• Ernie Brooks

The year was 1975 or was it 1976…time flies and cannot relocate that copy of the late Skin Diver magazine. The issue included a portfolio of images from a California based photographer. Contrary to most color-addicts, he was shooting exclusively in black and white.

I was addicted to color too, the cheap GAF-brand slide film I was using cost less than $0.10/image, processing included! My images were so bad that it made a lot of sense to use it. But the b&w portfolio left an imprint in my mind and some 20 years later, I decided I would try to do a bit of work in black and white… I quickly learned that mastering that media was far more After a few Pastis, a drop of Rosé over patés and cheese they candidly confess that it is an addiction: the food, the wine, the French Riviera’s relaxed atmosphere and topless beaches or the fact that they can play Rolling Stones songs in the impromptu u/w photography band that rocks the night, at the Festival’s improvised bistro. Any excuse, including photography, is a good reason to be there! Let’s get back on track here: Danielle was a member of the stills jury chaired by the black and white portfolio man: Ernest H. Brooks II. Besides being the quintessential gentleman – a title that he shares with Stan Waterman – Ernie, as he likes to be called, exudes calmness second only to what is required from micro-surgeons. Instructions were straightforward: Pick the 10 images you prefer.

Danielle was anxious beyond belief – cramps and cold sweat included thinking: “I am not a bad photographer and managing our photobank provides me with kind of an eye but how will he react to my choices?” The jury later met and, as expected, there were discrepancies; mixing an American, a Canadian, two French and an Italian in a jury is asking for trouble: North Americans tend to agree whilst the European fight each other and shout like crazy! As jury members were quarrelling over composition, lighting and whatever other Cartesian arguments, the softspoken Chair simply said: “Pick the image that has the strongest message.” All of a sudden, there were not twenty different choices – it took less than five minutes to pick the winners! And Danielle was relieved since her ten initial picks matched Ernie’s for all images but two… She was even more relieved when Mr. Brooks whispered her name to the President of the Festival as a good choice for jury Chair.

Coming from a man of his stature, this was the best recognition she could receive. As a teacher, a mentor for generations of photographers and more so for underwater trigger-happy up and coming image-makers, Ernie loves to share, stimulate, recognize and promote what others do. We had wanted to interview him for so many years without finding the time or the right occasion. Finding Mr. Brooks is not a simple task. He is a secret man who surfaces once in a while at DEMA, Our World Underwater, the Boston Sea Rovers, or in Antibes… only to disappear again. So we made arrangements for an interview in March 2006 at Beneath the Sea … and conducted it at DEMA the following November. Oh yes, we are still working on some black and white underwater images… n complicated than splashing a colorful fish on a slide… and went back to color. Fast forward: the year is 1999, Danielle is a member of the still photography jury at the World Festival of Underwater Images in Antibes, an event where the attendees list looks like the Who’s Who of the underwater imaging world. Officially they say they attend because of the inspirational flavor of this unique gathering.

Passion that Runs in the Veins

Was photography always your career?»I was born to be an image-maker. My grandmother was a portrait photographer, my uncle was a landscape photographer, both in black and white. My father turned the corner in color; he became a world-famous flower photographer before founding a photography institute. Photography was in the conversations. I loved the process, it was time consuming but beautiful. Being in the dark was also a very important part of it. It took a lot of time so it gave you time to think, time to be with yourself. And I think a lot of my work is that way; it is very peaceful, at peace with itself.

All the work we have seen from you is done in black and white. Has it always been like that?»Definitely. My father was colorblind; I can’t see how he accomplished what he did. Black and white has always been in my life. This is how I have seen everything. Coming from a photographic school later in my life, the black and white process was just fantastic; having complete control of everything, starting from the light up to the finished product. It also has to do with my mentors, the people that I studied: Ernst Haas, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. I just love the quality of black and white, and the color.

There is More to Black and White then Meets the Eye

You mean the absence of color?»No, the color of black and white; it has its own color. Grey is beautiful; and black; and white. Did you want to emulate what Ansel Adams has done in land photography?»Only his light. I tried to learn and apply the way my mentors were seeing the light; the way they were capturing it… the details in the highlight and the details in the shadow. You have to know where to put the exposure and you have to know in what range you want to process it. It needs to fit the emulsion, the range of the film. That’s the way we were raised. That curve has to be there. Today, it is possible to falsify that a bit with computers and software, but the joy then was getting that on the negative and into the darkroom making the print. That was an important part of my work and so was the importance of the statement.

Consumed by the Beauty of the Sea

And what about underwater photography?» Portrait, landscape, nature and flowers were already taken so, I was left with very little to explore: I turned to the sea.

When did you start diving?»1949, that was very early skin diving. Did you start in underwater photography at that time?»It was around; Dr. Hans Haas was my hero. He and his wife produced beautiful black and white images. I would show those pictures to my parents and they would say, “Their blacks and their whites are not that great.” But for me it was the discovery of a whole new world. In the late 1940s and early 1950s there were some great underwater photographers that produced wonderful work. Jerry Greenberg and Luis Marden, for example. The latter even presented me with the NOGI Award in 1975.

You were also part of an emerging breed of great photographers?»We can say so. People like Ron Church. He and I used to enter competitions and it was great. He was good and so was I. He had the advantage of photographing turtles and corals in all these exotic places. I would have kelp and sea lions. Al Giddings, then a still photographer, along with Bob Hollis were just starting. We founded the Academy of Underwater Photographers at the time.

What was your first underwater camera and how did it evolve from there?»My father had an old Exakta, a very primitive camera. I built a housing for it. It leaked miserably. I took one or two photographs with that rig and decided that 35mm was not for me. Remember, the only film we had was Panatomic X, ASA 40 – try to push that one some place… it didn’t work. So 2×2 and 70mm became my style. Which camera did you use then?»The Rolleimarin, a Hans Haas-designed housing manufactured by Franke and Heidecke that enclosed their twin-lens Rolleiflex camera. It was housing number 107. I had an f2.8 Rollei lens. Many of your published work was done with a Hasselblad; when did it come into action?»I went from the Rolleimarin directly to the Hasselblad SWC. The former was too limiting for me. I like wider angles and I didn’t like macro. I don’t care for close-ups. I like the vista, the feeling… the great expanse of the ocean. I liked the wider view, the sunlight, the “landscape”.

Macro Photography

Haven’t you done macro photography underwater?»In 1975 I made two rolls of 35mm macro pictures and the resulting images created an exhibit later that year in Beijing. For me there was no challenge in underwater macro photography. Your father founded the Brooks Institute of Photography; did you introduce underwater photography in the program?»My father founded the Institute back in 1945. I came along and assumed the presidency in 1971. I turned the school into a four-year university-level program. I introduced the audio-visual, the undersea technology, the high science end of it, physics and optics. I brought it into more of a liberal education and created a graduate school for master degrees in art and science. But the undersea program gave me my birth, everything I ever wanted in life. It was the students that made it.

Was the underwater photography program always your favorite at the Institute?»Definitely, without it I wouldn’t have stayed! As divers know, there is a calling into the ocean. We wanted our students to make a statement on what they felt about a subject and publish their work. This made the program different. Was the underwater photography program profitable?»It never made money. It was the costliest one. I would meet with my board of directors and tell them, “Let’s see how much publicity this underwater photography program can create for us, how much energy it can generate for the institution.”

Learn the Craft from Every Angle

You later sold the Institute but I think that they still have an underwater photography program, don’t they?»The have a smaller underwater photography program than what it used to be. Had I stayed there I would have made it into a four-year program. North Americans tend to talk too much about equipment and/or technique. Was it hard for you to tell students that equipment and technique are part of the work but there is far more to it?»Fstops and shutter speeds don’t work! You learn technique early in school and you are right, photographers tend to concentrate too much on technique. You see it so much in the portraiture field and also in other aspects of photography. It’s all about optics, physical optics, shutter speeds. It has nothing to do with what I wanted to say. I learned my craft very well. I could walk outside, look at the sun and tell you exactly what exposure I need in the deepest shadows, in the brightest highlights. So, what else do you want to talk about? Let’s talk about how we will light the subject, this is important. How will we separate it from the background so it comes forward? Or do you want it to come forward? What is the most important thing you want to say with your image? Those are the important issues.

How do we tell or teach someone to go beyond the f-stop question, start seeing the light and use it effectively?»Today, with the technologies that drive the profession and the amateur field, they are slowly learning what it took us years to absorb. They are realizing that digital photography cannot record the highlights and shadows on the same exposure like film did. They are thus using techniques like masking, adjusting it, fine tuning it. In other words, getting a foundation probably without even knowing it. This is almost a self-taught process today. Also, everyone must get continuing education. I personally love to go to school and to continue to learn. You cannot stop learning. I opened up a book today and I looked at some of the images where I found new scenes, new ways of looking at things. There are also new media created and all of this is very exciting.

Wouldn’t it make us better photographers if we started in black and white? It imposes an approach where one has to concentrate on contrast, shapes, texture and composition. Isn’t it the best school to learn the basics?»I tend to agree with the statement. Black and white is like starting with a blank piece of paper. It is one tone and you create something on it. The 21 or 8 steps of grey create such delicate transitions. I definitely would not be where I am, had I had just color in my background. Some of the best photographers in the business today started that way. This is all we had then. However, when I look at Chris Newbert’s work or at your work for example, so much of it has to be in color. It is nature’s way of living. My work takes some of that away. In my case, I love the way highlights and shadows fall on the subject. Also, it is easy today to turn a color picture into a black and white one. In the end, it depends on the subject.

As photographers, we found that the learning curve is not straight. It starts slowly and then, over the years, there is a dramatic improvement. Has this been the case for you as well?»One becomes more selective. You know what you want to do, which statement you want to make with your images. Your eye becomes more selective. In my case, since I only had 10 exposures to work with, I would take just one or two photographs during a dive. I was searching for light first and then for the subject or, conversely, if I found a subject, I would search for proper light and try to bring the subject into this light. The idea is to make a statement with light. I had a rule on my boat, Just Love, which I used to teach underwater photography. I told my students that they had to control their index finger. They did not have to come back from a dive with a full roll of exposed film. The selective eye is a key notion in photography and there were many books written on this concept.

The Ideal Composition

In the case of your imagery, were most of the images made in your mind before entering the water?»No, it was not the case. A few maybe, but not the majority. An image that comes to my mind is the three sea lions perfectly positioned, shot against bright sunlit background from 60-ft. deep that became my signature. I squinted and saw that they were in the ideal composition and made only one picture. Each time I would go in the water with sea lions afterward I would try to make a similar photograph and it never happened.

Your book, Silver Seas, contains incredible images. Tell us how it came to be?»I never even thought about doing a book. I had always promised to myself that at 65 I would retire and do something else. A good part of my life was spent as an administrator and this was not my favorite type of work. I loved the students and the teaching though. So, when I was preparing to retire, my Vice-President and former students convinced me. They found a publishing company and told me that I simply needed to pick the negatives and they would do the rest of the work. The name Silver Seas, a natural, came up from Media 27, those involved in the publishing. Also, the proceeds, when they come, will go to organizations like Ocean Future and when they are exhibited, it should also benefit the kids.

The “Spot”

There are many images in the book, which one is your favorite?»It has to be “Spot” the harbour seal because there is a story behind the image, an interesting story. It is 6:30 one morning in August, 12 students are aboard Just Love. We are anchored off Anacapa in the Channel Islands near a sea lion and harbor seal rookery. I am alone, snorkeling, looking through the kelp. Here comes this harbor seal. I think it is a boy since it is fat. It comes up, grabs one of my fins, spits it out and leaves. I swim back to my boat with one fin as the students are getting up. They ask, “Mr. Brooks, how come you only have one fin?” My answer, “Don’t talk to me, get me my Hasselblad.” The students add, “Isn’t it early to go snorkeling?” I said, “That’s enough, can I borrow your fins?” Someone hands me those very long blade fins – I hate them. I get my snorkel, look down, it’s 7:15 and I say to myself, “I am diving down to 15 feet, he’s going to be 1/125th at about f/8, ISO 800, and I’ll nail him!” I dive, snap one image, and come back up. The seal leaves and, as I swim back to the boat, the guy tries to grab my snorkel with its mouth – a terrible character. We photographed Spot many times over the years but I never got the same image again. Also, one year, we get there and Spot had a little one… this is when I realized that the seal was female. She comes forward and pushes her pup towards me… this brought tears in my eyes as I realized the bond that existed between us. Spot is my favorite picture because of the story.

Technique

Tell us a bit about your technique?»I know how to read light and here’s an interesting story. I got my Hasselblad in 1961 and gave it up in 2000 without ever changing an O-ring! Some water would creep in and, eventually the shutter got stuck at 1/125… Of course, I wouldn’t tell my students… Since the shutter and the aperture were coupled together, I ended up with a fixed combination, it was either 1/125 at f/8 or 1/250 at f/4 and so on… those became my settings. I would go and find a subject to fit them. And you never seem to use a strobe?»I only used a strobe once with my underwater work. The image is in my book. It is called “Magnificent Blue”; a Blue shark lit from underneath. This is the only picture I lit with a strobe.

Find an Outlet to Speak your Mind

What would be your first advice to someone who would like to take up underwater photography, as a hobby or a profession?»First, education is really important. You need to understand today’s craft. Not so much what I was raised with but today’s technologies and techniques. You need to perfect that up to a point where the person comes up with a realistic image. Then the person needs to find an outlet for what he or she wants to say. It does not need to be a magazine; it can be through books, the Internet, etc. There needs to be an audience, an outlet for what you need to say. If I was starting today I would go see the Hemisphere magazine people or the American Way magazine publisher, En Route magazine editor and bring them my story, my statements. I would tell them, “Here’s what I want to say to your customers, here’s my story.” It needs to be done more. You need to go beyond the obvious. And where should underwater photographers go for inspiration?»This is a good point. I would go to a library, a hardcopy library. I’d look at books. I’d look at the pages, the paper they were printed on, the beauty of the images and the statements that are made by the artists. It could be pictures from years ago. Look at them like you do with all art. You cannot go “www.photography.com” and find it. You find those things under Library of Congress number XYZ. Look at Adams, Steichen, Stieglitz, Weston and others. Look at those who influenced the earlier people. Who did they look up to? You have to go way back in history as well as exploring contemporary photographers and artists.

Is it easier to make a photographer out of a diver or a diver out of a photographer?

»Good question, because they are mixed techniques. But I’d rather work with a photographer. First, because we speak the same language. And I think that if you do a cross-section of today’s underwater photography it is done by someone who truly loves photography and wants to do something with it. There are exceptions but someplace, there is land-based photography in their blood.

How does someone learn to see in an artistic way like you do?»It is hard to say; some of those things are in your genes. For whatever reason, I have always been able to see the little ants walking on the ground. My uncles and my parents have always been visual people. They would look at people differently; you have to have that. Language creates the vision; the words create the vision.

Make a Statement

What is the most overlooked aspect of underwater photography in what you see from contemporary photographers?»What we need yet to do is to make statements that are significant and that make some changes within the ocean environment to a positive stance. That’s easy to do with shark-fining or whaling, for example. What is much harder to do is to make pictures that will help in reducing water pollution. There is a need to do more visually to show to the world what is happening when we use cyanide to capture fishes for aquariums. The same applies to the dynamite use in fishing. Also, we need to show the true aspect of bleaching. We have a responsibility with our craft to do something. We see artists doing it and we are artists. This is one of the reasons we created the Ocean Artists Society.

The Future of Imagery

What do you see in the coming years in the underwater photography field?»It is now global; it is an international subject. Many photographers from all around the world are making statements. This is healthy. I see more and more documentary work about what is happening in the ocean and how we can contribute. We need to publish more in foreign languages, not only in English. Is digital a blessing or a curse for photography?» It is truly an incredible blessing because it allows more people to do it, with the help of modern technology, in their homes. It is healthy. Should someone start by learning the craft using film or digital?»I think that you do not need to learn with film. It won’t be long before you won’t see much film around. I don’t look for Fuji or Kodak to continue this foolish polluting process that is chemical photography. I have seen too much chemicals go down the drains. Is there an image that you would want to make but have never been able to achieve in your lifetime?»Not really. I love my craft and the joy of making images fulfilled my dreams. Something interesting: many times I would not realize how good the image was until I started working on it in my lab. I would watch the image materialize on the paper and see how much better it was than when I tripped the shutter.

So, on many occasions, the print would be better than what you thought it would; was it the case more often than the opposite?»Yes, and there is an image in particular in the book; it is called California Gold. You are looking up at the kelp on the surface and just where the bubbles are on the kelp there is a little starburst. I did not see it when I was making the picture. I saw the whole kelp but not that detail. I happened to make my test strip just in the middle of the image where this starburst is located. When I saw that I felt lucky; to me this came as an extra.

If you had to relive the past, would it be the same or would it be different?»I wish I had been more of a shepherd, to bring more young people into the program; help more those who could not afford it. Education is expensive and I wish I had gone to other schools and found ways to attract more students through scholarships. I did as much as I could but I could have done more.

Diving Pioneers and Innovators
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