Personal Stories

Ralph Clevenger

Ernie was my mentor during my years as a Brooks student and for many years after. He is one of the most unselfish persons I know, and I certainly owe a lot to him. One of the things he taught me about photographing underwater was to think slowly and practice patience. I can remember diving with him and spending the first 30 minutes of an hour-long dive just slowly swimming around looking. What Ernie was looking for was a scene, a background in which to make his image. He would then stop and wait for the fish, or shark, or ray, or diver to swim into his beautifully composed scene and then would shoot his whole roll of film in this one spot. I now practice this technique regularly and pass it on to my students. 

Ernie never really swims much underwater. He seems to just drift, moving with the current or the swell, occasionally flicking a fin or two to hold his position or change his viewpoint. He would float up or sink down almost imperceptibly. He is incredibly calm underwater. This feeling of weightless comfort is reflected in many of his images, especially of sea lions. I think his calmness is one reason Harbor Seals would regularly approach Ernie. Many times they would come so close that he could touch them. Maybe because his diving behavior was a lot like the seals ........ slow, calm, and effortless.

Spending time at sea with Ernie, especially on his boat Just Love, was time I will always cherish. I remember one day when he was sitting in the tiny galley with about 8 students around him. I don't remember what he was talking about but it was lunch time and all the sandwich "fixings" –bread, mayo, lettuce, cheese, meat, etc. – were spread out on the table and in the middle of all that was Ernie's Hasselblad. What he was saying was so interesting that the students who couldn't fit in the galley were hanging in the windows. I took a wonderful picture of this "galley lecture". It's one of my favorites of Ernie and his students.


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