Keith Ellenbogen grew up scuba diving around Boston and parlayed his childhood passion into a career photographing aquatic life around the globe. Now his exhibition Expedition Across Oceans is on view until the end of August, every day from 9 am to 5 pm in the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT, and his exhibit Under a Thousand Waves is opening the Katádysi Gallery in MIT’s newly renovated Sea Grant building.
I spoke with him via phone from New York, where he’s working on an exhibition in the lobby of the United Nations, about his residency at MIT, why he has a photography exhibit in the theoretical physics department, and the challenges of taking great shark photos.
Why underwater photography?
Did you ever do something as a kid that you loved to do so much that you never stopped doing it? That’s what happened to me. I grew up in Boston, and when I was 16 I learned to scuba dive and started volunteering at the New England Aquarium. My grandfather was into photography, and he loaned me an underwater camera. So I started scuba diving around Boston and learning about the aquatic life around here, and then when I went to Parsons [School of Art and Design], I decided to do my master’s thesis on underwater photography.
How did this MIT collaboration happen? Why is one of your exhibits in the theoretical physics department?
[MIT theoretical physicist] Allan Adams and I were working together informally doing high-speed photography. It’s very difficult to do high-speed photography underwater. There’s a lot of constraints, and the equipment is extremely expensive. Our collaboration began because of that, and then I applied to be a visiting artist at MIT’s Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST). After my year as a visiting artist I had an exhibit, which was well liked, so they decided to offer me a gallery exhibition to showcase artists’ work. So it’s been a year-long exhibition. And it really fits [in the theoretical physics department] in a lot of ways. In their world, they’re always looking at exotic animals and strange movements through space, and so am I.
What’s your favorite shoot you’ve done or photo you’ve taken?
For different reasons, each of them are wonderful assignments. But I think the project I’m most passionate about right now is focusing on the underwater wildlife of New York. It’s a project trying to create awareness about marine life. We have really incredible biodiversity here. We have sharks and sea turtles, we have nudibranchs, all the animals we have all over the world we have in New York. Boston also has a lot of biodiversity. Often people travel around the world to find these animals, but they’re here locally, too. But it’s much harder in New York or Boston to dive because the conditions are difficult: The water temperature is colder, the visibility isn’t as good. But it’s where I started.
Of course, in tropical locations, the diversity is much larger, a lot more colorful, more condensed in very tight areas. Going to a coral reef is like going to a city. It’s a consolidated diverse area in a smaller region.
Do you think people are more interested in conserving the ocean if they can see what’s in it up close?
I do think photography connects people to places and to animals. In combination with scientific research and storytelling, it can help people feel connected to something that’s otherwise too foreign and too removed. Photographs are a way to make that initial connection.
In my own photography I try not to highlight the negative things, because I don’t want to shock people. I want to show them the beauty of the life down there. But I’ve seen plastic in the water, I’ve seen coral bleaching. You don’t always see the most dramatic impacts—it’s not like watching a building burn. The ocean is a large place and these things change very slowly, and so the change people are looking for isn’t always instantaneous. One thing we did see a lot of, especially in Southeast Asia, is that populations of fish are a lot lower than they used to be, so fishermen have to go farther out to sea. But there are afternoon squalls, and when you’re in a remote country in a small boat, that can create a very difficult and dangerous situation. Here in America it’s very easy to go to a supermarket. But some people who live in fishing communities are dependent on the food that they catch for subsistence.
Have you seen a lot of environmental damage and degradation around Boston?
Not as much. One of the great achievements of Boston is the cleaning up of the Boston Harbor. I think that that’s a good example of the fact that when people want to change things, there is an ability to make those changes. And I’m sure it’s not perfect, but they’ve done a great job, and people are using that waterfront. Thankfully, in the US, there are lots of policies to protect our oceans.
What was your goal with the MIT exhibits?
I hope that the exhibit there tried to engage with individual animals. There’s a picture of a humphead wrasse—that is a critically endangered species. It’s a really large animal; it’s about 6 feet long, and I photographed it in Palau. Typically, they’re very shy animals and hard to get near, but in this one particular part of the world they’re not as shy. And one came up close to me and I was able to get an engaging photo where you can see the subtle nuances of the colors and really feel a connection to this animal.
Another photo in Expedition Across Oceans shows the power of camouflage. The pygmy seahorse blends in perfectly with its surroundings. How could you create a seahorse that blends in so perfectly? It’s amazing to me that it looks like that and lives in that environment. Camouflage is really fun to look at because your eyes miss it if they don’t move. In these small nooks and crannies there’s lots of life; you have to be patient and wait to find it.
There’s also a shot of a baby sea turtle about to walk into the water for the first time. And I liked that for the physics department because everything in that photo was frozen in a moment where life was about to happen. Also great for the physics department is the photo of the flatworm swimming toward you. It’s in midwater undulating through space, and it feels so otherworldly to me. That was taken in daylight, but I shot it in a way that would remove all ambient light and give the illusion of darkness. I don’t use Photoshop to retouch the photos in any way.
Part of the process is the act of taking the picture. Finding the animals, knowing where to find them—it’s really hard to do. I spend lots of time working on the lighting, the composition, all things that people take for granted. Sometimes you have to work quickly, but you’re prepared for those quick moments. A lot of times there’s a lot of preparation and thought that goes into a photo. And then the second consideration is how to print it so it stands out. This exhibition uses digital C-, or digital chromogenic, prints, with real chemical inks. It brings out the true colors and the range of colors, which is part of what makes photographing these animals so nice. It gives us those subtle gradations so you can really see detail. And I spent a lot of time working on the prints so that they revealed the actual image that was captured. That might seem obvious, but if you were to print it differently, you would see dramatic differences.
What are some of the challenges of shooting underwater? How do you light those photos?
I bring two lights underwater, very powerful lights. I always have to light the scene. All of photography is controlled by my lights and the ambient light. Being underwater certainly makes it harder. All photography is about capturing light. Underwater, you have to add the light to bring out those rich colors. At depth, light gets absorbed differently. Red gets lost very quickly, which is why the ocean looks blue. So the colors you see are real, but they’re also the result of my light hitting the animal. The red coral wouldn’t look like that if it wasn’t illuminated. That’s what makes it so fun.
I have a lot of gear; I have two camera systems and backups for everything, because things always go wrong and you’re in really remote locations. I went to the Phoenix Islands in between Fiji and Hawaii with the New England Aquarium—the NEA has been instrumental in protecting that area. So I went there on a three-week expedition but it took five days to get there by boat. On these types of assignments, things always go wrong for everyone who needs equipment. So I had 15 cases of equipment with me. I had cameras, backup cameras, lighting, backup lighting. And on top of that, diving requires equipment as well.
I always dive with other people, but almost everything is set up by me. One of the tricks is to learn how to interact with the animals to get the photograph you want. Often there’s a strong current—all shark photos are taken in a strong current. Easy for them, hard for us. So the trick is often to position yourself and anticipate where the photo will be.
In the modern-day world we see photography as very quick, very instantaneous and immediate. But in reality this kind of photography takes a lot of patience, a lot of setup, different lenses and lighting that make it more complicated. Much more enjoyable and a challenge, but it’s certainly not that you just end up there and then take a picture. A lot of nature, although it happens in front of you, it only happens when you’re looking for it or when you’re prepared for it. It’s not all done in a day.
What’s it like interacting with so many different animals? Do you have to accommodate their behavior, or is there a way to get them to “pose” for you?
Animals do what they do, so there’s no controlling that. But learning their behaviors helps me be a better photographer. The more I know about them, the more I know how to find them. For example, knowing where pygmy seahorses live is half the battle. And that takes a lot of experience underwater. I’m underwater for many hours a day. I spend as much time in the water as humanly possible. Sometimes things happen in front of you and you get lucky. And other times you spend hours looking for the thing you’re trying to photograph. Sometimes it occurs when you’re looking, but sometimes it doesn’t.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of image I want before I take a picture. The photos aren’t preplanned, but I do know what sort of thing I’m looking for. Sometimes you get animals that surprise you in the moment and you hope you have the right lens, sometimes you find the animals you’re looking for. But you need all the compositional elements to come together. The interaction has to be photographically interesting—it can’t just be whatever’s happening in front of you. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding. I do love it.
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