Personal Stories

Peter Skinner: A Tribute to Ernie Brooks

I remember well the first time I met Ernie and have to admit I was really impressed by his calm demeanour under aggravating circumstances. It was on Queensland’s Gold Coast, Australia, in 1978 and Ernie was a keynote speaker at a national photography conference. At the time I was working with a long time friend, Ken Newton, in his public relations and corporate communications company and we were responsible for media liaison and other PR functions for that conference. Among my various assignments was an interview with one Ernest H. Brooks II, president of Brooks Institute, Santa Barbara, California.

The initial appointment, essentially a “getting to know you” chat, got off to a bad start thanks to an over zealous (or very conscientious, depending on your point of view) Australian Customs Department at one of the international airports. In a search for who knows what, customs officers had dismantled Ernie’s multi-projector slide presentation, even going so far as to take some slides out of their mounts. When I arrived to chat with him, and while his audience was starting to fill the auditorium, Ernie was re-assembling his slide show. Talk about cool under pressure. We exchanged pleasantries, and he started enthusing about Australia, the photographers he had met and the Great Barrier Reef, all the while calmly slotting slides into their trays. If he was sweating, he sure didn’t show it. Diplomatically, I wished him luck and offered to continue our conversation and reschedule the interview after his presentation, which went off without a hitch to a standing ovation.

Subsequently, we did have a much longer meeting during which I mentioned that while my background in newspaper and magazine journalism and public relations did include a substantial amount of editorial photography I had never had any formal photographic education. At this Ernie suggested that should my future circumstances permit he would arrange a special seven-week course for me at Brooks, encompassing fields of specific interest. In truth, he probably figured he’d never hear from me again.

(But, and this is a slight digression, if you believe in such things, our future might be written in the stars. Apparently, Ernest H. Brooks I, the founder of Brooks Institute made most major decisions on his birthday, October 17. As fate, luck, or serendipity would have it, he founded Brooks Institute on October 17, 1945—which happened to be my birthday. Also, and this is yet another digression, during my tenure at Brooks, Ernie Sr. and I did on occasion celebrate our birthdays together—fellow Librans enjoying a fine red wine.)

So, with a connection like that it perhaps it was no surprise that a couple of years later, in 1980, I took Ernie up on the offer. I wrote that my wife Cilla and I were setting off in a camper van across Australia for a few months during which time I hoped to churn out articles and photos for various magazines to fund the trip. We would then fly from Perth to England where Cilla would stay with her parents while I planned to attend Brooks Institute from October to December. At the completion of the program I would return to England to determine future plans. Those plans never eventuated.

Ernie’s response was, as I was to learn later, very typical. While others questioned the wisdom of  “throwing our fate to the wind” Ernie enthused about “the magnificent plans you and your wife have” and said,  “I look forward to hearing more about your journey across Australia when we meet in Santa Barbara”.

From the moment I arrived at Brooks Institute, Ernie and I hit it off. During the first week I joined him on a trip to Monterey to photograph sea otters and other marine life. If Ernie’s reading this he might remember my Holy Mackerel anecdote, involving Custer’s Last Stand, during that initial jaunt. The Monterey trip was the first of many adventures and undertakings over the next nine years, each different, each unique but with one constant—Ernie Brooks. They varied from diving and marine photography expeditions to industry conferences, international photography events, and more formal occasions and receptions in places such as Australia, New Zealand, East Africa, and Mexico.

Brooks Institute’s energy, emanating from its faculty, staff and students—the Brooks Family as many referred to it— was contagious and the smallest germ of an idea had the potential, if nurtured, develop into a major and rewarding project. And invariably encouraging and supporting these ideas was Ernie’s unbridled enthusiasm. There were numerous such projects and I’m sure others contributing to this collection of stories will mention them but two that come to mind are “Focus on New Zealand”, the 1985 event initiated and organized in large part by Brooks Institute which resulted in the formation of the New Zealand Centre for Photography and in 1986 the “Journey to the Sea of Cortez” aboard Just Love, the 57-foot former purse seine trawler converted into a dive and marine exploration vessel and mother ship of the school’s underwater photography program.

Towards the end of my seven-week course Ernie suggested a yearlong contract to develop a public relations and corporate communications department. I accepted, with the proviso that Cilla come over from England and check out Santa Barbara before we committed. Not surprisingly, Cilla was duly impressed with Santa Barbara and environs, so we said yes. And we celebrated things to come with Ernie and his family over the Thanksgiving holiday aboard Just Love at San Miguel Island. Doesn’t get much better than that.

As luck would have it, my arrival at Brooks in February, 1981 was well timed. A Brooks Institute team headed by Vern Miller, chairman of the school’s Industrial and Scientific Department, and which included Ernie had been responsible for the photography on the 1978 Shroud of Turin project conducted by National Geographic. When I arrived at Brooks the opening of the stunning photographic exhibition and related conferences were imminent. And I found myself involved with publicity, promotion and media liaison on a major project and exhibition that took on a life of its own and attracted people by the thousands. I just went along for the ride and that yearlong contract was off to a flying start. About three months into 1981, Ernie must have figured things were going well and offered me a permanent job. As part of that offer Brooks Institute would sponsor Cilla and me for US residency—the cherished green card. The rest, as the adage goes, is history, albeit too long to relate here. And what I could write would be a small fraction of the whole Ernie Brooks story.

We never really know what’s around the proverbial corner and had I not met Ernie at that Australian photography conference in 1978 the chances are Brooks Institute and its excellent people might never have featured in our lives.

So, in the whole scheme of things I certainly owe Ernie a helluva lot. I know that many, many others have benefited from his unique talent and ability to inspire and motivate whether in photography or other pursuits and his generosity to causes and organizations is legendary. As a photographic craftsman, especially in the genre of traditional black and white fine art and more recently infrared black and white, he has been a mentor, adviser, educator, a source of energy and inspiration. And to Cilla and me he has been a very special friend. And I was proud to stand beside him as best man (along with our good friend Michael Verbois) at Ernie’s marriage to Pat at the Montecito Campus. So, Ernie old mate, thank you for everything and congratulations on this latest collection of tributes to you and your generosity. We’ve had some great times and brilliant travels together and as a result, many cherished memories. And it’s not over yet!


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