Behold the First Underwater Portrait in the History of Photography (Circa 1899)

The image above may at first look like a plate from a Jules Verne nov­el, or per­haps a still from one of Georges Méliès’ more fan­tas­ti­cal mov­ing pic­tures. It does indeed come from fin de siè­cle France, a time and place in which Verne, Méliès, and many oth­er imag­i­na­tive cre­ators lived and worked, but it is in fact a gen­uine under­wa­ter pho­to­graph — or rather, a gen­uine under­wa­ter por­trait, and the first exam­ple of such a thing in pho­to­graph­ic his­to­ry. Tak­en in the 1890s (most like­ly 1899) by biol­o­gist and pho­tog­ra­phy pio­neer Louis Boutan, it depicts Boutan’s Roman­ian col­league Emil Racov­itza hold­ing up a sign that reads “Pho­togra­phie Sous Marine,” or “Under­wa­ter Pho­tog­ra­phy.”

Such an out­landish con­cept could hard­ly have crossed many minds back then, and few­er still would have dreamt up prac­ti­cal ways to real­ize it. To start with the most basic of chal­lenges, there is, as David Byrne sung, water at the bot­tom of the ocean — but not a whole lot of light, espe­cial­ly com­pared to the bur­den­some require­ments of late 19th-cen­tu­ry cam­eras. This neces­si­tat­ed the devel­op­ment of what Petapix­el’s Lau­rence Bar­tone calls a “crazy under­wa­ter flash pho­tog­ra­phy rig,” one pow­er­ful enough that it “could eas­i­ly dou­ble as a bomb. The cre­ation involved an alco­hol lamp on an oxy­gen-filled bar­rel. A rub­ber bulb would then blow a puff of mag­ne­sium pow­der over the flame, cre­at­ing a flash.”

Pho­tog­ra­phy enthu­si­asts will under­stand the mag­ni­tude of Boutan’s achieve­ment (made with the help of his broth­er Auguste and a lab­o­ra­to­ry tech­ni­cian named Joseph David). Some have gone so far as to recre­ate it, an effort you can see in the Barcelona Under­wa­ter Fes­ti­val video just above. Not only are there fish and oth­er sea crea­tures swim­ming every­where, a fea­ture of the envi­ron­ment not vis­i­ble in Boutan’s orig­i­nal shot, but the re-enac­tors face the pres­sure of curi­ous passers­by, young and old, who walk through a near­by trans­par­ent under­wa­ter tun­nel, not a con­sid­er­a­tion for Boutan and his col­lab­o­ra­tors. That ground­break­ing suc­cess in under­wa­ter por­trai­ture came 54 years after a Philadel­phia chemist named Robert Cor­nelius first turned his cam­era on him­self. Has pho­to­graph­ic his­to­ry record­ed how long it took human­i­ty after Boutan’s famous pic­ture to snap the first under­wa­ter self­ie?

via Diane Doniol-Val­croze on Twit­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Under­wa­ter Vol­canic Erup­tion Wit­nessed for the First Time

Reef View: Google Gives Us Stun­ning Under­wa­ter Shots of Great Coral Reefs

Sunken Films: Watch a Cin­e­mat­ic Med­i­ta­tion on Films Found on the Ocean’s Floor

See the First “Self­ie” In His­to­ry Tak­en by Robert Cor­nelius, a Philadel­phia Chemist, in 1839

The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy in Five Ani­mat­ed Min­utes: From Cam­era Obscu­ra to Cam­era Phone

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.