May 2: Sous-marine

Date #2In a small boat, insecure amongst mounting waves, awareness turns fearfully to the fathoms below; the very element that bears us up could, at a slip, rob us of life-breath.

The mysteries of those depths remained a world apart and were not usefully penetrated by the camera until some 60 years after the invention of photography.

An early experiment in underwater photographs by William Thompson (1822-1879) in February 1856 yielded a fairly thin collodion negative, the print from which contains what can be imagined as the sandy sea floor from which rise some sea weeds and behind a band of rock which remains just below the surface at low tide.

Screen Shot 2020-05-02 at 6.11.33 pm
William Thompson (February 1852) Weymouth Bay at a death of eighteen feet. Albumen print from 4″ x 5″ collodion negative.

The iron-clad camera leaked and so many of the markings and stains make reading the image uncertain, the more so since Thompson claimed the image was not inverted by the lens, so his understanding of optics at least, is dubious. In 1866 Frenchman Ernest Bazin claimed to have made underwater photographs from a diving cylinder though none survive.

Louis Boutan (c.1893) underwater self-portrait.

The first successes were made by French scientist Louis Boutan (1859-1934) who in 1880 came to Australia to organise the French section at the Universal Exhibition in Melbourne and stayed eighteen months, traveling around the continent to identify many new animal species and investigating the embryology of marsupials, studying  phylloxera in the vineyards, the flora of the desert plateaus and, in the Torres Strait the shellfish that produced mother-of-pearl and pearls, and collecting a large number of giant clams.


It was his latter interest in the nascence of pearls that may have gained him an enviable position at the Arago Laboratory in Banyuls-sur-Mer on France’s most southern coast on the Mediterranean. With two vessels, the 5 tonne Lacaze-Duthiers and the 25 tonne Roland steamboat, at his command, teams of assistants, and access to a hard-hat diving suit and apparatus, he continued his interests in marine biology and learned to dive to study animals in their natural environment, and completed his PhD on life found in submarine fissures and ravines. Amazed to be able to walk amongst underwater landscapes “with their meadows with tall grass, their cliffs of rocks with cavities populated by a whole fauna,” he regrets not being able to bring back images, and in 1893, with his brother Auguste, an engineer, set about remedying the problem.

Prise d'une épreuve de pbolograpbie sous-marine dans le voisinage du rivage
M. Racovitza (c.1893) Louis Boutan testing his first underwater camera near the shore, using a steel tube to see into the viewfinder under the water.

At the home of the Alvergniat brothers, who were well-known makers of scientific instruments during the second half of the nineteenth century, they built a waterproof box for a “detective camera” with 6 plates of 9cm x 12cm, with which he took several pictures at depths of 3.5m close to the beach and some in the laboratory sea aquarium, using a tube to see into the viewfinder from above the water. Ingeniously, and perhaps based on Paul Regnard‘s (1850-1927) unrealised 1891 design, a three-litre “compensation balloon” was inserted into the upper part so that the pressure of the water on air in the balloon would force it into the sealed box, thus balancing the pressure.

Several seaweeds on the surface of a rock, photograph made with the first camera
Louis Boutan (c.1893) Several seaweeds on the surface of a rock, photograph made with the first camera

The fixed-focus lens was slow, and during more ambitious dives to 11m, exposures took between ten minutes and half an hour, resulting in blurred images because of the motion of plants and sea creatures. Most unsatisfactory was the way the image seemed to fade into the distance due to the back-scattering of light, so that only the foreground was clearly visible while the diver himself could see much more. The site itself was unsuitable due to the mud stirred up by the diver.

Paysage sous-marine de la baie de Banyuls
Louis Boutan (c.1893) Underwater landscape of Banyuls bay (View taken with the first underwater photography camera).

And yet, the results must have seemed to be scenes from science fiction, in the wake of Jules Verne‘s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: A World Tour Underwater  serialised 1869-1870 in the Magasin d’éducation et de récréation, and  H. G. Wells‘ The War of the Worlds serialised in 1897 in Pearson’s Magazine in the UK and Cosmopolitan magazine in the US.


The similarity between Boutan’s crab in a crack and the Martians of Warwick Goble‘s (1862 – 1943) illustrations for Pearson’s is uncanny, if only coincidental.

Warwick Goble (1897) illustration for H. G. Wells War of the Worlds, in Pearson’s Magazine, engraving.

Becoming more ambitious, he and his engineer went on to devise two more cameras. They overcame the problem of water pressure with the novel solution of equalising it by  filling the second model with sea water and with the lens and plates themselves immersed, protected by special lacquer coating devised by the Lumière Brothers. He explains in an exhaustive 1900 text La photographie sous-marine et les progrès de la photographie (available at the Bibliothèque nationale de FranceBibliothèque nationale de France), which I have endeavoured to translate from its arcane fin-de-siècle French;

“The action of salt water on the plates is, in fact, very weak, when it is not too prolonged; and one can completely annihilate it by using sensitive plates previously varnished, as I had the pleasure of having them specially prepared for me by MM. Lumière de Lyon when I was doing these tests.”

That design also went some way toward solving the issue of refraction, though he was dissatisfied with the hazy results.

Louis Boutan The underwater camera of Louis Boutan n.d.

Finished in late 1896, the third model, much larger and completely sealed  was built on a sled and submerged to a depth of 12 metres and deeper. So cumbersome was it, that it had to be lowered by crane into the boat’s hold in order to load the plates, and then mechanically lifted into the sea over the side.

Actinic dévorant un poisson (Baudroie).
Louis Boutan (c.1890s) Anenome devouring a fish

But it was practical, and the results often were beautiful; once suspended by block and tackle underwater from an empty barrel, a diver could manoeuvre it with ease, the structure could be adjusted for near and far views, as above, and the focus changed with a lever while a magazine of six 18 x 24 cm (7″ x 9″) plates could be changed by the diver underwater with the rotation of a knob.

Lois Boutan (c.1896) underwater photograph of diver demonstrating that the third camera is capable of ‘instantaneous’ exposure
Louis Boutan photograph of fish against a white screen again demonstrates the high shutter speeds achieved.
Darlot Anastigmat f4.5 210mm lens

A newly designed lens by Darlot “the genus of symmetrical anastigmats” decreased exposure times. Photo-Miniature: A Monthly Magazine of Photographic Information Vol. I. No. 1. April 1899 (Tennant and Ward, N. Y.) notes:

Messrs. B. French & Co., of Boston, American agents for the well-known Euryscope Lenses made by Voigtlander, have just issued a new catalogue of Darlot lenses, for which they are also sole American agents…In its pages we note that Darlot has introduced a Symmetrical Anastigmat working at f7.5.

Calibrating the shallow depth of field of this faster lens (whether the f4.5 pictured or the f7.5 described above is not known) required suspending the camera vertically in the dry dock and focusing on different points which were then marked on the camera controls able to be operated by the diver in his cumbersome helmet and gloved hands.

Louis Boutan (c.1896) diver holding sign, inadvertently upside-down, reading ‘Photographie Sous-Marine’
La_photographie_sous-marine Pose 1
Louis Boutan (1896) sign reading ‘Photographie Sous-Marine’ on canvas shown underwater.

Boutan notes portrait above of…

“the mechanic David in diving-suit at 3 metres and 4 metres from the camera…was taken, with an instant exposure, on September 22 [1896], at 11 o’clock in the morning, in beautiful sunshine”

…was made from the boat above with a cable release, indicating the possibility of making underwater photographs remotely without the aid of a diver. So many of the prerequisites for future images of other worlds are set up in this intense development being carried out in the balmy waters of Mediterranean.

Camera 3
“Third apparatus built at Arago Laboratory, which yields instant negatives”

The only obstacle remaining, one causing the most concern, was light; the deeper one dived, the longer the exposure time needed. Over 1895-7, with tests at different depths, Boutan sought to determine to what extent the sun’s “photogenic” light power decreased as the layer of water between the sun and the object increased. He tried lighting the scenes with sunlight reflected from a large mirror, and then with artificial light from magnesium as well as electric lamps. For his first camera Boutan had used lighting systems designed by electrical engineer Chaufour, but its magnesium flashbulb produced “weak” photographs.

Deloncle (1856-1922) provided Boutan with the necessary apparatus and electrical batteries needed on the condition that some of the photographs he obtained be projected at the Palace of Optics at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900. In August 1899 Chaufour had to run a steam engine for over seventy hours to charge the batteries so that trials of these lights could be made in a large pool at night, under the assumption that the same result should be obtained regardless of the depth. They took the photo of a group of Gorgonia (sea whips or sea fans), at a depth of six metres.

Night shot
Louis Boutan (1899) Photograph of a ‘Gorgon’s Head’ (Paramuricea clavata) by electric light at 6 metres.

Boutan noted that photographs of objects that were shot with the aid of electric light stood out in more relief and their outlines were clearer against the unlit background.

During his stay at Banyuls, Boutan published results of his experiments in the journal Archives de Zoologie Genérale et Experiméntale. He then moved on to Roscoff, and after publishing his book, worked on commercial pearl production, and later at the marine biology station in Algeria, where he continued working mainly in marine studies.

It was to be 50 years before the first commercially available underwater camera housing, was designed by French underwater photographer Henry Broussard for French Foca camera, and distributed (from 1950) by another Frenchman Georges Beuchat, an avid diver, as the ‘Tarzan’

Boutan’s remarkably rapid development of underwater photography was due to his human and laboratory resources; a demonstration of the value of properly supported research in the service of endeavours with immediate benefits in one area—marine zoology in this case—and far-reaching in terms of exploration of other worlds.

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