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Louis Boutan Pioneered Underwater Photography & Gave the World Its First Look Deep Beneath the Sea

Portrait of Emil Racovitza (1868 - 1947) (c. 1899) by Louis Marie-Auguste Boutan (1859 - 1934)
Portrait of Emil Racovitza (1868 - 1947) (c. 1899) by Louis Marie-Auguste Boutan (1859 - 1934)

Taken sometime around 1899 by Louis Marie-Auguste Boutan in the South of France, the image depicts his Romanian colleague, oceanographer and biologist Emil Racovitza (1868 - 1947), holding up a sign that in French means “Underwater Photography.” It is one of the first images captured when both the photographer and the subject were under water.

Louis Boutan (1859 - 1934) — the French professor, zoologist, and biologist — essentially pioneered underwater photography because he wanted to study mollusks in their natural environment. For most, the desire to research gooey marine life never quite reaches the fever pitch that it did for Boutan, but this was not uncharacteristic of the adventurous scientist who, in 1880, briefly relocated to Australia in order to learn about marsupial embryology.

Boutan studied biology and natural history at the University of Paris, or “The Sorbonne,” where he became a lab assistant at the age of 20. He was appointed deputy head by the Ministry of Public Education just one year later and asked to organize the French exhibit at the Melbourne International Exhibition (1880), the eighth World's fair officially recognized by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) and the first official World's Fair in the Southern Hemisphere.

Self Portrait of Louis Boutan Taken in 1893
Portrait of Louis Boutan (1893) by Joseph David

Invested in naturalism, Boutan stayed in Australia for 18 months to travel the country and study new animal species, including the grape phylloxera found in the Australian vineyard and — while diving naked in the Torres Strait — the mother-of-pearl producing mollusks that famously captured his imagination. He also collected a large number of giant clams during the trip home, which concluded on March 9th, in 1883. Upon his return, Boutan continued his research.

In "A souvenir of undersea landscapes: Underwater photography and the limits of photographic visibility, 1890 - 1910” (2014) Alejandro R. Martínez provides some historical context:

“By this time, France was emerging as one of the countries with the most marine research stations and laboratories, with the laboratory at Concarneau being the earliest. The second such facility was at Roscoff, also located on the coast of Brittany but on the English Channel, and from then on it became one of the most important zoological research stations created in France. It was founded in 1871 by the biologist Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers (1821 - 1901) as an adjunct to his zoological laboratory at the Sorbonne University.

“This laboratory, however, could only be used for work from March to October, so Lacaze-Duthiers decided to set up a companion one on the Mediterranean for work in the winter months. To that end he chose the seaside town of Banyuls-sur-mer, seven kilometers from the Spanish border, in the Eastern Pyrenees Department (Département des Pyrénées-Orientales). The marine fauna of this region is particularly rich in corals, sea anemones and mollusks, although wildlife availability was not the major factor in choosing the site of the laboratory.”

Construction on the Arago Laboratory, as it came to be known, was completed during the winter of 1881-1882. The government funded facility was “well supplied with all the necessary apparatus, including aquariums furnished with continual streams of sea-water, a steamboat, various sorts of fishing-craft, a workshop, etc.” It is at this location that Boutan would eventually carry out all of his attempts at underwater photography.

Invited by Lacaze-Duthiers, Boutan likely “first arrived in Banyuls in 1886 while he was finishing his doctoral thesis, defended later that year, on the anatomy and development of the mollusk Fisurella [sic.] alternata.” The experience helped the young scientist obtain the maître de conférence position at the University of Lille in 1886, where he became a professor just two years later. The new post offered the naturalist an opportunity to expand his research methods.

After moving North, Boutan assisted zoologist Paul Hallez in setting up a lab at Le Portel, where he used a simple fishing boat and multiple dredges to obtain samples for his work around 1888. He also organized a three-month excursion to the Red Sea to study mollusks and complete his documentation of pearl oysters on the beach of Mount Ataka in 1890. Having the ability to capture what he was encountering under water was becoming increasingly important.

Lacaze-Duthiers had “long been in the habit of inviting naturalists to make use of the scaphander, in order to study marine animals in their native'' habitat. “Acting on his advice, I familiarized myself little by little with the employment of this apparatus,” later recalled Boutan in The Century. “The strangeness of these submarine landscapes made a very deep impression on me, and it seemed a lamentable fact that they could not be reproduced in any other way.”

First Underwater Photo (1856) by William Thompson (1822 - 1879)
First Underwater Photo (1856) by William Thompson (1822 - 1879)

The first attempt at underwater photography was made in 1856 by William Thompson (1822 - 1879) in Dorset, UK, who used a wet collodion glass plate camera to create the photo; though the image showed a whole lot of nothing, it was still considered an impressive accomplishment. In, La Photographie Sous-marine et Les Progrés de la Photographie (1900), Boutan shared his former skepticism: “Is an underwater environment unsuitable for taking good photographs?”

Boutan became maître de conférence at the University of Paris in 1891 and a professor in 1893, teaching marine biology at the Arago lab in Banyuls-Sur-Mer. There, along with his engineer brother Alfred Boutan and lab tech Joseph David, he went on to build the first “imperfect apparatus composed of an ordinary photography chamber inclosed in a metal case provided with glass and made water-tight.”

The design was likely based on the unrealized proposal by Paul Regnard (1850 - 1927), who had published his idea for a submersible photographic apparatus for studying the ocean floor in 1891. The metal case that held the apparatus featured holes that aligned with both the camera’s viewfinder and its lens, and two cranks; one for working the shutter and the other for activating a system that replaced the exposed plate with a new one without having to open the box.

The upper part was attached to the main part of the case with screws, while the seam between the lid and the case was sealed with rubber. “A three-litre ‘compensation balloon’ was inserted into the upper part so that the pressure of the water on air in the balloon would force it into the sealed case, thus balancing the pressure.” Using a tube to see into the viewfinder from above the water, Boutan used the device to photograph the seafloor.

Several seaweeds on the surface of a rock, image made with the first camera (c.1893) by Louis Boutan (1859 - 1934)
Several seaweeds on the surface of a rock, image made with the first camera (c.1893) by Louis Boutan (1859 - 1934)

“When I developed the plates which had been exposed under water, I obtained only shapeless images, irregular undulations, which in no wise reproduced the landscape on which I had turned the objective,” he wrote. “The plates, which were only slightly affected by the light coming from the submerged objects, were uniformly beclouded, as if the action of the light had been produced equally over their whole surface.” After trying out a few ideas, he had a breakthrough.

“By interposing in front of the objective a perfectly homogenous blue plate, I succeeded in producing a series of negatives with the outline of objects clear-cut, and with great delicacy of detail,” explained Boutan. “The cloudy appearance was quite eliminated, at least in foreground. But there still lingers in the background of the proofs a slight mistiness, due to the medium being denser than air, which I have never been able to completely remove.”

The fixed-focus lens was slow, hence during more ambitious dives to 11m, exposure could take up to a half an hour and result in blurred images due to the motion of all the stuff in the ocean. But, most unsatisfactory, was the pesky way “the image seemed to fade into the distance due to the back-scattering of light, so that only the foreground was clearly visible while the diver himself could see much more.”

Entering the water at Banyuls-sur-Mer (around 1893)
Entering the water at Banyuls-sur-Mer (around 1893)

After trying out and failing at a completely different design, the scientist returned to his original version and made some adjustments. As Alejandro R. Martínez explains:

“An iron box, hermetically sealed, held the lens and the plate. The photographic apparatus this time was a camera for photographic plates measuring 18 x 24cm, with a frame capable of carrying six plates that could be exchanged by operating a lever from the outside, just like the first apparatus. Compared to the metal box it was so heavy and bulky that it required three men to maneuver it. It also had a kind of visor intended to reduce reflections from higher up in the water, which, according to Boutan, acted like thousands of mirrors pointing in different directions, which could detract from the clarity of the image.

"Instead of using a simple lens with a fixed focus set at a predetermined distance, as he had done the first time, on this occasion he used a symmetrical anastigmatic lens manufactured by the Darlot company. In order to work, this lens needed to be carefully focused, which was not possible on the sea bed. Thus, Boutan designed a special procedure. Using a block and tackle that crossed the dock where the station’s boat was moored when it needed repairs, the camera was secured and lowered a few centimeters into the water. Once in position, the camera had to be focused at the desired distance on a white screen."

Using the device required a lot of manpower. After finding a good location, a team of assistants made sure that the boat was “anchored to the bottom, and held in a fixed position.” Once Boutan reached the seafloor, he signaled for the captain to send down the different parts of the device, with the iron stand going first, followed by the photographic box and cast-iron weight for steadying the whole, which were “leisurely” set up by Boutan.

Once the water cleared from all the commotion, Boutan would start the device and signal the capital to let him know that exposure had begun by using a shared hand-held safety rope. Then, he patiently waited for the captain to send a return signal that would let him know that it was time to stop. But, without artificial light, underwater photographs still required exposure times that could last up to 30 minutes.


Although a collaboration with French electrical engineer M. Chaffour in 1893 produced the first flash bulb — an experimental model that laid the foundation for all future versions — it wasn’t the most pragmatic invention for use under water. According to John Hannavy, in the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography (2008):

“Chaffour used a thick glass bottle, some 10cm in diameter, mounted with the neck down. He placed a coil of magnesium ribbon inside the jar before replacing the air with pure oxygen. An electric current was used to ignite the magnesium ribbon, producing a very intense flash of light. This system was not without its disadvantages. When ignited, the magnesium produced a dense cloud of magnesium oxide vapor which not only reduced the light output but also coated the inner surface of the bottle. Moreover the high temperature produced at ignition frequently caused the bottles to explode, even underwater.”

But, it was Joseph David who finally solved the team’s lighting problem by securing an alcohol lamp within a glass-jar on top of a wooden barrel. “An external reservoir of magnesium powder was connected to a metal tube placed just in front of the lens frame,” writes Hannavy. “Using a rubber bulb, Boutan was able to blow the magnesium powder into the flame to produce his flash illumination. A later system utilized carbon-arc lamps powered by banks of batteries.”

The techniques and innovations employed by Boutan since 1893 made news all over the world. People were fascinated by his use of waterproof casings; the massive size of his encased cameras; the impressive heaviness of the glass plate negatives; and the magnesium powder he dangerously ignited under water to illuminate the sea. But, at the end of the day, it was his passion for mollusks and science that allowed the adventurous naturalist to make history.

“Photographie Sous-Marine” (1899) by Louis Boutan (1859 - 1934)
“Photographie Sous-Marine” (1899) by Louis Boutan (1859 - 1934)

On a moonless August night in 1899, Louis Boutan lowered his massive photography apparatus to a depth of 165 feet and focused the camera on a sign that read: “Photographie Sous-Marine.” It took an hour to haul the equipment back on board which, altogether, weighed over a 1000 pounds. But the effort was well worth it. The photography pioneer succeeded at giving humanity its first real look at a world its never previously seen.

Note* All images are in the public domain. Article updated on 5.4.2021, second image is now credited to Joseph David.


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