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Archive for February 21st, 2013

Louis Boutan- Underwater Photo ExperimentA friend of mine had a picture on Facebook yesterday that was taken underwater.  It was bright, clear and detailed, full of the color of the sea.  The fact that anyone can easily take such sharp underwater photos made me wonder about how underwater photography had evolved.  Doing a little research I came across the photo shown here on the left that really caught my eye.  It has a real magical quality to it with the light burst at the center and the diver appearing like some odd creature in mid-birth.  It was by a French marine biologist, Louis Boutan, from the early 1890’s and is one of the earliest surviving underwater photos.

There had been an earlier photo,  from 1856 by William Thompson in the waters of Dorset in the UK.  It was taken by a camera attached to a pole and showed the underwater plant growth of the shallow sea bottom. The photo has been lost  however which  and it takes almost forty years into the future before Boutan takes up the quest for documenting what he was seeing under the sea as a marine biologist.  You have to realize the difficulties he faced in achieving this goal.  First, diving and photography were in their early stages and the equipment for both was large and cumbersome.  It would be decades before scuba gear was introduced and cameras were large boxes with long exposures and flash systems that consisted of burning magnesium.  You couldn’t just whip out your iPhone and snap some pix.

Louis Boutan in his Diving SuitBut Boutan persevered and with the aid of his engineer brother devised systems, that would be enormous by today’s standards, allowed him enough mobility to move them to the sea bottom and photograph.  His experiments included shallow shoots such as the one featuring the diver above and, ultimately, dives that descended to 164 feet beneath the sea in a diving suit.  The image to the right is one of these first deep images.  As I said, the exposure were long, up to 30 minutes for the film of the time at such low light, and Boutan would sometimes suffer nitrogen narcosis– the rapture of the deep.  It was a dangerous effort to document the world he loved.

Louis Boutan on left with his Dual Carbon LampsThis a photo of Boutan (on the left)  and his equipment at one of the later stages of his 1890’s experimentation.  Even though it looks huge to us, this was pretty compact for the time.  The two steel orbs in the forefront are carbon arc lamps that he developed to replace the earlier system which was a huge wooden barrel with a large glass globe affixed to the top that encased a ribbon of burning magnesium.  Portability was not its big strength.

I like this photo of Boutan and his equipment because there is a feeling of the past and the future in it.  He appears so modern in contrast with his appearance, with his sport coat and haircut when compared to his assistant standing behind him who is obviously a product of his age with handlebar moustache, necktie and cap.  Boutan could walk into the room today and be contemporary.  I think that speaks to his drive to evolve his process.  He would not be tied to the static present and the lingering past.

Boutan also published a book in the 90’s that featured many of his images and documented his work.  Below is a group of these images.  So, when you pull out your compact camera the next time and dive into the water to snap a shot of the kids or some colorful fish, remember Louis Boutan.  He set the whole thing in motion.

Louis Boutan Group of Photos from his 1890s Book

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