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The first underwater photograph

Briton Beats Boutan

 by Brian Pitkin

Reproduced from in focus 11.(Aug. 1985)

If you thought Frenchman Louis Boutan took the first underwater photograph then you'd be wrong. According to John F. Brown (British Journal of Photography, 9th August, 1985) that distinction goes to Dorset solicitor and natural historian William Thompson. In February 1856, Thompson, assisted by his friend Mr Kenyon rowed out a short distance into Weymouth bay and lowered a box containing a 5' x 4', plate camera into the sea and took the first ever underwater photograph.

Thompson's box had a plate glass front and a wooden shutter operated from the surface with a length of string. The camera was prefocused at 10 yards, a distance Thompson later acknowledged was too great. A portable darkroom tent, on shore, was used to prepare the glass plate negative. The film holder was then put into the camera, the darkslide withdrawn, the lens uncapped and placed in the box with the shutter closed. Next the whole contraption was attached to an iron tripod and taken out by boat to be lowered to the seabed. On his second attempt, using an exposure of ten minutes, an image was obtained.

First Flood

Even though the depth was estimated to be no more than eighteen feet, the pressure was such that water forced its way through the joints and into the box. Like many of us in similar situations, Thompson despaired of obtaining an image. After washing the plate in fresh water and developing it, he was, however, pleased to note that seawater was not as injurious as he feared. The seawater left only a line at the height which it had reached during the exposure. John Brown considers Thompson's photograph a 'gallant and innovative failure, it being difficult to decipher'. But it was the first, and beat Boutan by thirty seven yearsl

Reproduced from in focus 11. Aug. 1985


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