David Doubilet was only nine years old when he first looked underwater with a mask. Almost sixty years after that eureka moment, he is the doyenne of ocean photography, a master craftsman who combines technology and art to create extravagantly beautiful photographs of coral reefs, shipwrecks, and sharks that make us see the ocean in a new way.
With more than 70 stories under his belt, Doubilet is also the most published photographer in National Geographic; a member of the Society’s Pristine Seas project; and the recipient of numerous awards, including “Picture of The Year” and the prestigious Lennart Nilsson Prize.
Speaking from New York, shortly after getting back from the Arctic, he describes how a picture of the Earth from space inspired him to take his camera underwater; why shooting pictures of fish is like being a paparazzi; and how he tries to combine art and environmentalism to make us care about the ocean and the threat from global warming.
Q & A
Tell us a bit about your early life and how you got into underwater photography.
I was nine years old, and as New York City children, we were always sent to summer camp in the Adirondacks. I hated it. I had asthma. I didn’t want to climb mountains. I didn’t like riding or archery. So they sent me down to the lake, where these two fearsome, 14 year-old counselors said to me, “Go under the dock and clean out some of the branches,” knowing full well that there was a giant spider down there called a dock spider that was the size of a butter plate. They figured that would scare the hell out of me and be a bit of fun for them. They gave me a blue, French squale mask, which I molded to my face. Then I put my head underwater—and my life changed.
I was transfixed by the way the light curved, the green of the water, the dancing light rays across the green algae. I went back to our summer home in New Jersey and began to dive there. I had a pair of green “Frankie-the-Frogman” fins, my blue squale mask, and a snorkel with a mouthpiece made of something resembling cast iron. My father, who was a surgeon in New York, brought back an anaesthesiologist’s bag from the hospital, and we made an underwater camera with an old mask and a Brownie Hawkeye camera, which you could manipulate through the walls of the bag. The initial pictures I made were beyond abstract. But I was in heaven.
In The Silent World, a book I basically injected it into my head under the covers at night in New York, Cousteau wrote a wonderful piece about his first vision underwater, very much like my dock moment in the Adirondacks. He was at a beach near Toulon, France. He didn’t want to dive. He had no interest in the water. Then he put his face underwater and “civilization vanished with one last bow.”
The way water transforms terrestrial vision has powered me through my life. Once you go below the surface, that thin molecular curtain dividing land and water vanishes and [things are] imbued with a light that behaves like no other light on the planet.
Talk a bit about your artistic process and the kind of gear you use.
These days it’s the product of an incredible digital revolution. Between the Brownie Hawkeye and the digital camera was a time of great experimentation for me. At Nat Geo, I started with a story on garden eels that was done with a remote camera. I began to develop a photographic language that translated into underwater journalism. I was the inheritor of the work of Bates Littlehales, who developed the ocean-eye camera, and Louis Marden. It was a way of bringing the underwater world into people’s minds and opening their eyes to the sea.
The difference between underwater photography and journalism is that [in the former,] you have to make a picture that not only tells a story, but also transcends the basic needs of journalism. It has to go into the realm of art to open people’s minds. To make the kind of pictures I want, in a world where most things are smaller than your hand and you can’t see more than 100 feet usually, it’s like trying to do a story on London in perpetual fog and never seeing the buildings. That’s what shooting that underwater is—living in a bubble 100 feet in diameter, at best.
You also have a very short time, especially if you go deep because you have to decompress. A lot of stories I’ve done, I’ve had 15 minutes a day in front of a subject. You can’t repeat the dive and it can take all day to get that 15 minutes, everything from carting a tank to maintaining the camera and getting to the dive site.
You’re basically a swimming studio. You have a camera in an underwater housing about the size of a small microwave; two lights, sometimes three. You re like paparazzi. You have to craft light around the subject and the subject is constantly moving. Unlike celebrities, though, fish don’t want to have their picture taken. I have a million pictures of fish heading south, showing their rear ends and fins. [Laughs] It’s like trying to shoot sports photography at night, with a flash. There’s no comparison to any other photographic milieu.
What inspires you in your work, David?
Number one, this is an entirely new world: a world that, photographically, is 70 years old, from the time Cousteau invented the aqualung and people began to breathe and swim underwater and take the time to look around. It’s also a world where life is not only infinite but also very finite. The most inspirational picture that opened my eyes and, I hope, the world’s eyes, was not an underwater picture but the photo by former Commander William Anderson called “Earth Rise,” taken on Apollo 8 as they went around the side of the moon on Christmas Eve, 1969. He looked out this tiny window and there was a sliver of moon. Rising like another moon was the Earth, blue and perfect, like a sapphire against the velvet background of space. That picture is the grandest portrait of humanity and the place where we live. It’s blue because it is mostly water.
Today, the planet is heating up due to global climate change. My wife, Jennifer, and I just got back from the Arctic on an expedition called Artists for the Arctic. We saw the shrinking Arctic Ocean, where polar bears are starving. The other front, of course, is the tropics. The most complex of all environments and certainly the most visually varied, with the highest biodiversity, is the coral reef. All that has a lot of threats going forward: rising sea level and temperature; and acidification of the ocean, which very much affects the polyp, this tiny creature the size of an infant’s fingernail that constructs its calcium carbonate house. In an acidic ocean, it’s not going to be able to do that. So, we’re looking at a world that’s rapidly changing but we’re only just beginning to learn what that world is about. That’s what drives me. It’s a combination of being an environmentalist; and light and art. Our main desire is to open people’s eyes to the sea.