“The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it.” Jacques Cousteau
Rfotofolio had the pleasure of meeting photographer Chuck Davis in his home in Pacific Grove. HIs ability to share the importance of the ocean to our well-being, to look at the earth as a whole, and his ability to share the beauty that most of us will never see, inspired us to ask Chuck to share his work and thoughts in a three-part series. This is the first of that series.
Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work and words of Chuck Davis.
Would you please tell us about yourself?
I’m a freelance cinematographer and still photographer and specialize in underwater photography. For the most part the majority of my income over the years has been garnered via my movie assignment work, much of that done over some 20 years working with the Cousteau filming teams with the late Jacques Cousteau and his son Jean-Michel on the “Rediscovery of the World” TV series, and also, more recently, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Adventures series for PBS. Over the years, I’ve also worked on numerous IMAX films, as well as episodic television, feature films, commercials and lots of documentaries. As I’ve stated earlier, my movie work is what really has paid the bills for me, but I have always remained a very active still photographer: still photography is a passion for me, and I cannot “not” do it. For the Cousteau’s — especially during the early years when I first started working with them — I was filming both motion picture footage and a lot of stills coverage more or less simultaneously on many assignments — very often, I’d be working as a movie camera operator on a particular dive with our filming teams, and then before the dive was over, I’d cover the subject — or do some production stills of our crew –with an underwater still camera for the Cousteau’s many books and other publications that were produced along with the television programs.
No matter where I’ve worked or traveled, though I’ve always made still photographs whether I was paid to or not — and of course, my more personal black and white underwater still photography work falls into the latter category. While there are similarities between underwater cinematography and still photography (they both involve composition within a frame, and capturing underwater light with optics, and the judgement and assessment of light in the water), cinema tends to have a stronger element of “time” involved — at least that’s how I’ve always experienced it. And usually the craft of underwater filmmaking is much more crew-intensive (and extremely expensive) because of the demands of the equipment and on-camera talent and surface support, etc. Underwater still photography, for me, tends to offer more solitude.
When I photograph underwater stills — when no one is paying me to do so (usually when I am back home here on the Monterey Peninsula) — the process is contemplative and lends itself to being alone — often when I’m photographing off the coast here, it is just me and my camera and perhaps my photo assistant and that’s it. Quite a difference, actually. It’s a much more minimalist approach. I don’t feel so much “production pressure” when doing my personal stills work — I am working for myself and the production “clock” (and cash register) is not ticking away in the back of my head, as underwater filmmaking is very expensive; when I’m doing my stills work that pressure goes away — I am very grateful when things go well and I have a productive shooting day underwater with my still cameras; if the weather turns bad or the underwater visibility turns to zero, I can come back and make photographs again on another day. So — there is a yin and yang to my photographic life, but I remain very grateful for both types of work and one has truly nurtured the other: the truth is I love both forms of underwater image making. Yes they are very different…but in my view, also very much the same.
There is a wonderful quote I heard some time ago in a biographical documentary about Ansel Adams (and I’m paraphrasing) but there was a scene in the film where he described two kinds of photographic work: “assignments from without,” and “assignments from within.” The former were assignments for hire and paid the bills and the latter were generated from “within,” that is, self-assignments and I think it is fair to say that the majority of the most impactful images that the great master created were those assignments from within. I am in no way comparing myself to the iconic works of Ansel Adams, but I have been very inspired by his work and also by how he used his photographs for the benefit of the environment, and in a way that to me never felt like it was propaganda or politics…you just “felt” something magical about those amazing scenes from the American West and Alaska that made you realize these were very special places on the planet…and that humankind would be at a great loss without them.
So — in my own photographic life, I have been doing a great deal of personal “self-assigned” work in a place that in my opinion, is one of the most amazing undersea ecosystems in the world (sometimes described by modern-day scientists as the “Serengeti of the Eastern Pacific”) right in my back yard off the Central California Coast within Monterey Bay, Carmel Bay and points south at Point Lobos and the northern reaches of Big Sur. Occasionally I also photograph as far south as Baja California, but to me this whole stretch of reef system and adjacent pelagic waters is one interconnected living organism. It’s all connected.
I have been very fortunate in my career to have dived all over the world, including the Arctic and Antarctic and while those areas are magnificent and very interesting — and very important, too — I still find that the realm of the giant kelp forest off the California coast and adjacent Channel Islands and Farallons (and northern reaches of Baja Mexico) have truly captivated me and is a big reason why my wife and family and I chose to move here many years ago to live near the shores of Monterey Bay. In my case, I know I could dive and photograph for many years out off our coast and never run out of inspiration…and also, probably never give the area true justice photographically, but I will surely do my best trying.
Having said all of the above, I have to admit that photography is a huge part of my life. It is more than work or a “job” — it is truly a lifestyle and I live it every day. At night I sometimes have dreams about being underwater with a camera. But photography is just one facet of my life. I am also a husband and a father. My wife has been hugely supportive and encouraging of my work over the years, and also has the patience of ” Job” — the kind of patience it takes to live with a photographer year in and year out. My son and daughter have also been equally supportive and I’ve done my very best to do the same for them. I am very passionate about photography, but it plays second fiddle to my family. I would be lost without them.
What brought you to photography? Why underwater photography?
My attraction to photography started relatively early in my life. I didn’t actually photograph at a very young age, but I was fascinated with photographs — I remember as a young kid being very excited when my mother would come home from grocery shopping and she’d bring in the latest issue of LIFE magazine, and my younger brother, Mark, and I would pore over those amazing photographs; we would sometimes lay on the rug of our living room floor in the late afternoon after school, spread open the magazine and devour it page by page, and when we’d finish, we’d start all over again from the front. We weren’t reading it as much as we were looking at the photographs and captions. LIFE was printed in both color and black and white images in those days, but it is the black and white work that remains the most prominent in my mind: images of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement…and my brother’s favorite, picture stories of the NASA space program — the Mercury and Gemini launches — Alan Shepherd and John Glenn.
My attraction to underwater photography also began when I was very young. I grew up on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard and was always surrounded by the sea. My family — my older sister Kathy, my younger brother Mark and my parents and I — moved there from northern Maine when I was five years old — I was actually born in Bangor, Maine. We moved to the Island in 1959 when my father accepted a job as principal of the then brand new Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and my mother later worked as a nurse at the Vineyard hospital — the Island was very rural then and much more isolated than life on the mainland, especially on those cold damp and often stormy New England winters. But having moved there from northern Maine, it didn’t seem that rural by comparison, but it was indeed separated from the mainland by the Atlantic Ocean.
It is funny sometimes when people hear that I grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, they instantly think I am from a rich family; nothing could be further from the truth. LIke most of the kids I went to public school with in those days, we were from middle class working families: my classmates’ parents were commercial fishermen, carpenters, plumbers, teachers, grocery store proprietors, landscapers, masons, caretakers or perhaps in the Coast Guard. There were wealthy folks on the Island, but in those days they were mostly “summer people” who came from the mainland to vacation, mostly from Boston and New York — many of them owned second summer homes on the Island, but by the late fall those homes were boarded up, the population dropped dramatically and it was the “Islanders” — the locals — that stayed to endure the winter.
In retrospect, I realize now how lucky I was to grow up on the Island, but I didn’t fully appreciate that until adulthood — when we were kids, some of us actually developed a slight complex of sorts about how isolated or inferior we were being so removed from the “mainland” — we would refer to Cape Cod (which was visible from the north shore of the Island) as “America” and on the Island there were no freeways, no big department stores, no fast food restaurants, not much in the way of any entertainment in the winter either. And then there was the winter weather. It was easy to feel isolated and I remember my father losing teaching staff some years as new teachers would make it through one academic year and then leave, as the winters really got to them — usually it happened on the first N’orEaster that would blow in off the Atlantic and it was impossible to fly off the island and too rough for the ferry to sail to Woods Hole, and they would get the heebie-jeebies, feeling like they were “trapped” on that little island. Cabin fever they call it in some places. They just felt too far removed from the rest of the world. Fortunately, in those days, for kids like my brother Mark and me, LIFE Magazine connected us to the rest of the world: it brought the world to us each week via powerful photographs.
As I got older, I would sometimes borrow and photograph with my sister’s Herco/Imperial box camera that used 620 roll film (620 film is actually 120 film loaded onto a smaller diameter spool) — it was really fascinating for me as a kid to compose through that tiny square telescopic viewfinder on the top of that plastic camera and then push the red anodized aluminum shutter lever and — “ker-plunk” — the loud shutter mechanism would drop, and I had created a photograph. You then looked in through another tiny red-gelled “window” in the rear of the camera to view the film advance as you rolled the big knob on the side of the camera, as you advanced the film to the next exposure. It was even more thrilling to receive the finished black and white prints back from our local camera store and see my creations — those small glossy black and white prints — usually with ragged-edged white borders were magical to me then.
When I was about ten years old — perhaps because they sensed my interest in photography — my parents gave me an Agfa Rapid C point-and-shoot camera as a birthday present. I was elated to open up that orange box with the Agfa logo and it was more or less packaged as a “kit” – with a camera, a roll of 35mm film, a film takeup cartridge and flash “cube” — I was in heaven. The Rapid C used 35mm film, and the camera was more or less Agfa’s version of Kodak’s “Instamatic” except it didn’t have the easier-to-load “Kodapak” cassette, but used two 35mm “Rapid” cartridges, with the supply end feeding into the take up — and when you finished a roll, you took the “take up” cartridge to the processor, which in my case was Mosher’s Camera Store, which was located a few miles from my parents house, on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. I would wait anxiously to receive those processed prints back from Mosher’s and that magic never waned, even though there were many more failures than successes on those early rolls as I learned to focus (or keep the subject within the camera’s focus range!) and compose. At that time, even though I was young I tried to get a handle on light and lighting (unsuccessfully for the most part) and I remember trying to use back and side lighting on portraits with limited success based on dramatic photographs I’d seen in magazines and books, but the good thing was that I was slowly getting away from just growing comfortable with the mechanics of the camera, and I was starting to think about “photographing” and giving a bit more thought to my subject matter. I turned the lens of my Agfa Rapid C on my family members, and anyone who would pose for me including our Irish Setter during those days. Most if not all of my efforts would fall into the “snapshot” category, but in a year or so, my other huge interest — skin diving — took hold and it was only a few years before I was able to connect my passion for photography with my passion for being underwater.
My passion for underwater photography really emanated from my love of skin diving or “free diving” which I began at an early age in the chilly waters of Nantucket Sound off the Northeastern shore of Martha’s Vineyard — off the public beaches in the town of Oak Bluffs. Along with a number of my schoolmates, we all had been weened on Lloyd Bridges, “Sea Hunt” TV series, but did not have the money or the training to scuba dive, but we all became strong free divers and spearfishermen — my early underwater exploits were to hunt for fish with my spear gun. We would free dive with just a mask, snorkel, fins (and most of us bought the blue AMF Voit swim fins that Lloyd Bridges used in “Sea Hunt” as he was our hero!) and no wet suit — we spent countless hours and days exploring the chilly depths off places like “East Chop,” and the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority boat wharf and sites on the island’s Northwestern shore off Paul’s Point, Lobsterville and Gay Head and the Devi’s Bridge Reef (the town of Gay Head is now referred to by its original Native American name Aquinnah). I started free diving seriously when I was about ten years old, and by the time I was 13 I had saved up enough money from my paper route and salvaging copper and brass from the local dump to buy my first set of scuba gear — and with the help of a local wreck diver, Paul DeBettencourt and the assistant scoutmaster of our local Boy Scout Troop (Butch Gibson – Butch was a volunteer fire fighter and diver for our local fire department) where we obtained good “dive lessons” both on the theory of diving and some open water “check out dives” — albeit there were not certifying agencies on Martha’s Vineyard in those days, but in retrospect the training we obtained from Paul and Butch were as good or better than any of the official certifying agencies and we young divers were well prepared to explore the depths surrounding the Island – a huge asset to all of us young divers then was that we had all been free diving for years and knew the local sites, marine life and currents/tides like the back of our hands by then. It was only a year or so after learning to scuba dive, that I hung up my spear guns and took up underwater photography very seriously. I was motivated by the amazing images I had viewed on TV via Lloyd Bridges’ “Sea Hunt” and the “Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and still photos which I had seen in Cousteau’s books such as “Silent World” and “World Without Sun” — and the wonderful images I had seen in a book called “Camera Below” by Paul Tzimoulis and Hank Frey…and of course the photographs I would see each month in Skin Diver Magazine.
My first underwater camera was a Nikonos II amphibious camera which came equipped with a 35mm lens (which when submerged in water, had the angle of view that was closer to a 50mm lens, because of the refraction of sea water) — I began shooting with available light using Tri-X film and I pretty much made all the mistakes in the book (and, actually, there really weren’t that many “books” to refer to in those days). I was in high school by this time — and I was very lucky in that my high school installed a darkroom as part of its’ art department and instead of sending my film to the local camera store to be developed, I could finally process my own film and print my own prints, thanks to some excellent instruction by our high school art teacher, Mr. Hewitt. Mr. Hewitt was a wonderful teacher and he managed to set the darkroom up for us behind the school’s chemistry room, and we were allowed to get a “pass” during study halls to go print – it was all on the honor system (and the system really worked well) for the most part. We students soaked it up and I still have magical memories of those rolls of underwater photos I would shoot and print. In retrospect, I realize I was very lucky to have a high school that put such a high value on art instruction. At this time I also attended some fine art photography classes at the Vineyard Haven Library taught by photographer, Michael Zide and I was very impressed with Michael’s amazing black and white photographs – it was during these classes that I was first exposed to the Zone System and the concept of “placing” one’s exposure on a piece of black and white negative for a “visualized” print.
What I have described above is really the background for the genesis of my own early explorations into the realm of underwater photography…and as the years rolled by — and after making pretty much all the mistakes that could be possibly be made while self-teaching myself underwater photographic technique — I knew this was something that I wanted to do as a profession, the only barrier of course, was that this “profession” was so new and “off the wall” that my high school guidance counselor didn’t know where to place me — my parents were very supportive, and my father, being an educator (and the Principal of my high school) encouraged me to get a “real” degree in marine science so I would have something to “fall back on” in case my passion to make a living as photographer didn’t work out. After four years at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, I earned a B.S. in marine fisheries biology…and then immediately enrolled at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, CA which was one of the best decisions I ever made — and to make a long story short, Brooks Institute is where I was able to put my marine science background together with the art of underwater photography that allowed me to go on later to work as a full-time underwater photographer. The path to the latter, was “serpentine” however: I had to work many odd jobs after graduation — I even did some industrial diving, documenting oil rigs and super tankers in the Gulf of Mexico and under the Santa Barbara Channel, I worked as a diving instructor and also as a mason’s tender in Santa Barbara — but with tenacity, the underwater work photography and cinematography work became a more consistent part of my income and my life, especially when I made the move to Los Angeles where the work was more plentiful at the time.
Who has had the most influence on you as a photographer?
This is a tough question to answer in the sense that there are several key photographers who have influenced my work — as a kid I grew up watching the underwater cinematography of Lamar Boren, ASC who was the principal underwater cinematographer who filmed the black and white underwater footage for Lloyd’ Bridges’, “Sea Hunt” series — later I was very much influenced by the underwater stills and movie footage of Jacques Cousteau’s books and TV series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and much of that footage that I viewed on TV as a kid was shot by a French master underwater cinematographer named Michel Deloire — I was very fortunate (many years later) to actually work with Michel when I as hired by the Cousteau Society in 1986; I am also very thankful for all the mentoring I received from Cousteau cinematographer, Louis Prezelin as well. In my high school years I marveled at the masterful underwater photographs of William Curtsinger, Douglas Faulkner and Ernest H. Brooks II. I was very fortunate to attend Brooks Institute while Ernie was President of the Brooks Institute — he was a very strong supporter of the school’s Undersea Photography Program – Ernie and his work continue to be a huge inspiration to me. I was also very fortunate to meet Bill Curtsinger back in the 90’s and dive with him here in Monterey Bay — that friendship that developed led to my working for Bill as a photo assistant, when he returned to Monterey Bay to do an assignment for LIFE Magazine. I would recommend to anyone serious about learning underwater photography to read Bill Curtsinger’s book, “Extreme Nature” and also Ernie Brooks “Silver Seas.”
Would you share what you would consider the perfect photographic day?
Hmmm, well it would likely be a fall day – perhaps late October or early November, here on the Central California Coast when we get our best conditions for underwater photography, and it would be a dive out off one of my favorite dive sites at the Point Lobos State Underwater Reserve at the Outer Bluefish Pinnacle — the seas would be placidly flat, and the underwater visibility would be 80 feet or more from a depth of 100 feet. I would be able to look up and see dramatic and tightly focused beams of sunlight penetrating down through the surface kelp canopy — the towering stalks of giant kelp would be silhouetted on the top of this pinnacle (which is really an undersea mountain that protrudes up from the sea bed) — and there, huge clouds of blue rock fish would hover in between the kelp stalks; a harbor seal would swim down to greet me, and dolphins might even swim by…I’d have my trusty CONTAX 645 medium format camera in hand and would likely enjoy a great meditation as I rested near the bottom looking up into this magnificent light from above and perhaps even a bit shell-shocked as to what to compose in my frame, as on an ideal day like this, there would be so many great photographic alternatives.
As the saying goes — one has to be careful what they ask for as they might just get it: on days like this, the toughest thing is to decide which image to photograph first!
Thank you Chuck for sharing your words and your art.
To learn more about Chuck Davis please visit his site, at,Chuck Davis Tidal Flats.