When I lead kayak tours at Channel Islands National Park, I often tell visitors they’re only seeing half the park. The other half, an underwater world beneath the hulls of our kayaks, extends one nautical mile around each of the five windswept, volcanic islands. The national park holds a third of California’s kelp forests, an important resource certainly worth protecting, considering the degradation along the Southern California coastline.
Fragile underwater resources like these come to light in the black-and-white fine art photography of Ernest H. Brooks II, who has committed his entire professional life to capturing images of such ecosystems in every ocean around the globe. Brooks is an ambassador and educator for marine habitats, as well as a trailblazer in developing underwater photographic equipment and techniques. “Among divers all over the world, conservation is the focus,” he says. “It’s each person doing his or her part to make a difference.”
Over his long and distinguished career, Brooks has accumulated a mantel-full of prestigious national and international awards for his underwater photography and devotion to the seas. They include the 1973 Triton Award from Inner Space Pacifica, the 1977 National Award from the Professional Photographers of America and the 1996 Partner’s Award from the American Oceans Campaign. In addition, SSI (Scuba Schools International) and Nikon honored him as a Platinum Pro Diver for 5,000 hours beneath the sea. He is one of 40 photographers in the world admitted to Cameracraftsmen of America.
Brooks’s photographic legacy illustrates the dramatic changes in our oceans, and he remains a strong voice for pelagic exploration and preservation. He has contributed to numerous organizations and magazines, including the Cousteau Society, Monterey Bay Aquarium, The Nature Conservancy, Ocean Realm, California Highways and National Wildlife.A photographer for over 40 years, Brooks says, “I try to create a lasting memory without a timeframe or date, and a simple statement that all can read.” His mentors include Armando Salas Portugal, Ansel Adams and Hans Hass. His father, Ernest H. Brooks Sr., founded the internationally renowned Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California in 1945. Brooks followed in his father’s footsteps, taking the helm of Brooks Institute before forging his own photographic path beneath the sea. Brooks has witnessed great industry advances in his career. Although he is 100% digital these days, he still carries over some of his old tendencies from shooting film. For instance, he enjoys previsualizing a potential image, using his keen eye instead of the LCD Monitor on his camera. Once he’s found a composition he likes, he doesn’t shoot many exposures to come up with something he wants. Though he has harnessed and implemented much of the new technology, he still favors black-and-white — perhaps surprisingly at a time when a plethora of color underwater photographs illustrate magazines, books and glossy brochures. In a recent email, he enthusiastically reports, “I’m having a glorious time with infrared black-and-white.”
I caught up with Brooks after his return from a trip to the Solomon Islands.
Chuck Graham: When did you make the break and focus exclusively on photographing the world’s oceans?
Ernest Brooks: When I became president of Brooks Institute in 1971, I vowed to create an undersea division with the same quality the school had already established in the fields of illustration, portraiture, commercial photography and film. That year, I purchased a 58-foot purse seine vessel, which my children named Just Love. She was built in 1930, before I was born, and proved to be the perfect vehicle to roam the Pacific Coast. When I retired from Brooks Institute in 2000, she had hosted over 1,000 undersea students, and the undersea program was the jewel of countless publications committed to raising awareness of our water planet. Over the course of those three decades, Brooks alumni could be found at National Geographic, Ocean Geographic, BBC, CBC, etc.
My choice of subject matter wasn’t difficult. My grandmother had been a portrait photographer, my uncle a landscape photographer and my father a commercial and flower photographer. What was left? The love of the seas I inherited from my Portuguese ancestors on the islands of the Azores.
More of this article can be read in the Summer 2013 issue.