First underwater photograph

Figure 1 - First underwater photograph taken on a wet colloidion plate in 1856 by William Thompson.  In the puclic domain by virtue of its age.

Figure 1 – First underwater photograph taken on a wet colloidion plate in 1856 by William Thompson. In the public domain by virtue of its age.

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.

Figure 1 - Louis Boutan's underwater image taken with magnesium flash in 1893.  In the public domain because of its age.

Figure 1 – Louis Boutan’s underwater image taken with magnesium flash in 1893. In the public domain because of its age.

This entry was posted in History of Photography.

3 Comments

  1. Marilyn Fuss February 28, 2014 at 6:58 am #

    Awesome is a word which should be reserved for things like this. What an effort1

  2. Claudia P. August 1, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    Amazing pictures! Where did you find the photograph of William Thompson? I thought the picture had been lost.

    • David Wolf August 3, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

      Hello Claudia,
      Thank you for your interest.
      It really took some digging to find Thompson’s image and I finally found it on a Portuguese website about photographic firsts. http://fotografiatotal.com/as-primeiras-fotografias-da-historia I am not sure where they got it from.
      I also am not really sure what I am looking at in the picture. Do you have any understanding of that.
      Thanks, David