David Doubilet
Digital Camera World|October 2021
The underwater photographer’s new book showcases his stunning ‘half and half’ images. Steve Fairclough dives in…
Steve Fairclough

David Doubilet

Underwater photographer

Born in New York in 1946, David Doubilet is primarily known for his work for National Geographic since 1971. Doubilet has photographed around 75 stories for National Geographic, and was named a Contributing Photographerin-Residence in 2001.

Doubilet’s assignments have taken him all over the world – from interior Africa to remote coral reefs, and from rich temperate seas to more recent projects beneath the polar ice. Doubilet is a contributing editor for several publications and has authored 12 books, including his award-winning book Water Light Time.

Doubilet is a former recipient of the Lennart Nilsson Award for Scientific Photography and works alongside his wife Jennifer Hayes, an aquatic biologist, photographer, filmmaker and speaker. He has received numerous awards, including from the Pictures of the Year, BBC Wildlife, Communication Arts and World Press Photo. He is a member of the Academy of Achievement, is in the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and is an Honorary Member of the Royal Photographic Society.

www.undersea imagesinc.com

For 50 years, the cameras and lenses of David Doubilet have been trained on an underwater world that covers approximately 70 per cent of the earth’s surface. In 1971, he joined the National Geographic ranks, with an assignment to shoot garden eels in Israel. Since then his groundbreaking underwater work has been published in 75 National Geographic stories, as well as in 12 books.

A collection of Doubilet’s work features in the new Phaidon book Two Worlds: Above and Below the Sea. It includes over 60 of Doubilet’s signature ‘half and half’ images, where the bottom part of the images are shot below the water level, while the top parts of them show what’s happening on or above the oceans. Digital Camera caught up with David Doubilet via Zoom at his home in Clayton, New York, to discuss Two Worlds, his career, and the major changes he has encountered during half a century of shooting.

What drove your initial interest in photography?

I wanted to be a diver first. For a short period I spearfished, and was not comfortable killing beautiful creatures. I was interested in, and moved on to dreaming about, making pictures. My father helped me build a housing out of an anaesthesiologist bag from his hospital. It made pictures that you could almost tell what they were… almost!

What motivated you to start shooting in the sea?

I had asthma, and hated sports that other kids loved. I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks and, instead of hiking, was sent by a grouchy counsellor to pick up sticks under a dock.

He thought of it as punishment, but I put on a mask and it changed my life. I saw light moving through water, and became mesmerised by it. I went back to New Jersey with a plan to swim the jetty.

What age were you then?

Between nine and 10. I was lucky. I was growing up in New York and was surrounded by photography. I could go down to the Museum Of Modern Art and sit there and stare at ‘Moonrise’ by Ansel Adams, or go to the Metropolitan Museum. Everybody was wandering around the streets, with a Leica round their necks and was shooting street photography, but I was dreaming about nudibranches – marine snails without shells.

Have any other photographers or film-makers inspired your work?

We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. I read everything I could about Jacques Cousteau – his book Silent World was my bible. National Geographic photographer Luis Marden was my hero. I liked Cousteau, but I wanted to grow up to be Marden.

From a technical standpoint, Bates Littlehales at National Geographic made my life possible with his invention of the OceanEye housing. So many who came before are my heroes, and now I see my contemporaries doing great things that inspire me.

What was your big break?

In 1971, I was invited by a film-maker friend of mine, Stan Waterman, to the Red Sea on a Dr Eugenie ‘Genie’ Clark National Geographic research grant story to study garden eels. They are shy social creatures that live in large colonies. Garden eels are amazing – they’re as thick as your thumb, and a metre tall. As you get near them, they disappear into the sand as if they’d never existed.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine