The underwater photographer dreams up a lifetime of adventure
By Dave de Give
Chuck Davis’s Pacific Grove home is filled with all the accoutrements of an underwater photographer’s lair—black-and-white photo-adorned walls, an array of cameras and dive gear, and a converted darkroom/dive locker. But they aren’t the only things that stand out. Vibrant jazz plays in the background from a hidden -away hi-fi. A silver trumpet glistens in its open case perched on a piano bench. On the piano, snapshots of his family compete for space with sheet music from jazz horn men such as Chris Botti, Chuck Mangione and the legendary Miles Davis. The musical trappings are no coincidence.
“Music has helped me to become a better a photographer,” says Davis. “My work as a photographer has also made me a better musician. From my perspective, the languages of music and photography can be used interchangeably.”
Ask him what he was expressing in a photo shoot of a kelp forest, and he’s likely to mention rhythm and movement, musical time signatures, wave durations, and ocean swells that he’ll describe as pianissimo or forte—musical terms for soft and loud. There’s a grand synergy between the jazz music playing in his living room as he pulls out photos for a guest, and the process of him blending seamlessly with swaying, underwater kelp fronds while capturing them on film. It’s all about the rhythm.
While music is his avocation, his photography and cinematography skills became his life’s work after earning degrees in fisheries biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1976 and filmmaking from the Brooks Institute in 1978. Highlights from Davis’s extensive professional accomplishments include filming in the Amazon, taking footage from under the Arctic ice pack for the Smithsonian, and fulfilling a childhood dream working onboard the late Jacques Cousteau’s ship Calypso—filming 20 years of expeditions with Cousteau and his son Jean-Michel.
Waves recently caught up with the veteran lensman on a foggy day in Pacific Grove.
How did you first get interested in underwater photography?
I grew up [on Martha’s Vineyard] surrounded by the ocean. As soon as [my friends and I] could tolerate the cold as kids, we’d be in the water with our bathing suits and dime-store dive masks … and of course we watched Lloyd Bridges’s Sea Hunt on television. You’re probably too young [laughs], but that was Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges’s father and it was on every week, and it was the first underwater series that I can remember. We were hooked on it. Then the Cousteau specials came out when I was 11 years old.
How did you transition to photographing in water?
I first scuba dived out at Nantucket Sound. After that, I saved up my paper route money and bought scuba gear … and a Nikonos [amphibious] camera when I was about 14 and I was really hooked. I read everything I could to teach myself about underwater photography. I’d read Skin Diver Magazine and I’d read Cousteau’s books. I started out very minimalist [using] available light, Tri-X film, and a 35 mm camera. Most of what I shot were silhouettes and shadows.
How do those early experiences influence your current work?
My assignment-work editors always wanted color. As time went by I came back to my roots because I really wanted to go down a different path with my personal work and what I was trying to [represent] in terms of feelings and the ocean … conveyed much better in black and white and more of a minimal style.
How exciting was it to work with the Cousteau family?
As a kid I would watch the Cousteau specials on ABC and I would have dreams about being on Cousteau and walking the decks of the Calypso. I remember taking French when I was in high school and I was kvetching, “Oh man, I’ve got to conjugate verbs,” which I hated. My mother was ironing clothes and she takes her iron and bam! [Slams it.] “Look,” she says, “When you work with Jacques Cousteau some day you’re going to be glad you have that French.” And I thought, “That could happen!” It was a dream and, lo and behold, I ended up working for him for the better part of 20 years.
Tell me about your recent work focused on underwater kelp forests.
The older I’ve gotten I’ve come to rely on intuition and feelings more than some intellectual reason for clicking the shutter. I’m capturing a story, a feeling. What I find on most of my dives is it’s kind of quiet. I settle down in the sand, surrounded by the kelp stalks and [looking up] you can see the sun bursting through. The water tends to diffuse the rays in the kelp canopy and you see tightly focused rays of light. It’s very inspirational. It’s meditative.
Do you have a favorite photo?
One of my more popular shots is of a young piece of bull kelp coming up off the bottom of [Point] Lobos. Bull kelp has a round bulbous head and all these blades going. It was dancing; the leaves were bouncing and dancing and morphing. To me it looked like Medusa or a mermaid with its hair dancing—the entire kelp forest is moving and dancing. There’s a rhythm to it; it’s musical.
Tell me about filming underwater lava scenes for the Imax film Ring of Fire.
Graphic Films wanted underwater footage from Hilo [Hawaii] when Kīlauea was erupting. To film lava underwater, you need to do so when it first begins flowing into the sea, before water clarity degrades. We took a boat there and my guide tested the water with his hands. Close to shore, you could make coffee with that surface water! The water was too hot to descend near the lava so we went down in deeper water where it’s warm, [but] not scalding, and swam by compass under the hot surface to the lava flow. We wore wetsuits to stay cool!
It was very noisy, with lava actively exploding and imploding—you’d see an orange glow where a new flow was starting. As the lava ledge built up, it broke loose, causing underwater landslides—big boulders of lava rocks rolling down—and it was hard to discern whether you’re being pushed up or the reef is going down, so we just instinctively exhaled so we wouldn’t hurt our lungs.
My guide [had] tied a rope to my movie-camera housing and a couple times he pulled me away from landslides. There were also underwater gas explosions—orange and red and amber balls of light that looked like the 4th of July.
I captured several takes of lava pillowing up close then pulled back with my camera and took a wide shot. I felt a bit shell-shocked in the sense that there were so many good shot options, so I decided to capture the big view of it all.