Our recent discussion of Zena Holloway’s underwater fashion photography got me wondering about what the very first underwater photographs were. As you might expect these entailed a major tour de force on the part of the photographer. The first underwater photograph was taken by William Thompson in Dorset in the UK in 1856.
Thompson had a carpenter make him a waterproof, wooden box inside of which could be plaved a 4″ x 5″, wet colloidion glass plate camera. You will see the problem immediately. This required a darkroom tent on shore to prepare and develop the plates all within the space of an hour. The box had a heavily weighted shutter to which Thompson attached a string to activate the shutter from a row boat.
Along with a friend Thompson rowed out into Weymouth Bay and then lowered his camera until its tripod settled securely on a rock ledge. This was about eighteen feet below the surface. His exposures were about ten minutes long. I include as Figure 1 this first underwater photograph. One of the most appealing aspects, to me, about this photograph is that I have no idea what I am looking at. Hopefully, it was clearer in 1856 when the picture was taken.
What you will more often see listed as the world’s first underwater photograph is the image by French zoologist Louis Boutan taken in 1893. This image is shown as Figure 2. It was a first both in terms of being the first underwater photograph, where both the camera and the photographer were underwater, and because it was taken with a magnesium powder flash. Also it was the first published underwater photograph.