Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared in the March issue of Scuba Diver Through The Lens Magazine.
Most photographers paint the ocean with a barrage of colors—blotches of blue on the glimmering surface, globs of green of a kelp stalk, splashes of scarlet of a sponge. But photographer Ernie Brooks brushes with a much simpler palette, capturing all of the ocean’s beauty with just 21 delicate shades of grey.
Brooks patched together his first housing from scratch for a black and white Leica camera at the age of 19 and still has not strayed to color photography. His list of appearances and accolades couldn’t fit onto one roll of 36-frame film much less a memory card—including induction into the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, being named Legend of the Sea and having his work featured in the Smithsonian.
Through it all, the timelessness of his black and white beauties continue to serve as a reminder of the ocean’s endurance, beauty and fragility.
DPG: We know your father was an avid boater and diver. What effect did this and growing up in the rich marine environment around Santa Barbara have on launching your love of the sea?
EB: This certainly was one of the key elements that urged me to venture out into the Pacific and the Channel Islands. At the age of nine I entered a swimming contest at summer camp—a 50-foot-long sprint. Not only did I win first place, but also I managed to hold my breath and stay underwater the whole time. By the time I was in high school, I was competing in mile-long swim meets.
It was during a 3 mile race off the coast of Santa Barbara that my fate was sealed—through my swim goggles the kelp strands, schooling fish, and sun rays disappearing into the depths. With both my parents working as photographers I didn’t just see nature, I saw a frame and focus lines.
DPG: When did you first pick up a camera? You built your own housing to bring that camera underwater at just 19 years old—what was that experience like?
EB: I was given my first camera in kindergarten—a Kodak Browne Box. I made one exposure of my class in front of the Lompoc Grade School, super-imposing the teacher in front of the class. It turned out to be my first published photograph on the front page of the Lompoc Review in October of 1940.
My father had a photographic studio in town, so my sister and I would work together to develop my father’s film—I would do the Acetic Acid while my sister handled the processing times, and wash and dry. By the time I reached grade school I already had a brown fingernail from all the film processing.
By the time I turned 19, I decided to build an underwater housing for my Leica camera. It was the perfect camera, compact with a sharp lens for my love of ambient light. But it wasn’t like a fancy housing of today. There was only one control—the shutter. The rest of the settings were fixed: 6-inch focus, f8 and a shutter speed of 1/100th second. It was easy and a joy viewing the sunlight from below the waves, looking up.
DPG: You aren’t just a photography pioneer, but also a diving pioneer. What was it like exploring the Channel Islands for the first time?
EB: As a young diver I would pretend to be Hans Hass, exploring the waters around the eight Channel Islands. From the beauty of the massive kelp forests (the Redwoods of the Sea) to the marine mammals of San Miguel and Santa Barbara Island I had his desire to tell the world of the beauty of my own backyard.
DPG: Since then you’ve gone from the California coast to lots of remote destinations. Do you have a favorite? Why?
EB: I really have no favorites. They are all so unique to one another, each with a special touch of life, light, latitude and statement.
DPG: You certainly have a connection to your subjects, how did you establish this?
EB: As a photographer, there must always be a time when you observe the behavior of your subject, whether it is a sea lion or just light rays interacting with the water. And then there is a moment when it all connects. For me, the technical part is automatic. Pushing the shutter down, the moment of the capture is the essence—creating that one exposure that says, “I’m yours, Ernie Brooks.”
DPG: Your underwater photography crosses the lines between a natural history photograph and art. What mindset does this take?
EB: You must illustrate the beauty of light and the presence of design, the form the viewer realizes is a quality joined together to be a statement. These visuals “words” are the language of all the people on our planet, and a language that all photographers need to learn as their careers take form.
DPG: You clearly have an appreciation for art—music, for example. What similarities does music have to underwater photography?
EB: Music is the driving force, the rhythm, and the heartbeat that solidifies the image and composes the visual ballad. All of my published works strive to begin with a musical note. Today, many film festivals blend images with the music chosen by the photographer. Many of my programs today are enhanced by the music of another artist, Ernest Cortazone. A single piano serves like the 21 steps of the grey-scale that creates the tonal range of the black and white image.
DPG: In the age of digital photography, you stick with a large format Hasselblad. What is it about this camera that you love?
EB: Victor Hasselblad presented me with his favorite in 1961, the 38mm SW with a 70mm back. After 40 years of use without ever changing the o-rings, aperture, shutter speed and pre-focused 6-inches to infinity, it remains the best “point and shoot” in the world. And much like my Blaincpain watch that never fails, quality is something that should never be sacrificed.
DPG: The underwater world is full of color. But you choose to stay with black and white. What does this add to your images that color cannot?
EB: The majority of my images are exposed just with ambient light in black and white. For me this creates an image with a timeless statement that bears no date. The delicate shades of grey creates have the ability to capture a sense of wonderment or freeze action in the contrasts between highlight and shadows. This grace, beauty, and simplicity creates perfection and a lasting impression on the viewer.
DPG: Some of your most iconic images are the black and white wide-angle shots of kelp forests and swarming schools of fish. How do you plan these shots?
EB: Preparation is key. Appreciating the fact that I hand only ten exposures to capture the one exact moment that became my method underwater—waiting for that moment when all the elements came together in one singular frame. With full frame the joy is discovering that your point of view is the same as your camera’s. If you want want wide angle then back up, if you want a medium shot just get closer. You can probably tell that I was raised with a 4x5 view camera with one lens.
DPG: Do you have a favorite image? If so, why?
EB: Actually, yes I do! Above water, I returned from Laos/Cambodia with a remarkable black and white infrared image of The Plain of Jars, an archaeological landscape scattered with enormous stone jars. I captured the dramatic early morning light and razor sharp clouds in perfect “rule of thirds” composition with the stones.
Of my all my underwater images, I must admit that I have a love affair with “Spot,” a very special sea lion. Back in 1990, I set out to snorkel the kelp forest off of Anacapa Island. At fifteen feet below the surface, nestled in the kelp fronds Spot appeared. A sweet shaft of early morning light graced her face spotlighting her expression, priceless. She stole my heart and also stole my snorkel.
DPG: Your resume includes a long list of awards (diving hall of fame, underwater photography hall of fame, Our World Underwater, DEMA). Is there one that is close to your heart?
EB: They are all so very touching, Joseph—each one is a treasure. As it seems, the most recent is remembered in a special way. Being the first Hans Hass Diving to Adventure Award presented at Dusseldorf by Hans Hass was overwhelming, as was the chance to be on stage with my earliest mentor, the very same explorer I pretended to be all those years ago.
Other highlights that come to mind being named “Legend of the Sea” at the 2012 Beneath the Sea. Of course, nothing is quite the same as being immortalized in stone. In 2011 the sculptor Vicktor unveiled a larger-than-life granite bust, which now stands watch at the Maritime Museum in Santa Barbara.
DPG: You’re still very actively shooting. What projects do you have coming up?
EB: Being a photographer is all about giving back in a way that all people can witness our fantastic landscapes of wonder, both above and below the waves. Even at the age of 78, my life and images are just beginning over again with the digital infrared provided me by Canon.
My sights now are set on illustrating a lasting view of past civilizations and the monuments remaining. Of course my photography will continue to be lit only by the sun and kept timeless in black and white so the memory never fades.
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