posing in fanciful photos for his otherworldly works.
One of the first shrimp pictures he took was of a spot prawn flying a miniature airplane in the mountain fog of Valdez, Alaska. To set it up, he strung a monofilament fishing line from his upstairs deck to a ladder on his lower deck to suspend a wooden children’s airplane his wife found at a yard sale. The black-eyed, orange-shelled pilot sat in the little cockpit—yes, it was alive—antenna cascading down the wing. Appearing to fly through the air on a steep descent, the shrimp looked only slightly like a fish out of water.
“It’s all about getting the right vehicle and the shrimp with the right personality to carry the shot,” Al says.
The shrimp in Al’s photos do all kinds of crazy stunts. They drive cars, mush dogs, ski and play pool. They fight with Godzilla and ride horses with cowboys.
These imaginative pieces have made Al something of a local celebrity in Valdez, where his work draws crowds.
While he maintains a whimsical attitude toward his art, Al makes a swift business selling calendars and cards at events, online and in gift shops across Alaska’s southern coast.
For the retired electrician, this “Alaskana fantasy” photography is really just an extension of his favorite hobby: hopping in his 21-foot sportfishing boat and cruising around the Port Valdez area checking his shrimp pots.
“You never know what you’re going to get when that pot breaks the surface,” he says. “Sometimes you have a Dungeness crab laying on top. In some areas, there can be an octopus on almost every set.”
Of all the creatures Al finds out there, shrimp most fascinate him. He says part of the allure is the eyes—fluorescent orange orbs that turn black when they hit the sunlight. But he also sees emotion.
“When I look my shrimp in the eyes, I see more than staged models,” Al says. “They are active participants in all their antics, which is what I try to capture in every shot.”
Of course, Al has to find the right shrimp for the role, which means—wait for it—auditions on the boat. The most photogenic and most “excited to participate” get the part.
Al knows it sounds strange to some, and his art generates various reactions. When he displays his large metal prints at art fairs and bazaars, some people laugh and buy a half-dozen calendars, while others take a wide berth around his booth and carefully avoid eye contact.
He says he will never forget one woman at the Girdwood Forest Fair who walked past, stopped, then came back and plucked up a calendar. After flipping through the entire thing, she looked up at him and said, “You know, you’re a sick individual.”
They then shared a good laugh.
For Al, that is what it’s all about: making people smile.
Although Al never planned to become a shrimp photographer, there were a few early signs. As a kid in Minnesota, he loved drawing and illustrating.
He admits he used to draw “disrespectful cartoons” of his younger brother and sister.
“I always looked at life as being animated,” he says.
In 1975, he came north to visit his father in Alaska. By the time he got off the ferry in Sitka, he knew he couldn’t leave.
Oil was starting to flow through the shiny new pipeline, and Alaska’s economy was booming. Al got a construction job in Southeast Alaska, and was blown away by his first paycheck.
He later landed a spot in the electricians’ apprenticeship program. He worked in the trade for decades, finishing his career with 12 years at Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
One of the perks of the job was it allowed him to live in Valdez. In addition to being the terminal for the pipeline, it teems with mountains, waterfalls and sea life.
Al spent his free time on the water, discovering all kinds of critters he had never seen in Minnesota. But within an hour and a half, the shrimp were packed away in his freezer. Yes, he eats them, too.
His time with live shrimp was too short. He wanted more. Taking pictures allows him to stretch out the experience and share it with more people.
Al’s wife, daughters and granddaughters help him plan and execute his shoots. Props come from family, friends and fans across the country.
One of his biggest fans lives down the street, in Valdez. Eleven-year-old Kaden Van Buskirt has more shrimp on his bedroom wall than a cast net during low tide. He has pictures of them piloting a tugboat, being eaten by a shark and heli-skiing on Thompson Pass.
He started collecting them when he was 7.
“I think they’re cool because of all the toys he uses, and the background is all Alaska stuff,” Kaden says.
At the Christmas bazaar every year, Kaden runs straight to Al’s booth and buys a photo with his own money.
This summer, Kaden will get a behind-the-scenes look at shrimp whispering when he helps Al with a shoot. Al looks forward to it, too. What little kid doesn’t like to play with critters and toys?