Has photography fueled our obsession with what lies beneath the waves?

The underwater world was almost entirely unknown to the public in the 19th century. Once filmmakers developed the technology to film beneath the ocean’s surface, beginning with Williamson’s Photosphere launched in 1914, they discovered immense potential but also challenge. While the filmmakers could shape the underwater imagery to their visions, at the same time they had to work to convince the audience that it was indeed the underwater environment, a challenge all the greater because the environment was inaccessible to the general public during the first decades of scuba diving. filming. Recreational diving would only develop with the advent of scuba diving after World War II.

Amid the pervasive public hydrophobia of the 19th century, intrepid adventurers explored the world below the surface of the ocean. Baron Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez, an Austrian naturalist, became captivated by the beauty of tropical corals in the 1860s. Ransonnet published two travel diaries with the first detailed descriptions, as well as the first visual images, based on observation extended and first-hand in the Western tradition.

For Voyages from Cairo to Tor to the Coral Reefs (Reise von Kairo nach Tor zu den Korallenbänken) (1863), Ransonnet was snorkeling. Even with his limited time underneath, he noted the underwater brightness and color behavior: “How strange things appear underwater! Although one cannot exactly distinguish the outlines in the abyss, yet everything shines with a beautiful and strange illumination! Brown, purple, orange, yellow and blue light all shine towards the diver.

In the years since this account was published, Ransonnet designed a custom diving bell with a window so he could draw below. He used this diving bell for his voyage to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and included both verbal descriptions and engravings in Sketches of the inhabitants, animal life and vegetation in the lowlands and high mountains of Ceylon (1867). There, for example, Ransonnet again observed the details of impaired visual perception below. “Strange seemed the light effects out there in the sea, so I paid special attention to it. Blue-green is the basic hue of the underwater landscape and especially of all bright objects, while dark ones, for example blackish rocks and corals, and distant shadows, seem to be enveloped in a monotone brown, which is in a complementary relationship with the color of the water. .” Despite these novel observations, this work “remarkably. . . did not attract much attention at the time.

From the little information in the secondary literature, it seems that scientific and public interest in underwater reality began to crystallize in the 1880s-1890s. During this period, historian of scientific diving and underwater photography Hermann Heberlein names several notable scientists who turned to underwater optics. The most famous was the biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel, who was familiar with Ransonnet’s depictions. In Nature, Haeckel published an article where he lamented his lack of access to such a diving bell. Nevertheless, he commented that by training his eyes to stay open, he could observe “the mystical green light in which the undersea world was bathed, so different from the pink light of the upper air. The shapes and movements of the swarms of animals populating the coral banks were doubly curious and interesting to behold.

Marine biologist Hermann Fol, a student of Haeckel, realized that such conditions deserved attention on their own. In an 1890 article, based on his Mediterranean diving experience, Fol described underwater optics and related it to two practical purposes: underwater navigation and underwater photography. While the shallow depth of field thwarted the view for navigating underwater ships, Fol was optimistic about underwater photography. He noted the loss of red light and surmised that the longest lasting blue rays are, in Fol’s estimation, “the rays which act with the greatest energy on the photographic plate”. Fol also noted the altered underwater color spectrum, the effect on visibility of different angles of the sun, and the varying turbidity of water in different areas. (His comments about poor underwater visibility also left him wondering if the fish were short-sighted: “What good would distance vision be, because they could only see a few feet anyway?”)

In 1890, when Fol published his observations, an experiment to develop reliable processes for underwater photography was underway. French marine biologist Louis Boutan is credited by photography historians with the first clear and reliable underwater photography. In 1900, Boutan explained his method in detail in the book Underwater Photography and Advances in Photography. Boutan’s forerunners included William Thompson, who took an exhibit in Weymouth Bay in February 1856, as well as the German submarine inventor Wilhelm Bauer and the previously mentioned Frenchman Bazin who improved the diving chamber.

Slides of Boutan’s photos were shown at the great Paris World’s Fair of 1900. At this time, curiosity, if not knowledge, of underwater conditions was growing among the general public. People were fascinated by the actual success of Alexander Lambert, “who had recovered the vast majority of the gold bars from the 1885 wreck of the Alphonso XII in the Canary Islands”. A particularly successful melodrama on the London stage in 1897 was that of Cecil Raleigh and Henry Hamilton white heather, culminating in an underwater fight scene depicted in commercials for the production, which was popular enough to cross the Atlantic to Broadway. HG Wells noted the change in color of the sea when describing a submersible’s plunge into the abyssal depths inhabited by aliens in his short story “In the Abyss” (1896), which inspired James Cameron. the abyss (1989). As the protagonist, Elstead, dived downward, he “saw the water all around him blue-green, with dim light filtering in from above, and a shoal of little floating things scurrying past him. . . [I]It grew darker and darker, until the water above was as dark as the midnight sky. Additionally, “small transparent things in the water developed a faint glow of luminosity” as they “rotated in front of him”, suggesting bioluminescence.

If this period correctly identifies the intensification of public curiosity for underwater reality, it coincides with the invention of underwater photography. Did the general interest in the environment lead the inventors to take the photos below? Did public curiosity grow as underwater photography revealed the unique qualities of underwater life? Or, as is often the case, have public attention and new technological advancements reinforced each other?

Princeton University Press

Excerpt from THE UNDERWATER EYE: How the Movie Camera Opened the Depths and Unleashed New Realms of Fantasy by Margaret Cohen. Copyright © 2022 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted with permission.

Comments are closed.