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Look at This! An Unusual Underwater Portrait

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This post is part of a series called Look at This! Great Photographs Revisited.
Look at This! Diving for the Ball
Look at This! Pictures of the Great Depression by Berenice Abbott and Dorothea Lange
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An underwater portrait of U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Wyatt Huggett. U.S. Navy. U.S. Government Work.

Like my previous Look at This!, this is an official U.S. Navy photograph. This image shows Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Wyatt Huggett posing for an underwater portrait. It was taken in a Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a training session. It’s a wonderfully honest and unconventional portrait. Let’s dig in.

Examine the Photograph

The image is an extreme close up portrait of Huggett. The crop cuts his face just above his chin and in the middle of his forehead. Everything except for the subject’s eyes are obscured by either water bubbles or diving equipment. 

The framing of the portrait isn’t the only unusual thing about the image; the photographer captured it with equipment that is rarely used in portraiture. Examining the EXIF information on Flickr reveals that the photographer used a 14 mm f/2.8 lens on a full frame Nikon D3S. While a fisheye lens is common for underwater photography, especially when you’re trying to photograph wildlife, it’s not commonly used for taking pictures of other people. The distortion you get with shorter focal length lenses is extremely unflattering for most subjects. Nobody likes having their nose look like it takes up half their face! 

What Can We See

When I look at the portrait, my eyes are immediately drawn to Huggett’s. I think there are three compositional elements that lead to this.

First, Huggett’s eyes are the only part of the image that are immediately recognisable as human. Everything is quite abstract shapes that are unfamiliar to most people.

Second, although the image is in colour, the only element that is colourful is Huggett’s face. The bubbles, background and diving gear which occupy most of the frame are all essentially monochrome. The bubbles are white and a dark desaturated blue. The diving gear and background are black. The saturation in Huggett’s face has been increased in post-production, and further emphasises the difference in colour between the subject and his surroundings. This immediately makes Huggett’s eyes the focus of our view. 

Third, every other element in the image leads your eye to Huggett. The lines in the two triangles of the diving mask guide our eyes to the face. The bubbles in most of the frame form an organic frame that almost becomes a vignette. 

Despite Huggett’s eyes only taking up a small part of the frame, they utterly dominate the image. I find it hard to look elsewhere without my eyes being drawn back to them.

How Does the Image Make Us Feel?

My favourite thing about this image is how different it is. The most readily apparent twist is in the composition. Although the subject visually dominates the image, he only occupies a small fraction of it. 

Even more interesting to me as a photographer, is the equipment used. No sane photographer would normally use a fisheye lens to capture a close up portrait but in this case it works. There are many unwritten rules in photography: do this in this situation, do that in another. The photographer in this instance has broken every one of them and it’s paid off hugely. It makes me think about the wonderful opportunities I’ve missed because I’ve thought I had the wrong lens or camera to create the kind of image I felt the situation called for. It’s inspired me to try and break the rules more. It won’t always pay off, but when it does, there’s a chance I’ll have something special on my hands.

If this image didn’t work as more than an abstract exercise it wouldn’t be any where near as strong. On an emotional level, I feel that this image is an incredibly honest portrayal of Huggett in particular and Navy Divers as a whole. Navy Divers have to perform difficult tasks in the most hostile working conditions imaginable. It takes a very particular kind of person to defuse mines while breathing from a tank one hundred feet underwater. In Huggett’s gaze we can see this intensity of character. He is completely unfazed by his pitch black surroundings. He is a man who is in his element.

Your Turn

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Iceberg and Mountains. Image by Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The landscape image above is another unconventional picture. It was taken with 180 mm lens on a crop sensor camera—that’s the equivalent of a 288 mm lens on a full frame sensor—and is cropped vertically rather than horizontally. The photographer’s decisions are very unusual for the subject. 

What do you think of the image? Does the unconventional approach taken by the photographer work as well as it does with the previous image? If so, why?

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