The First Underwater Photo

Louis Boutan was the first underwater photographer, who took pictures at a depth of 164 feet in 1893. Above — a self-portrait depicting Boutan in a full diving suit, airlines and metal helmet — was his first successful photo, and it offers us what a cumbersome chore it would have been to dive (and of course take pictures underwater) in those days.

Boutan, who was trained as a marine zoologist, conducted most of his underwater photo-experiments in 1890s at the Arago Marine Laboratory at Banyuls-sur-Mer, on France’s Mediterranean coast. He identified many problems of contemporary cameras that rendered them useless in extreme conditions. He tried encasing his cameras in strongboxes (including barrels); he tried completely flooding the interior of cameras. Lastly, he built a watertight massive equipment that was able to withstand pressure (on land, three men were needed to lift it), and battery-powered underwater arc lights, he was able to take photographie sous-marine. But still, there was no high speed film and his exposures lasted 30 minutes. Boutan had to remain underwater for sometimes as long as three hours and suffered nitrogen narcosis. Eventually, Boutan used a magnesium powder “flash” that greatly hastened phototaking.

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