21. September 2018

The underwater world is fascinating. Always has been. At the earliest times, people wanted to know what was to be found beneath the dazzling surface of seas, rivers and lakes. Not only because there was plenty of food. Only a few centimetres away from the usual world of experience, a completely new cosmos seemed to reveal itself: alien-like living beings, unusual silence and the feeling of a kind of zero-gravity that could not be found anywhere else.

History of Underwater Photography

The mystery of water was all the more mysterious as human sensory perceptions of underwater functions are very limited. Water feels different from air. Sound is also perceived more attenuated and undifferentiated. But – and this brings us to photography at last – the human eye is, above all, barely prepared to see anything in the water. How big a surprise must have been when the first people were able to get an impression of the wet natural wonders that had developed over millions of years and remained hidden from mankind for so long with the help of slit glasses and other primitive visual aids.

Underwater photographers are not only concerned with marine nature. Often they deal with the influences of the human being.

The coincidence of history is that the development of photography fell almost simultaneously with the emergence of the first diving equipment. The first underwater photography was not long in coming. Already in 1846 it was picked up in Weymouth, UK in 3 threads (approx. 5.5 m) depth by William Thompson (1822 – 1879). The camera was not much more than a hole-punching device in a waterproof box that had been lowered to the bottom of the sea. The photographer stayed dry on a boat.

Louis Boutan and Joseph David invented the first portable housing for divers (at that time still helmet divers) in the summer of 1893 in the French city of Banyuls-sur-Mer. Even today, the Association of German Recreational Divers (VDST) still calls its photo and video competitions “Camera Louis Boutan”, thus honouring him as the inventor of underwater photography – albeit historically not quite correct.

The pioneers of diving are still being honoured all over the world. So is Jaques Yves Cousteau in La Paz, Mexico. Not coincidentally it is shown here with an underwater camera.

Underwater photography has made enormous progress since the invention of the Aqualunge by French naval officer Jaques Yves Cousteau and his partner Émile Gagnan. Suddenly the diver became mobile underwater. Cousteau was obsessed from the first moment of his diving life not only to tell his fellow men about his underwater experiences, but also to show them as much as possible.

It was obvious that the passionate inventor would develop an apparatus with which he could not only package his cameras waterproof, but also operate and transport them underwater. The success, especially, but not only in moving pictures, should prove him right. His films attracted almost as many viewers to the cinemas and in front of the TVs as the reports on space travel.

I own a small collection of old books and illustrated books by Cousteau and other underwater photographers of the first years. It is always astonishing for me to see the excellent results that the pioneers have already achieved. The technical challenges at that time were all the more complicated than we can imagine with our digital technology today.

Nevertheless, Cousteau, Hans Haas and many others managed to develop underwater photography far beyond a purely documentary aspect. Already in the 1950s and 1960s, aesthetic demands were clearly discernible and photography developed into an independent form of culture and art in the water. Also, the marketing discovered underwater motifs for their purposes. So it happened that the first freelance photographers could soon make a living from their work. The ability to photographically document what has been seen has also become an important part of the discovering sciences.

Future of Underwater Photography

The digital revolution of photography in the early 1980s revolutionized underwater photography at an almost breathtaking speed. In a way, it became suitable for the masses. Manufacturers of waterproof enclosures produced an ever-increasing number of units. Even large, international camera manufacturers are discovering the diving photographers as a small, but constantly growing market. It didn’t take long for the big diving organisations to set up their own departments for underwater photography. In some countries, groups and clubs settled in sports associations, while in others they saw themselves as freelance artists or journalists.  At the same time, demand for high-quality images from the oceans and rivers for magazines, advertising and media increased.

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