Personal Stories

Brett Gilliam: Visionary Underwater Photographer

Written on the occasion of the 2013 Santa Barbara Underwater Film Festival that honored Ernie. 

Everyone strives to achieve. Few will leave a lasting mark in their field… although many will try. We are privileged here tonight to recognize a man who has reached the summit in his chosen art and inspired so many others to reach higher and push the envelope of creative underwater photography. But none has equaled his rich legacy and singular talent in the niche of ocean imaging. And he accomplished all this using the extraordinary difficult stylizations of black & white film and the barest essentials of camera systems. Consider for a moment that most photographers interpret the underwater world in color and with the use of lighting… either the “old school” of flash or modern strobes. This pioneer shot all but one of his published images by capturing his subject in ambient available light. And, for most of his career, limited his camera settings to a handful of f-stops and shutter speeds. Yet his work grabs the viewer and draws them in with compelling fascination.

Ernie Brooks is a pure photographer. No digital simplicity… no auto-exposure… no auto-focus… and no post-editing in PhotoShop. He got it right the old fashioned way… sometimes with film loads only giving him 12 exposures. And even then he didn’t usually finish a roll on a single dive. Each frame was his palette and he crafted his art on the canvas of black & white film with no margins of error. His passion is revealed to all in his masterpiece coffee table book called Silver Seas… now a treasured collector’s item after swiftly selling out its press run. Recently a copy went at auction for over $2000 and it will only gain value.

While he is widely celebrated and seemingly in constant travel on the road for exhibits and lectures, he is an intensely private man. It’s been my pleasure to know him as a friend and colleague. It’s been an honor to share stages with him over the years but the best moments have always been in the private environment of “after parties” or in small groups of peers aboard diving vessels after a long day submerged.

In October 2012, to honor Stan Waterman’s upcoming 90th birthday, the Historical Diving Society organized a special trip to Guadalupe Island off Mexico to dive with world’s greatest concentrations of Great White sharks. Invitations went out to a special list of Stan’s close friends, professional collaborators, and longtime associates. It was as close to an actual Diving Hall of Fame as any diver could hope to be in close company with. Ed Stetson arranged everything and we all ended up together on the fabulous Nautilus Explorer. Our group included Stan and his daughter Susy, Valerie Taylor, Howard and Michele Hall, Douglas Siefert, Leslie Leaney, Dr. Chip Scarlett, Dan Orr, and Ernie Brooks as well as a bunch of other great folks. It was a truly once-in-a-lifetime gathering of some of the greatest filmmakers, photographers, writers, and lecturers ever assembled. The sharks cooperated for spectacular diving and the evenings were filled with memorable camaraderie fueled by decades of friendships… and copious ingestions of wine and other adult beverages.

The first evening at sea as we transited the 250 miles or so offshore, we gathered in the main salon after dinner and Ernie spontaneously led a moving tribute to Stan that was both eloquent and encompassing. Many of us were left wiping our eyes. Others were wiping their laps when their wine glasses spilled over in the applause that broke out when Ernie finished. Leslie Leaney then revealed one of the last remaining original posters from the iconic cinema verite documentary on sharks… Blue Water, White Death. Of course, this film’s primary characters were Stan, Valerie and Ron Taylor and Peter Gimbel. The only two living members of that film crew are Stan and Val and they sat among us cheerfully pounding the wine cellar.

Leslie announced that the poster would be signed by them and auctioned off to benefit the HDS. A spirited bidding ensued and Ernie prevailed with a four-figure offer. The poster was handed over, again to sustained applause, and without a moment’s hesitation he pivoted and gave it to Ed Stetson for his work in getting the whole trip together. That’s something else most people don’t know about Ernie… his selfless and gracious generosity. But all of us onboard were not surprised. The man is a shining example of understated philanthropy who shuns the spotlight and prefers to remain behind the curtain. But we know better…


How did you get started?

1949, that was very early skin diving. My father was an avid boater and diver and we lived in the rich marine environment around Santa Barbara. That urged me to venture out into the Pacific and the Channel Islands. At the age of nine, I entered a swimming contest at summer camp… a 50-foot sprint. Not only did I win, but I also managed to hold my breath and stay underwater the whole time. By the time I was in high school I was competing in mile-long swim competitions. It was during a three-mile race off the coast of Santa Barbara that my fate was sealed… through my swim goggles I spied the kelp strands, schooling fish, and sunrays disappearing into the depths. I didn’t just see nature… I saw frame and focus lines.

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. It took a lot of time so it gave you time to think… time to be with yourself.

Most of your work that has been released is done in black & white.

Definitely. It has always been in my life. This is how I have seen everything. Coming from a photographic school later in my life, the black & 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 like Ernst Haas, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Hans Hass, and Edward Steichen.  I just love the quality of black and white, and the color.

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. 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 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.

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. Dr. Hans Haas was my hero. He and his wife Lotte produced beautiful black and white images. 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 and I used to enter competitions and it was great. 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. So 2 x2 and 70mm became my style. I graduated to the Rolleimarin, a Hans Haas-designed housing manufactured by Franke & Heidecke that enclosed their twin-lens Rolleiflex camera. It was housing number 107. I had an f2.8 Rollei lens. Later I went from that directly to the Hasselblad SWC. The former was too limiting for me. I liked wider angles and I didn’t like macro. I liked the vista, the feeling… the great expanse of the ocean. I liked the wider view, the sunlight, the “landscape”.

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 4-year university-level program and 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. 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.

North Americans tend to talk too much about equipment and/or technique. Was it hard for you to tell students that there is far more to it?

F-stops and shutter speeds don’t work! You learn technique early in school and photographers tend to concentrate too much on technique over the art. You see it so much in the portraiture field and in other aspects of photography. It’s all about physical optics. 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. Let’s talk about how we will light the subject. 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?

Should photographers start in black & white?

It’s 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 if I just had color in my background. Some of the best photographers in the business today started that way. That is all we had then. However, when I look at Chris Newbert’s work or others like yourself, 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.

One becomes more selective. You know what you want to do, which statement you want to make with your images. 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. The idea is to make a statement with light. I had a rule on my boat, Just Love, when 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 element in photography.

Were most of the images made in your mind before entering the water?

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. How did it evolve?

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 was a natural. The proceeds go to organizations like Ocean Future and it also benefits the kids.

Which image in the book is your favorite?

It has to be “Spot” the harbor seal because there is a story behind the image. It is 6:30 one morning in August 1990, 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. 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. Can I borrow your fins?” I say to myself, “I’m diving down to 15 feet, he’s going to be 1/125th at about f/8, ISO 800, and I’ll nail her!”

I dive, snap one image, and come back up. The seal leaves and, as I swim back to the boat, she tries to grab my snorkel with its mouth - a terrible character. But I got the shot… a sweet shaft of morning light graced her face, spotlighting her expression. We photographed Spot many times over the years but I never got the same image again. One year, we got there and Spot had a little one. 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. She stole my heart… and my snorkel!

Talk about technique?

I know how to read light. 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. 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. It’s the only picture I lit with a strobe.

Where should underwater photographers go for inspiration?

I would go to a 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 were made by the artists. It could be pictures from years ago. Look at them like you do with all art. You cannot go to “” and find it. 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.

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 finning 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 photographers are artists as well. This is one of the reasons we created the Ocean Artists Society.

Your thoughts on digital photography that has replaced film?

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.

But when the digital era began about a decade ago, you stuck with a large format Hasselblad. Why?

Victor Hasselblad presented me with his favorite in 1961, the 38mm SW with a 70mm back. After forty years of use without ever changing o-rings, aperture, shutter speed, and pre-focused 6-inches to infinity, it remains the best “point and shoot” camera in the world! And much like my Blancpain watch that never fails, quality is something that should never be sacrificed!

You clearly have an appreciation for art in general, like music as a segment.

Music is the driving force, the rhythm and the heartbeat that solidifies the image and composes the visual ballad. All of my published works strive to begin with a musical note. When I do film festivals I like to blend my images with music and I work with Ernest Cortazone to create the feeling. His single piano serves the 21 steps of the greyscale that creates the tonal range of the black & white photograph.

You recently started working with an infrared camera. At this stage of your career you’re still engaged in the cutting edge of your craft.

That was a couple years ago at 76… my life has had a new beginning with a focus to bring about a change as one that “visually explains” the change we are experiencing on the planet. My infrared images attract the eyes first, the subject next, and they become a comparison for information. I was filming in the Antarctica and the portrait of our 7th continent brought a message about is fragile state… the beauty, the solitude, and the future of what lies ahead.

How do you feel about being branded as the “underwater” Ansel Adams for so many decades?

The link to him has been like a tattoo on me… it hasn’t washed off. It seems it’s because of my love for black & white within the oceans of our colorful planet. I chose my subjects to be within a timeframe that is endless. It could be today or it could be 1492… making a statement for all ages in time. After my 60 some years of being published, with exhibitions, and presenting programs worldwide, a photo I shot of an oil spill on January 17, 1969 came of notice recently to Jeanne Adams (Curator of the Ansel Adams exhibits). That led to my newest project, “Fragile Waters”, to travel the world as a major Museum of Art Exhibition. China was the first showing in 2012. This timeline will be viewed without a political sentence… as a continuing focal point for centuries to come, and new responsible words will come to be… in every language… to preserve.

You’ve received a long list of prestigious awards. Is there one that is close to your heart?

They are all so touching… each one is a treasure. One is truly remembered in a special way. I was the first to receive the Hans Hass “Diving to Adventure” award presented in Dusseldorf by Hans himself. It was overwhelming to be onstage with my earliest mentor, the very same explorer I pretended and aspired to be all those years ago. Other highlights that come to mind include being named a “Legend of the Sea” at the 2012 Beneath the Sea program. This year (2013) it was such a pleasure to be on the BTS program that you put together… especially since Valerie and Ron Taylor were honored that night with the same award. The theme of the evening was to pay tribute to Stan Waterman’s astounding career and his 90th birthday.

It was a great evening and such a pleasure to have you there. But how about the award made to you that will truly last forever?

Well, of course, nothing is quite the same as being immortalized in stone! In 2011, the sculptor Viktor unveiled a larger-than-life granite bust of me that now stands watch at the Maritime Museum in Santa Barbara.

If you had to relive the past?

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.

You’re still actively shooting. What projects do you have coming up?

Being a photographer is all about giving back in a way that all people can witness our fantastic landscapes of wonder… both above and below the waves. Even at age 78, my life and images are just beginning again with the digital infrared provided me by Canon. My sights now are set on illustrating a lasting view of civilizations and the monuments remaining. Of course, my photography will continue to be lit only by the sun and kept timeless in black & white so the memories never fade.

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