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Old-school fish in an ever-changing pond: Ernest Brooks’ ocean photography on exhibit in St. Louis

Ernest Brooks
"Winged Angel," Santa Barbara Island, 1993

In 2015, it is hard to imagine a scuba diving trip that would not include at least 400 selfies. Not the case for world-renowned ocean photographer Ernest Brooks, whose exhibition "Silver Seas: An Odyssey" is now on display at the International Photography Hall of Fame.

“I’m not a rapid shooter,” Brooks said on Friday’s “Cityscape.” “Remember, I was raised on film. Even though now I do digital, I might make one or two exposures during a dive.”

Ernest Brooks
Credit International Photography Hall of Fame
Ernest Brooks

  This old-school photography technique of calculated observation is indicative of Brooks’ storied photographic past. He comes from a family of Californian photographers. In addition to the photography of his grandmother and uncle, his father, Ernest Brooks, Sr., started the acclaimed Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, in 1945. It was there that Ernest Brooks Jr. came under the mentorship of another famous landscape photographer—Ansel Adams.

“We see the same,” said Brooks. “Look at Yosemite, when he photographed ‘Half Dome.’ The lighting, the time of day, the season. The same things go for my underwater work. It’s the lighting, the time of day, the season that all come to fruition, whether it is the animal life, the scene, the reefs.” 

In addition to shooting solely in black and white, an attribute nicely featured in the IPHOF’s exhibit of Brooks’ pre-2000 work, another aspect of Brooks’ work links him to Adams: his environmentalism.

- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trees_with_snow_on_branches,_%22Half_Dome,_Apple_Orchard,_Yosemite,%22_California._April_1933.,_1933_-_NARA_-_520018.jpg#/media/File:Trees_with_snow_on_branches,_%22Half_Dome,_Apple_Orchard,_Yosemite,%22_Californi
Credit Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Ansel Adams' Trees with snow on branches, "Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite," California. April 1933.

Brooks, 80, just returned from a trip to the Arctic, where he joined 60 people, including scientists and artists, on a boat trip sponsored by “Ocean Geographic” to observe the impact of climate change there. In 2010, he traveled with a similar group to photograph Antarctica.

“You see this yellow haze layer, coming from China, staying over the North Pole area,” Brooks said of the recent expedition.

“The real focus [of my work] is the beauty of our oceans,” Brooks said. “We have to preserve that. It’s one of my missions in life.”

Brooks does this through his photography and also through sitting on several commissions to end plastic bag use, which he said is clogging up our oceans and hurting all ocean life down to a microscopic layer.

Brooks uses a large format camera and solely natural light for his photographs, which he believes emphasizes their crispness and simplicity and translates a message of the importance of oceans across the world.

Credit International Photography Hall of Fame
Ernest Brooks diving with his camera.

  Brooks’ legacy is also reflected in the photography of other ocean photographers, such as National Geographic’s David Doubilet, who was Brooks’ student.

A group of nearly 40 of Brooks’ photographs, ranging from images of sea lions to sharks to sea-plants and people, is on display now through Dec. 30 at the IPHOF, located at 3415 Olive, from Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, and Kelly Moffitt. The show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.  

Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.