Louis Boutan

The World’s First Underwater Photographer: Louis Boutan

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While the first underwater photo was taken in 1856 (via a pole mounted camera), the first underwater photographer began his work in 1893. Louis Boutan developed underwater cameras and wrote a substantial book on underwater photography that would inspire generations.

Boutan was first interested in biology, graduating in 1879 with a Doctorate of Science from the University of Paris. Shortly after, in 1893, he became a professor at the University’s marine biology lab: Arago Laboratories at Banyuls-sur-Mer. His work at the Arago Laboratory gave a new perspective on what lay beneath the waves of the ocean, including opportunities to use their diving suits. After experiencing the underwater landscapes first-hand, Boutan was inspired to find a method of photographing them. 

The various boats used by Arago Laboratory.

To create underwater photographs, he had to contact his brother Auguste who was an engineer. Auguste drafted a plan for an underwater camera that allowed for underwater adjustments to the diaphragm, plates, and shutter. The first design even included a method of changing the buoyancy of the camera through an air-filled balloon. In the same year, he had the camera built and began his experiments.

Boutan's underwater camera (adjusted for a 2 meter shot at right)

Early experiments with lighting left Boutan disappointed. Until this point, flash photography required oxygen; typically utilizing burning magnesium or a mixture thereof. Still, within the same year, electrical engineer M. Chaffour helped Boutan create a bulb to house a magnesium ribbon. The bulb was filled with pure oxygen and the magnesium ribbon was lit using an electric current. Unfortunately, the burning magnesium led to a thick smoke of magnesium oxide which coated the inside of the bulb making the images dim. The heat that the bulbs produced also became a problem, as a majority of the bulbs would explode when used.

An early underwater magnesium flash.

With the non-success of the first bulb, Boutan’s assistant, Joseph David, helped create a more reliable flashbulb. This new flash used a rubber bulb that blew magnesium powder into a burning alcohol lamp. While this was a much more reliable method, it was attached to a wooden barrel and therefore fairly inconvenient. Boutan was required to dive without the photography equipment and have it sent down after he determined his shot. However, it was around the same time that the camera’s design had been reduced in size, allowing for a little extra maneuverability. 

An illustration (from Boutan’s book) of the barrel-flash.

Very quickly, Boutan developed more reliable methods of photography. More compact and portable flashes, smaller camera boxes, and better lenses. Eventually, the camera box was small enough to be brought to the seafloor by hand; the process was much quicker at that point. In addition to easier maneuverability of the camera, Boutan began to use a system of dual, carbon-arc (electricity) lamps.

Boutan (seen at left) and his dual, electric lamps (his camera is seen at top and center).

After more experimentation, Louis Boutan became the principal underwater photographer of his time. In 1898 he published a book detailing his work with underwater photography titled La Photographie Sous-Marine. Included in the book are several illustrations of his work, plus many more photos that he had taken in the years prior.

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About the author:  Elliot Frantz is the founder and editor of Professor Elliot’s Cabinet of the Bizarre and Wonderful, a curated online repository of amazingly obscure stories and factoids from sources known and unknown. Visit the site at http://professorelliot.com.

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