Hyper-technological cameras but also a simple GoPro allow to document every day the magic underwater environment; it is a reality to which we are now acquainted. We reach it step by step, in about a century and we owe it to Louis Boutan, a biologist of the nineteenth-century who began to portray shellfishes and ended to be the pioneer of diving photography. Boutan was an adventurous scientist and, from the age of 21 he started a journey in the Australian continent to study the marsupial embryology. His special character brought him to study open air nature, on the field, instead of staying inside a laboratory. At a certain point his life changed, when he decided to return to France, where he began to be interested to shellfishes. His first dive is in the Banyuls-sur-Mer Bay, a small fishermen village near the Spanish border, in France south-west; he immediately understood that, for his studies, it was mandatory to keep memory of what lived underwater. As a consequence, he begins to explore different possibilities to reach his goal, including what photography promised.

Louis Boutan si immerge nelle acque di Banyuls-sur-Mer.

Louis Boutan dives in Banyuls-sur-Mer
(from La Photographie Sous Marine)

It was 1886; at that time, photography had already completed half a century of history since Louis Daguerre had introduced his camera. Despite huge technical progresses, the process to obtain the image still required the use of carefully calculated glass or metal plates, chemical substances, and particularly long exposition times. In few words, it was something extremely complicated and complex to be made underwater. So that he mentioned all his doubts in his famous book La Photographie Sous-marine et Les Progrés de la Photographie: "An underwater environment certainly is not the more suitable to take good pictures". To be honest, Boutan has not been the first to experiment diving photography; in fact, this record should be entitled to Sir William Thompson, a British lawyer who, three decades before, full of talent and rowing to the coast of Weymouth Bay in Dorset, lowered underwater a chamber with wet collodion glass plates contained inside a watertight box. Also, if Thompson was able to lower this gear up to five meters underwater, this experiment failed. In fact, although he had managed to take the world's first underwater photograph, this one showed only ugly and murky gray tones but nothing distinguishable.

Let’s go back to Boutan, who knew very well that, if he wanted that the mass public appreciate the performance offered by the underwater world, he to overcome two big obstacles: pressure and light. So, together with his brother who was an engineer, he bults a camera prototype with a watertight copper box, actioned by a lever, all this equalized by a rubber balloon linked to the machine by a hose. The idea was good but, unfortunately in reality, this experiment did not work. Results obtained were like Thompson’s years before: "uniform spots and shadows and nothing defined". After this failure, Boutan’s ideas become always more extravagant, up to the point that he designs a camera were sensible plates are directly exposed to ocean water. But then, what was needed to obtain a well-defined image? What was necessary? These were the questions obsessing him continuously.

Due operatori lavorano a cinque metri di profondità per riparare la telecamera di Boutan.

Two operators work to repair Boutan camera
(from “La Photographie Sous Marine”)

Firstly, Boutan makes the lens of his new camera astigmatic to compensate for the refraction caused by water. Secondly, the camera case is forged in iron and not in copper. However, these novelties brought to some complications. In fact, to move this device at least three men were needed on the ground, and a pulley system to be able to immerge it. With regards to the new lens, this could not be in focus simply pointing towards the sea bottom, but a blackboard containing text had to be placed at a fixed distance from the lens and then the focus adjusted on it. Furthermore, Boutan himself, to put the machine in position and take the picture was obliged to dive wearing a professional diving equipment. This apparatus was divided in three parts: the support, the camera case, the ballast to stabilize everything; each single piece had to be immerged separately. Once placed in the requested position,
by means of a rope, the surface was signaled to start measuring the exposure time, then when the time was up the assistant would withdraw the rope by signaling to Boutan that he could close the camera lens. At the end, once this cumbersome operation was finished, both him and his gear could have been recovered on the surface, where the plate was extracted to develop it.


BOUTAN with one of these prototypes of underwater case     


      Un disegno di come Boutan si è tuffato per scattare le fotografie.
      A sketch of how Boutan took the first pictures 

                  Autoritratto dello stesso Louis Boutan a una profondità di 6 metri.

Boutan self-portrait at a depth of six meters
                      (from “La Photographie Sous Marine”)

After having solved the camera problems, Boutan was due to face the biggest problem, that is light. Together with the electric engineer M. Chaufour they realize what today can be considered an underwater flash, using a glass bottle containing oxygen and a little of magnesium. This flash was activated by means of a current discharge; surely, it wasn’t the best method. In fact, besides being unpredictable given that light could be shaded by steam or shin unevenly, it risked exploding because of the chemical reaction of the different elements. After several attempts and same failures, at the end Boutan reaches the impossible. He builts two of the underwater lamps supplied by batteries with an autonomy of half an hour, sufficient to satisfy his goal. To get an idea of what all this entailed, just think that to recharge the batteries they needed 70 hours, using a generator connected to a steam engine.

We are now in 1893, when Boutan with all his gear begins to dive in the sea bottom where, at a depth of ten meters and after about one hour, the miracle occurs. Having recovered everything, all that remained was to verify the result obtained through development, and with great enthusiasm, immediately it was realized that the image was very clear and clearly distinguishable.

After publishing of a remarkable picture book taken around ten meters of depth, Boutan continued his work by perfecting more and more his gear and his technique, so much so that in 1899, his constant obsession for research led him to take some pictures at the remarkable depth of 50 meters, using the arc lamps he created for lighting.
By now, the path of underwater photography was clearly indicated.