How large was the staff?
I think we had 21or 22 people. By comparison, Geographic now has two photographers on staff. They’ve decided to use contractors and freelancers, and in this business, that makes a lot of sense.
Photography is highly physical business. It’s more like professional athletics than it is a cerebral exercise. You have a lot of stuff to carry. It’s not like writing. The writer doesn’t necessarily have to climb the goddamn mountain to get the sunrise. He just takes out a notebook, stands off to the side 5000 feet below and writes some glowing terms after looking at the photographer’s picture: “Magnificent sunset over the Serenghetti Plain shot from Mount Kilamanjaro.” Writers have a lot of leeway.
I worked on a story in Alaska years ago, a cover story, and spent the better part of four months on the North Slope and six weeks in Barrow. I had all this time and all this frostbite. The writer spent something like a total of eleven days there. Most of the story was written from the bar in the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage. It was a swell story too; the guy did his job. But he didn’t have to go out there and do it in the field.
I think there’s a problem that in magazine photography—and in a lot of diving too—you’re talking about something that’s very, very physical, requires a high energy level, and requires a young person’s healing powers; it’s not a job for older people. I once asked Gilka, who had put together a staff of really good young people, “Bob, what’s going to happen when the staff gets older?” He just gave me this evil, goddamn grin and said, “I’m not going to be here to worry about it.”
What are the technical problems in making these images in the deep ocean?
The hard part of working anything in the deep ocean is finding the target. One of Ballard’s great contributions to deep ocean photography is that he understood that submarines were very poor scouting machines. A submarine is a dandy thing to go down in and do brain surgery on something that’s been found on the bottom, but is not useful for finding things. You need camera sleds to go scouting within an acoustic net…
Photo courtesy of Emory Kristof
“Acoustic net” meaning you have a sonic grid that allows you to pinpoint where the target is?
That’s right. We put acoustic transducers on the bottom and you triangulate from them. Everything is beeping back and forth at each other, and on the surface you can determine the x–y position of your camera sled. Then you can vector the submarine to the target.
Back in FAMOUS, they found their diving targets—a pair of volcanoes—with a surface depth sounder that only enabled them to locate a target a half–mile across at about 9000 feet, “Today we dive ze north slope of Mount Pluto.” [in faked French accent.] “Very good, François, it’s a half-mile target at 9,000 feet.” That’s was about the degree of resolution that we had back then. They had a camera sled, but it wasn’t of much use in targeting.
The EG&G camera was black-and-white and had a watch that would put a tiny time hack on the picture, but seven frames away. When you printed the stuff up in the darkroom, you’d print the picture of the bottom, then you’d go seven frames away and print the clock, and then staple that to the back of the original print. You ended up with be a big pile of black-and-white prints. By the time the scientists went through this pile, the pictures were all mixed up; there was no way to try to use them to determine dive sites.
You went back out in 1976…
After Geographic did the FAMOUS story in ’74, Ballard wanted to go out and look at the Cayman Trough and we pitched the story to Geographic‘s editor, Gilbert Grosvenor, who was concerned that that we had already done the deep-ocean. Ballard and I figured we could build a remote camera and take a picture of ALVIN on the bottom. That sounded good to the Grosvenor, so based on the fact that we could do a “stunt,” he approved the second story.
Sam Raymond, a protege of Doc Edgerton’s who had a company called Benthos, bought the rights to produce the cameras and put in an LED watch that would imprint the time on the actual photograph that you were making. We set Ballard up with a 28mm lense on his tote camera and a remote flash so we could now have a slightly wider pictures with the time hack on it, which could be timed to our navigation net and give an x–y position. But we needed to be able to process the film, and so Pete Petrone, the head guy in our color lab, set up the first color lab on a Woods Hole ship and the film was hand-dunked on board.
We then used a 16mm lens on the remote and made the first picture of ALVIN. Of all of my published pictures, that one of the ALVIN on the bottom at 12,000 f/3,685 m—has been run just about everywhere, and for years was the only picture or set of pictures that showed a submarine working at depths. We finished the project and realized we wanted to put the 16mm lens onto the tow camera to increase its range and we needed bigger strobes.
The tow camera is used primarily for targeting as opposed to actually getting the images you want?
Exactly. The tow camera was the scout. It really made the expedition. Then In 1976, Ballard told me that they were going to go out looking at hot water volcanic vents in the Gallapagos Rift. We knew nothing about the vents at that point, except that they were there and been found primarily through water chemistry. He felt the camera system would find those vents. At that time there were no images of them.
One thing I learned in my diving experience and in ten years of doing energy stories for Geographic was that wherever you dump hot waste water into the environment, you get an upsurge in animal life. This interested me. Another thing I became interested in was work by John Isaacs, a scientist from Scripps, who came up with the concept for “monster cameras.” He built up this wonderful library of deep–ocean animals we’d never seen before.
So when Ballard told me about the expedition to go diving on the hot-water vents, I thought, “hot water…animals…John Isaacs…yes!” I went to Geographic and told them we had to go on this expedition, and that I want to build this animal camera. They looked at me and said, “We’ve just run two deep-ocean stories; we don’t need to do the it again.” Ballard and I really wanted to do this thing, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to build this camera system but I decided I was going to learn. And there were a few other problems.
First off, the National Science Foundation (NSF) wouldn’t approve the use of color film. They felt it was a frill. It turns out that what we’re seeing at the vents is all sorts of chemical staining on the bottom, and the chemical staining gives away a lot of mineral content and is a very good tool. Black-and-white doesn’t tell you skiduche about that. So the first thing he found out was that there wasn’t any money for color film.
To make matters worse, they wouldn’t give him any money to process the film on the ship. They told him that he could process it when he got back in. Imagine—you have a $3 million expedition to study an area a half mile square 9000 f/2,763 m down. Everybody’s assigned so much ship time to do different things. You have people doing dredges; one guy’s got heat flow, so he’s blindly dropping a thermature over the side trying to find temperature spikes; and you’ve got Ballard out there towing his cameras back and forth. But only the head and tail of the film could be processed to make sure the camera was functioning. We wouldn’t be able to process the thousands and thousands of pictures taken at sea. So when the expedition’s was over, you’d develop the rest of pictures and say, “Oh, there it is! We should have been concentrating in that area. Let’s get another $3 million to go back out there.” All for the want of film processing. Basically, it was a matter of being unable to pat your stomach and your head at the same time.
Ballard believed that he could pick sites for the submarine to dive by searching with a photographic vehicle—we didn’t have television yet—and process the color film on board. The submarine has no talent as a scout because of its limited time on the bottom. It’s limited battery and could only look at a very small part of the bottom compared to the tote camera. Ballard wanted to integrate those two technologies, and it was considered heresy. Nobody else in that sciencific community got it, from the NSF people right on down to the other scientists he was working with.