After an off tape discussion about influences while looking through some more of Espen’s shots, there was lots of juicy info coming up, so I decide to restart the tape!
Alex: To change subject, there has always been a high turnover of people in underwater photography. It is a hobby, a passion people get. They get the bug, get good enough to win competitions and then having proved to themselves they can do it, kind of drop away and loose interest and get another hobby.
And the result of all this is that the community has quite a short memory. Of course there are lots of guys who have been shooting for 30, 40 years, but a high percentage of the community has been around much less time.
You could go on Wetpixel and ask how many people could describe three of Chris Newbert’s pictures. I don’t know how many could, without a quick google. The community has a short memory and people forget what an influence his work had on photographers who started in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Espen: What was revolutionary about Chris Newbert was that he started abstract underwater photography.
Alex: I think he really made that leap from simply showing the underwater world as it is, because most people had never seen it, to using natural history subjects as the starting point for his photographic vision. It wasn’t about the subjects…
Espen: …it was about colours, textures, patterns and compositions. He was simple in his technique. But he’d shoot things Doubilet wouldn’t. Doubilet would do more wide angle at that time, Well, his wide angle and light is what I remember him for.
Alex: They are both still alive!
Espen: Ha ha ha. I meant I remember his work at that time for those qualities! Doubilet was the major influence on my photography in my early years. He was the guy you wanted to be.
Alex: We were both at school still at that time, but older photographers who I know well tell me that in the late 80s a lot of people preferred Newbert’s stuff [Doubilet’s Light In The Sea was published in 1989 and Newbert’s Within A Rainbowed Sea was published in 1986, I think]. But looking back now, I think Newbert’s images have less impact because they were more easily copied and versions of them have been everywhere for 20 years.
I think David Doubilet’s work from that period has stood the test of time better, perhaps because it is not so easy to emulate. But I’d say Newbert’s photos from that time had a bigger influence on the way people shoot, because his ideas were more widely copied, but as a result seem more ordinary now. Of course, when he was the first person to do them, they really blew people away. If that makes sense?
Espen: Patterns are very easy technically. When I started out, my Mum bought me Light In The Sea, which I loved. A few years later, when I started to study marine biology, one of my tutors had Christopher Newbert’s book, the first one, and that one really shook me up. “This guy is so good, I am never going to get that good!” I really thought it was a masterpiece.
So David’s was the start, then Newbert took over. That is what got me off shooting macro and super macro, and to find patterns in Norway I had to go for the really tiny stuff. In many places where you don’t imagine there is lots of macro, it is just a case of getting small enough. It opens up a whole new world of subjects.
Alex: Well that is one of the amazing things with your portfolio, you have so many subjects that I have never seen before. It is rare that someone opens their laptop and you see that.
Espen: Maybe that is what people are doing wrong, everybody rushes off to the same destinations, shooting the same subjects. And because they have already seen other people’s shots of those same subjects, it influences them to shoot the same shot.
You have got to go to different places and find new subjects to shoot to stand out in the crowd. You can do it with subject selection or you can do it with technique. Of course, it requires a lot of practice to really get on top of these techniques. We are taking very small depth of field.
I remember coming to Egypt in 2000 for the world championship, and I met these two Brazilian photographers in the elevator and they were asking me what lens I had because it was so long. I had a 105mm, with teleconverter, spacer, dioptres. And a few years later after I won a category with a supermacro, the following competition had everyone shooting teleconverters.
Alex: I think some of your most amazing recent images are with the technique that few others are brave enough to try: open water supermacro. Personally, I don’t understand why you would shoot that. It is the hardest thing I could imagine shooting. I watch copepods on safety stops, and they are hard enough just to see, let alone photograph.
Espen: The technique is quite simple. It is free drifting. Obviously, you need a very powerful extender and a good portion of patience. You don’t do this on your travels. You do this when you are home and diving in your backyard, which I am often.
So you swim out, there is always a current running. You find your subject and then you stop swimming, trying and get your buoyancy perfect. So you find yourself drifting at the same speed as what you are trying to photograph. Then it just a case of bobbing back and forth, with the focus locked on minimum and waiting until you see something sharp, then shoot.
Alex: The pictures are phenomenal – I know they are your secret at the moment. Difficulty-wise, it’s unbelievable.
Espen: There is so much stuff just floating around. Small stuff that nobody shoots. So last summer I just spend most of my dives just bobbing around in the plankton.
Alex: That seems a good place to leave you, floating in the plankton! Thank you, Espen!
Next month Alex enjoys A Conversation With one of the legends of underwater photography, Kurt Amsler.