Throughout my career I've learned to challenge myself with new assignments, each one emphasizing a definite style. This style or look would one day clearly say to a buyer or the client, 'That's the work of Ernie Brooks.'
For Big Shot, I have selected a photograph captured during an important time in American history, the Gulf War in the Middle East. I have titled this image Desert Storm.
In my career I have always been prompted and reminded of the motto, 'Imagine What You Could Do If You Could Do Everything You Imagined.' That's the challenge I give to each assignment and my students. The challenge is to reach out and touch that rainbow of opportunity only photographs can bring.
I had watched the sea lions of California's Santa Barbara Island many times before I captured the Desert Storm image. Many years ago, my diving partner, Ralph Clevenger, tuned me into the most important lesson to be learned about these marine mammals. Their social behaviors follow a pattern and the key is to determine when they are most likely to socialize and swim together. In studying them, we found that the return voyage to the rookery after foraging for food would be ideal. So, we were on the seafloor two hours after sunrise, waiting in 30 feet of water on the hard sand bottom adjacent to the Rookery at Santa Barbara. This would be the most likely location for a fly-by. Indeed, straight overhead, four sea lions approached in perfect formation. Three exposures later, the fifth sea lion entered the pattern and click, the image was captured at 1/250th of a second and f/8. I knew I had my version of Desert Storm then and there! It helped to first have the idea and then think it through before the dive. The camera used was a Nikonos II with a 28mm lens. The high shutter speed froze both the sea lions' horizontal flight and the surface waves that were breaking owing to deteriorating weather offshore. The high contrast of black and white T-Max ISO 100 film pushed two stops created the mood, and printing on #4 paper captured the style I truly enjoy.
My camera equipment has always been minimal and I use only the manual modes. The sharpest aperture of the 28mm (and most lenses) is f/8. Since flash was out of the question for this image and would certainly destroy the quality I was after, I was able to set the shutter at higher speeds to freeze the action. I much prefer non-reflex viewing in action situations as too many times the photographer gets lost inside through the lens viewing.
It is important you learn the angle of view of your chosen lens for an assignment, preset the focus for what you wish to have sharp and nail down your exposures. In Desert Storm the sea lions are in silhouette because the exposure is taken from the highlight-the brightest part of the surface light-which measured f/8 and 1/250th. You have to look for the light and know its qualities and how it will record on certain films. This is what makes style begin to be measured and provide continuity in all you do. I choose black and white over color because of its outstanding presence as an image. Its tonality has its own harmony and I can achieve much more impact in the statement I wish to make.
My darkroom is a real joy and the magic keeps me going with each new assignment. Photography has become the persuasive medium of our century. And photography in the ocean environment is the voice of the sea.
It is important you realize the difference in exposing black and white versus color in ambient light. Would the method be the same? No. Generally, in color you expose for the highlight not the shadow. In black and white ambient work we expose for the shadow in most cases and develop the film for the ratio between the highlight and the shadow. In Desert Storm I exposed for the highlight and overdeveloped the film to increase the contrast.
Could I obtain the same impact and contrast with color film as in Desert Storm? First imagine the scene as it appears in color, seeing it through your mask. The early morning light is green-gray. The sea lions appear light gray as they streak overhead, nothing is really white and the contrast level is like a light fog in feeling. Your color transparency film would be similar to what your eyes are seeing and how it looked to you in the water during that experience.
In color, you can underexpose and overdevelop and gain some contrast, however, the shadow will certainly suffer greatly. With black and white film, the panchromatic range is working in your favor and the nine steps that are visible from black-black to whitewhite make the color of black and white what it is. It just happens to be my choice of film, my preference and my style. Enjoy Desert Storm!