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Quotable Notables:  EXTRA! Inspiration

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Stardust Inspiration:  Middle age often inspires us to re-examine our values. Such is the case with Chuck Davis. After an impressive career filming and photographing our oceans, to bring this precious and precarious world to light, he has decided to follow his inner drummer. He is going back to his roots in photography: toward black-and-white and available light, and away from color, a medium which he worked in almost exclusively for decades. Regardless of whether his work is published, he has discovered what the wise person knows: that less is better.

Chuck Davis explores exciting Underwater World

If you’ve watched the movie “Open Water” and asked yourself, “How could anyone in their right mind swim with sharks?” Chuck Davis has an answer.

“I have great respect for great whites,” says the 50-year-old Maine native, whose marine and underwater photography appears in every magazine from Life to National Geographic.

“They’re capable of blood, guts and gore, but they are so much more. They are such beautiful animals. There’s something about knowing the wild things are out there that makes me sleep better. I’d maybe not want a T-Rex walking down my street. But polar bears, lions and top-level predators are part of the system. If not, it would throw things out of balance.”

Davis cares deeply about that balance, and to stimulate marine conservation he has spent 30 years diving, photographing and making Academy Award-nominated IMAX movies and also films with the late Jacques Cousteau and his son Jean-Michel Cousteau.

In fact, Davis is working feverishly with Jean-Michel on a PBS special about gray whales, one that has taken him from the Arctic to Baja and back again. This is immediately following a year shooting beneath Arctic ice, on both coasts of Canada, across the U.S. Heartland, to Mexico, and finally Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca to create a film for the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian.

We meet at his Pacific Grove home which he says is easy to find: it’s the one with the Zodiac parked in the driveway.

The robust silver-haired man shows me his dark room where some dozen wet suits hang from pegs, and underwater cameras and lights are piled high.

Not to mention a trumpet he plays daily. “I find it therapeutic to blow plaster off walls,” he jokes.

We settle in a pleasant living room lined with mind-boggling black-and-white ocean photos - some his, others taken by friends.

Above us are masks he has collected from Tibet to New Guinea.

He unleashes a torrent of words about his adventures . . .

Q: So, you’ve never had a scary shark experience?

A: Not really. I’ve had sharks give me cause for concern. A great white got very interested when I was in Australia. I was out of my cage but I got back in as it went by. I think it was just curious.

Q: What is the mystery of the sea?
A: There are moments in a kelp forest where I’ve had transcendental experiences. I’m hovering on the bottom looking up at a canopy of kelp and young blue rockfish. It’s clouds of new life springing eternal and the sun, this source of energy, is coming down from outer to inner space to my camera. The wonder of nature never ceases . . .

Q: Why do tide pools make children of us all?
A: I think whenever we look into a tide pool we see a little of ourselves in there. It’s a Gestalt thing. You see worlds within worlds, little hermit crabs, etc., and then you see your own reflection in the water. Here on Point Pinos is one of the greatest assemblages of bedrock and biology in the world.

Q: When do you get a bigger picture of life by looking directly beneath your nose rather than out to sea?
A: I think sometimes, especially in photography, we think that incredible image is out there somewhere and we want to travel all over in search of it.

I’ve found some of my most amazing things when I’ve slowed down and worked in my own back yard. Things come to you when you’re still. I felt that today off Hopkins Point, when I was hanging out with a whale. You take the peaceful approach and just are still, let their curiosity peak, and they’ll run the show.

Q: What is our primal connection to the ocean?
A: Most people drive down 101 not realizing they are mere yards from an ocean wilderness. It’s right under our noses but it’s considered a foreign world. But it’s inextricably linked to our lives. What we flush down the toilet, weed killer, detergents, etc., run into the street and it seems innocuous. But that goes right into the ocean and becomes part of its cycle. And it gets ingested by animals and, sooner or later, we end up eating it.

Q: What’s the most astonishing thing you’ve seen there?
A: I spent nine hours in the water with three orcas that were feeding on sharks in New Guinea. It was the very last day of filming after three months of working on the Calypso with Jacques and his son.

Q: You say Jacques was a poet, philosopher and consummate filmmaker. What was your favorite adventure with him?
A: When we went down to Antarctica in 1991, it just blew my mind . . . He brought six kids with him, one from each continent, and he told his (film) story through the eyes of children. He was ingenious. His eyes would light up. He was a kid at heart pushing 80 who had a warm spot and loved kids and life.

Q: Something you wish you’d never seen in the sea?
A: When I was diving in Antarctica to film a leaking oil tanker that had sunk. Jacques wanted us to show the public that Antarctica should stay a place for research before we industrialize it and screw it all up. It was awful to see fuel leaking out of it in that pristine environment.

Q: Does your wife complain about all your traveling?
A: No. Norma used to come along before the kids. Actually, we feel our marriage is good because we give it breaks. (Laughs).

Q: What can we see in black and white that we can’t in color?
A: I’m addicted to black and white. For me, it’s less literal than color. Because of that I feel I’m able to capture better what something feels and what I feel about it. Speaking personally, it allows me to be a little more creative.

Q: When did you first know what you wanted to do with your life?
A: As a kid, my friends and I would take our spear guns down to Nantucket Sound and dive in the freezing water. Eventually, I put down the gun and picked up the camera. Actually, Jeek (a nickname for Jacques) invented the first amphibious camera. Jeek had the minimalist approach to photography. He had a big influence on my life. Also, when you have parents who say you can do it, it makes a big difference. Mom would say, “If you’re gonna work with Jacques you’re gonna need French.” So, listen to your mom!

Q: What was your big break?
A: Meeting my mentor Louis Prezelin. He had been a diver and cameraman for Cousteau. He took me under wing and encouraged me to talk to the Cousteaus. It took five years but they finally got tired of me banging on the door.

Q: What was your road not taken?
A: In 1996, I really had that inward introspective question because I started realizing so much of my still work I was shooting for other people . . . I said, "You’ve gotta follow that internal drummer.” I wanted to film more about how the ocean affects me and speaks to me, regardless of whether it gets published. I went back to my roots, back to black-and-white negatives and not using so much artificial light . . . I’ve discovered that less is better.
 

 

 

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