Thursday, July 30, 2009

Koza - The Best Name In Production Assistants

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida - I have spent nearly 15 years traveling around the country working with the most diverse and talented individuals in the National Park Service. The agency has a feeling of unity for those who truly subscribe to its “unimpaired for future generations” ethos. Occasionally, as with most journeys in life, you meet extraordinary individuals who possess a certain quality that you just inherently want to be around. For me, in my NPS journey, no one ranks higher than Jim Koza

A tremendous retired NPS employee who spend his career on the waters of the NPS keeping visitors safe through buoys, docks and aids to navigation. Koza embodies those old tales of sailors who reach mythical status through storms and heavy seas. He is meek soul who can humble you pretty quickly by docking a boat or tying a knot – all without a hint of intent. He has been supporting SRC operations for years, long before I was with the NPS. He is a rare breed of diver that has crossed over from the old guard who founded SCRU and new leadership currently at the SRC helm.

My acquaintance with Koza began at Lake Mead NRA on a small skiff looking for a submerged B-29 aircraft with a drop camera around 2000. My friendship began shortly after by spending several weeks on houseboats, barges and pretty much anything that would float discussing the NPS, diving and more importantly life. Koza was the engine of the logistical train in our deep mixed gas diving operations at Mead. If a dive requires hours of decompression there is a very short list of individuals I want supervising the op with an eye toward the weather. Koza is unequivocally at the top of the list...

Koza - The Best Name In Production Assistants (2)

...So, when I was looking for a production assistant for some projects in the Tortugas I thought of Koza. People always comment they would love to carry my cameras. I have heard that for years. The interesting thing about those statements is that carrying cameras (and tanks, weights, pulling anchors, climbing into boats, etc) is not that easy. Add to it a lack of sleep over several days with a rigorous operational pace and carrying my cameras is far less glamorous. Koza has always been a workhorse on our projects. I thought he may appreciate something a little warmer and not so devoid of life as our past reservoir operations at Lake Mead NRA. 

Day after day, dive after dive Koza has been money. He is always in the perfect position just behind, watching my back. You might think this is an easy task but many shots have been ruined with a camera move in a different direction only to have a stunned diver swimming frantically trying to get out of the way. Watching my back is also key. On underwater shoots, I rarely demonstrates the best buddy skills. A shooter is generally focused one thing – the shot. Koza is my safety diver and underwater grip by day and my repair tech by night. After a couple of dives this week, he would surface with a big smile on his face and comment he just had one of the best dives of his life. Coming from a legendary old-school diver, thats saying a lot. A couple of days ago (he will certainly know which one) I turned around to get a second camera from him and there he was, resting on the bottom with a big grin from ear to ear. His trademark twenty-plus year old mask barely held a water tight seal the smirk was so massive. Good times. Koza – The best name in production assistances.

Thanks Koza

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Nikon Paperweight

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida - The most common question I get regarding the underwater photography equipment I shoot is always “how much does that cost?” (Well, actually the most common is “So, do you dive?” shortly after they find out I am an underwater photographer but perhaps that’s a topic for another blog). The thought of submerging thousands of dollars in electronics always seems to mystify most people. Like most thing, I suppose over the years you get more confident in your abilities and the focus is less on the cost and more on the appropriate tool for the job. I’m sure if I was handed a camera system that cost as much as my first house when I began shooting, I would have been a little more nervous. In my opinion, the dollar amount doest really play into the equation regarding the responsibility and prep to splashing any given camera system. I try to prep each camera the way I learned near a dimly lit pool at Temple University when I took my first (and only) underwater photography class. Very meticulously. The price tag may have gone up from those old Nikonos cameras, but the attention to orings and pinch points is still the same.

Orings and pinch points – the lesson of this entry. Today was a first in my career as an underwater photographer. I flooded my first camera. Not just any camera, but my best (and favorite) Nikon D2Xs system. I was going to shoot on small sunken shrimp boat populated with thousands of schooling fish of every variety. When I hit the bottom at 20’ I noticed the dome port filling with water - fast. I rocketed for the surface but I knew it was too late. Water, especially of the salt variety, is the death nail for these modern marvels of computer chips and image sensors. I had not followed my own rules for meticulously prepping a camera and an o-ring got pinched in the housing. For most reading this blog, a Nikon D2Xs means nothing except that it’s some type of camera. Let’s just say its one of those cameras that would make you ask “how much does that cost?” My reply – A lot.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Forgiveness vs Permission

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida - So, I wanted to capture the state of collapse in one of the walls of Fort Jefferson for the park curator and archeologist. I thought I could balance the right amount of intrigue with disrepair by generating a split level image. In the never-ending uphill battles for funding and support to maintain our historic resources in the NPS, I know the value of the good image (Fortunately, so does the NPS or else I would not have a job). Anyway, I also was curious about the marine life inside the moat surrounding the fort. Seemed straight forward until I heard tales of a horrific sea lice attacks on a masonry worker who had need to wander around within. I counted the costs. Of course the pursuit of the image won out. Next I queried some park staff as to the depth. The consensus was anywhere from 4 to 12 ft deep. Very manageable indeed. The next obstacle was access. Moats were not designed with entrance or exit latter for obvious reasons. A sluice-way provided the necessary location for my expedition.

So in I went. With ever prick of sea grass on my legs, I knew the lice had come to devour me. The depth estimates had proven to be quite generous. In most areas I could barley clear the bottom. I was walking inch by inch with the tips of my fingers over the sea grass. I reached the collapsed areas I would focus on. Was that lice biting me? No just underwater debris. After shooting several splitlevels in various areas, I headed back to my point of exit. I stopped to admire a large patch of upside-down jellyfish. Jellyfish - they have always been an intriguing mixture of beauty and death in the same fascination package. I needed a more interesting perspective. Being an expert in all things underwater, I knew they would only sting if touched by the tentacles which reached for the surface. If I was careful, I could reposition one and fire off a few frames. My over developed confidence soon diminished when I felt the intense pain as it gently brushed across my arm just by raising it into the water column for the sake of art.

I managed to not so gracefully climb out of the moat by scaling the brick wall where I entered. Feeling pleased with my execution of “operation moat” for the sake of photography I walked back to the fort. I was dripping wet with a stinging arm and some still undetermined bite sensations in various places around my body. As I entered the interior of the fort, I passed one of the interpretive rangers from the park. “Get some good images?” I started to construct the perfectly worded response of my conquest but all I got out of my mouth was “Yes, I was in the moat…”. “The moat?” was her reply. “You’re not allowed in the moat”. Forgiveness vs permission. Not the first (and mostly not the last) in pursuit of an image.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Worth the Pain

The (painful) upside down jellyfish in the moat.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Resources, Resources – Everywhere Resources

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida - One of the great things about the Dry Tortugas is the amazing diversity of resources inside the park. If you go to the Dry Tortugas just to scuba dive - you’ve missed it. If you solely focus on masonry construction, turtle nesting, nurse shark mating, pristine coral reefs, shipwrecks, rare birds, recreational fishing, or sailing you have missed the entire magic and experience of the Dry Tortugas. Combine these resources, and you have a sensation overload that has always ranked as one of the most spectacular places on earth.

While I have been working at the Dry Tortugas, I have had the opportunity to photography the release of a few baby loggerhead turtles. Kayla, a very talented bio tech and turtle researcher is permitted to dig existing nest areas three days after the young turtles make there escape. Today as I was photographing a release, I thought how screwed this tiny little turtle must have felt. First, the little guy attempts to dig itself out of the sand – unsuccessfully. Next, gentle hands dig you out and place you in a bucket with even more sand to make you feel at home. After a bouncy boat ride (the collections were on adjacent keys) you arrive at another beach and released. You struggle to the sea, giving your fins the there first test. Finally, you reach the water, get pummeled by a couple of monster waves (4”) only to be greeted by me, a very intimidating creature yielding a massive black camera that flashes like a disco strobe as you seek deeper water. I felt bad that this little guys only sensation of land for the next 20 years was so traumatic. Well, after culling the hundreds of shots my guilt quickly subsided. This little guy is going to be famous in the parks interpretive and educational materials. Swim hard my little friend.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Where it all began

Dry Tortugas National Park is a special place. I first saw the Gibraltar of the Gulf appear out to the azure waters back in 1994. I was wet behind the ears as a film school grad who had patted his resume to get a spot with the legendary NPS SCRU team for a summer project. It was that summer that I found my career. Well, at least I though so - it took an additional seven years to convince the NPS. Returning back to the Fort this summer for a three weeks has given me the opportunity to visit the sites I spent so many submerged hours working with the archeologist to map. It feels like visiting an old friend. It has also given me the opportunity to realize just how little I know about underwater photography when I first started.

Sure the photography world has changed. We are shooting several hundred digital images on a card with the instant gratification of an LCD screen. It’s difficult to remember the pains of 36 exposures on the film-based Nikonos systems. More than the technology, it was my approach to the discipline of underwater photography. When I started, as with most new uw shooters, I was satisfied to create a properly exposed, well framed image and simply replicate an underwater scene. Today, I find myself viewing a landscape or shipwreck in my minds eye and trying to create that, not the image the camera wants to give me. I don’t want to get all philosophical and pretentious about underwater photography as an art, but there is a difference in those who take a picture vs those who create a photograph. Since that first summer in the Dry Tortugas, every dive, every frame, I have worked to be the latter.

So, I’m back where this photographic journey began for me. Much has changed in my life, little has stayed the same. I thought when I began this adventure there was no greater joy than traveling the world and shooting underwater. Of course that was the mantra of transient youth. Today, I know there is no greater joy than having a loving wife and two awesome sons to share the travel and assignments with. I have great hopes of a couple of camera assistants in the future. The fact they can put up with the transient adult lifestyle constantly amazes me. The next time I find myself at the Fort, they will be with me.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Seymour Family Portrait

Chase, Elizabeth & Cameron pose for our traditional family photo.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Family Business

Nassau, Bahamas - When Mike from Ocean Technologies System called and asked me if I would be interested in a Bahamas shoot, you might wonder why I would even have to think about it. The issue was I was already committed to nearly three months away from my family. The solution? Bring them with me of course! Mike, being the class act he is, moved to accomidate the increase in the production team. The result has been on the the best vacations of our life. I could generate dozens of posts with pics of my boys in the pool day after day after day after day after day. Perhaps the water thing runs in the family? While I was out diving with sharks and shipwrecks, so were Cameron and Chase in there minds eye logging nearly enough pool time in to require decompression. Each night I would share a dive story from the day while putting them to bed then spend a couple hours alone with my beautiful wife Elizabeth. Would it be possible to run each assignment like this?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Working??? with OTS

Nassau, Bahamas - Over the years working underwater I have come to depend on certain manufactures to deliver the best in underwater equipment. The guys at Ocean Technologies Systems are at the top of that list. After the company president, Mike Pelissier did the NPS (an me personally) a huge favor by working a recient PBS NOVA program we were shooting on the USS Arizona we discussed future projects. With the relese of the best underwater full face mask ever designed (the Guardian) they were looking for a shooter to help out with some catalog shots. Based on a combination of talent and being a cheap date, I find myself in Nassau, Bahamas working with the OTS crew at Stuart Cove's. Its been five days of clear blue water, sharks, shipwrecks and talented models. Did I mention sharks? The crew at Stuarts have been awesome and I have no shortage of images to capture. Did I mention sharks?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Greatest Dive

Islamorada, Florida - As an underwater photographer, I have done my share of diving. I know, all divers throw around numbers of dives and c-cards like a badge of honor. This isn't about quantity, but quality. The other day I had what can only be described as my greatest dive. There was no 300' vis. No schooling bait ball with charging swordfish. No big animal encounters like a whale shark meandering through the dive site. There wasn't even any shipwrecks - and that doesn't happen often. This dive was in 4' of water, under a dock at my good friend Jim Bernardin's resort, Pines & Palms in Islamorada, Florida. There were a couple of the smallest eels I have ever seen. A schooling snapper population the size of matchboxes and a handful of lobster that would have a tough time not being boiled, dipped in cocktail sauce and getting eaten as an appetizer. What made this dive so amazing? It was my son Cameron's first snorkel.

If your a parent, you'll get this. If your going to be a parent, be prepared because it will happen and it's awesome. I'm talking about seeing the world, your world, through the eyes of your child. When Cam and I drifted under that unimpressive little dock not on any map or visitor guide I got to experience the underwater world through his eyes. His anxious points at EVERY fish and the muffled grunts through his little snorkel made my senses heightened. He wanted to make sure I saw it all too. His very cautious approach to a hiding spotted moray not 6" big made me realize how cool those creatures are. His little finger gently touching the modeled shell of a cowry made me ponder there design. The way he flinched when I pointed out an upside jellyfish made me respect there sting. The surprised eek he gave when a barracuda, the largest he had ever seen underwater (maybe 8"), streaked by us was exhilarating.

Civil War submarines, WWII wrecks, pristine stagehorn coral, or schooling sharks can't compare to a 4' dive holding Cam arms under the dock and seeing the underwater world through his eyes for the first time. I'm betting it wont be our last dive together.