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

The underwater world was almost completely unknown to the general public in the 19th century. As filmmakers developed the technology to film beneath the sea surface, beginning with Williamson’s groundbreaking photosphere in 1914, they discovered immense potential, but also a challenge. While filmmakers could shape underwater images of their own choosing, they also had to work to convince audiences that this was indeed the underwater world, a challenge made all the more so by the fact that the environment in the first few decades of the underwater world was a major concern Filming was inaccessible to the public. Recreational diving would only develop with the advent of scuba diving in the post World War II era.

Amid the pervasive hydrophobia of the public in the nineteenth century, there were intrepid adventurers exploring the world beneath the sea. Baron Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez, an Austrian naturalist, was fascinated by the beauty of tropical corals in the 1860s. Ransonnet published two travel books with the first detailed descriptions and also the first visual images based on prolonged first-hand observations in the western tradition.

To the Trips from Cairo to Gateway to the Coral Reefs (Trip from Cairo to Gateway to the Coral Banks) (1863) was Ransonnet freediving. Despite his limited time below, he remarked on submarine luminosity and the behavior of colors: “How strange things appear under water! Although one cannot distinguish the contours in depth, everything shines in a beautiful and strange light! Everything shines towards the diver in brown, violet, orange, yellow and blue light.”

In the years following the publication of this report, Ransonnet designed a custom diving bell with a window so he could sketch below. He used this diving bell for his trip to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) and included both verbal descriptions and engravings Sketches of the inhabitants, fauna and vegetation of the lowlands and high mountains of Ceylon (1867). There, for example, Ransonnet again observed the details of the altered visual perception below. “The lighting effects seemed strange to me down there in the sea, so I paid special attention to them. Blue-green is the primary color of the underwater landscape and particularly of all bright objects, whereas dark ones, e.g. blackish rocks and corals, and distant shadows appear cloaked in a monotonous maroon that is in complementary relation to the color of the water.” Despite these novel observations, these works are “remarkable . . . didn’t attract much attention at the time.”

From the sparse information in the secondary literature, it appears that both scientific and public interest in underwater reality began to crystallize in the 1880s–1890s. Within this period, historian of scientific diving and underwater photography, Hermann Heberlein, names some notable scientists who turned to underwater optics. The most famous was the biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel, who knew of Ransonnet’s depictions. Haeckel published an article in Nature lamenting his lack of access to such a diving bell. Nonetheless, he noted that by training his eyes to stay open, he “could observe the mystical green light bathing the underwater world, so different from the rosy light of the upper air. The shapes and movements of the schools of animals that populate the coral reefs were doubly odd and interesting seen in this way.

Marine biologist Hermann Fol, a student of Haeckel, recognized that such conditions deserve attention in their own right. In an 1890 article, Fol, based on his experiences diving in the Mediterranean, described underwater optics and linked them to two practical purposes – submarine navigation and underwater photography. While the shallow depth of field blocked the view of underwater vessels, Fol was optimistic about underwater photography. Noting the loss of red light, he surmised that the blue rays, which last the longest, are, in Fol’s estimation, “the rays that impinge on the photographic plate with the greatest energy.” Fol also noted the changing submarine color spectrum, the effect on visibility of different sun angles, and the different water turbidity in different zones. (For him, his comments on poor visibility under water also raise the question of whether fish are short-sighted: “What’s the use of long-distance vision, since they can only see several meters anyway?”)

When Fol published his observations in 1890, experiments were underway to develop reliable techniques for underwater photography. French marine biologist Louis Boutan is credited by photo historians with the first clear, reliable underwater photography. In 1900, Boutan outlined his method in detail in the book La photographie sous-marine et les progress de la photographie. Boutan’s forerunners included William Thompson, who made an exposition at Weymouth Bay in February 1856, as well as the German submarine inventor Wilhelm Bauer and the aforementioned Frenchman Bazin, who upgraded the diving chamber.

Slides of Boutan’s photos were shown at the great Paris Exposition of 1900. At this time there was growing curiosity, if not knowledge, about underwater conditions among the general public. People were fascinated by the real-world success of Alexander Lambert, “who recovered the vast majority of the gold bullion 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 The white heath, culminating in an underwater fight scene depicted in advertisements for the production, which was popular enough to cross the Atlantic to Broadway. HG Wells, in his short story In the Abyss (1896), which was an inspiration to James Camerons, noted the sea’s change of color as he depicted a submersible’s descent into the alien-inhabited Abyss The abyss (1989). As the protagonist, Elstead, plummeted, “he saw the water around him green-blue, with a dim light coming down from above, and a swarm of small floating things rushed past him. . . . [I]It got 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 “shot past it,” suggesting bioluminescence.

If this time frame correctly identifies the public’s increasing curiosity about underwater reality, it coincides with the invention of underwater photography. Did the general interest in the environment prompt the inventors to take pictures below? Did public curiosity grow as submarine photography revealed the unique qualities of underwater life? Or, as is often the case, did publicity and new technological advances reinforce each other?


Princeton University Press

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

https://www.thedailybeast.com/did-photography-fuel-our-obsession-with-what-lies-beneath-the-waves?source=articles&via=rss Has photography fueled our obsession with what lies beneath the waves?


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: hung@interreviewed.com.

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