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

Photo illustration by The Daily Beast/Louis Boutan/Public Domain

The underwater world was almost completely unknown to the public in the 19th century. Once filmmakers developed the technology to film below the ocean’s surface, beginning with the Williamson photosphere pioneered in 1914, they discovered immense potential but also a challenge. While the filmmakers could shape the underwater images according to their visions, at the same time, they had to work to convince the audience that it was indeed the underwater environment, an even greater challenge because the environment was inaccessible to audiences in general during the first decades of underwater life. filming. Recreational diving would not develop until the advent of scuba diving in the post-World War II era.

Amidst the ever-present hydrophobia of the public throughout the 19th century, there were intrepid adventurers who explored the world below the surface of the ocean. Baron Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez, an Austrian naturalist, was captivated by the beauty of tropical corals in the 1860s. Ransonnet published two travel books with the first extensive descriptions, and also the first visual images, based on observation long-standing and first-hand experience 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 free diving. Even with his limited time below, he noted underwater luminosity and color behavior: “How peculiar things appear underwater! Although one cannot exactly make out the outlines in the depths, everything shines with beautiful and strange lighting! Brown, violet, orange, in yellow and blue light, everything shines towards the diver.”

In the years after this story was published, Ransonnet designed a custom diving bell with a window so he could draw underneath. He used this diving bell for his voyage to Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and included both verbal and recorded descriptions on 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 the altered visual perception below. “The light effects down there in the sea seemed strange, so I paid special attention to it. Blue-green is the basic tint of the underwater landscape and especially of all bright objects, while darkness, for example blackish rocks and corals, and distant shadows seem to be enveloped in a drab maroon, which bears a relative complementary to the color of the water. .” Despite such novel observations, these works “remarkably. . . It didn’t get much attention at the time.”

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From the scant information in the secondary literature, it appears that public and scientific interest in underwater reality began to crystallize in the 1880s and 1890s. Within this time frame, historian of scientific diving and underwater photography Hermann Heberlein names several notable scientists who turned their attention 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 lamenting his lack of access to such a diving bell. However, he commented that by training his eyes to stay open, he was able to observe “the mystical green light that bathed the underwater world, so different from the pink light of the upper air. The forms and movements of the swarms of animals that inhabited the coral banks were doubly curious and interesting seen in this way.

Marine biologist Hermann Fol, a student of Haeckel’s, realized that such conditions deserved attention in their own right. In an 1890 article, based on his diving experience in the Mediterranean, Fol described underwater optics and related it to two practical purposes: underwater navigation and underwater photography. While the shallow depth of field frustrated viewing underwater ships, Fol was optimistic about underwater photography. He observed the loss of red light and surmised that the blue rays that last the longest are, according to Fol’s estimation, “the rays that 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 the water in different zones. (Her comments of his about poor underwater visibility also raised the question of whether the fish were myopic: “what good would farsight be, because they would only be able to see several meters anyway?”).

In 1890, when Fol published his observations, experiments were under way to develop reliable processes for underwater photography. Photo historians credit French marine biologist Louis Boutan with the first clear and reliable underwater photography. In 1900, Boutan outlined his method in detail in the book Sous-marine photography and the progress of photography. Boutan’s forerunners included William Thompson, who took an exhibition at Weymouth Bay in February 1856, as well as the German submarine inventor Wilhelm Bauer, and the aforementioned Frenchman Bazin, who improved the diving chamber.

Slides of Boutan’s photos were shown at the great Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. At the time, curiosity, if not knowledge, about underwater conditions was growing in the general public. People were fascinated by the real-life success of Alexander Lambert, “who had recovered the vast majority of the gold bars from the 1885 wreck of the Alfonso XII in the Canaries.” A particularly successful melodrama on the London stage in 1897 was that of Cecil Raleigh and Henry Hamilton. the white heather, culminating in an underwater fight scene depicted in advertisements for the production, which was popular enough to cross the Atlantic to Broadway. HG Wells noted the changing color of the sea when portraying a submersible plunging into abyssal depths inhabited by aliens in his short story “In the Abyss” (1896), which was an inspiration for the work of James Cameron. the abyss (1989). As the protagonist, Elstead, dives down, “he saw the water around him blue-green, with dim light filtering in from above, and a school of little floating things ran past him. . . . [I]It got darker and darker, until the water above was as dark as the midnight sky.” Additionally, “tiny transparent things in the water developed a faint flash of luminosity” as they “flew past him”, suggesting bioluminescence.

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

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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 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted with permission.

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