Jim Black and Black Art Photography
Question: How do you rub a White Shark’s nose while cruising the clouds?
Answer: Your name is Jim Black, you’re an airline pilot and you relive it in your memory.
At age five, Jim Black already knew he wanted to fly. From being a military pilot for 37 years flying planes with extremely short codes for names F4 and C141, going commercial was a predictable move. Not that the planes had more discernible types: 727, DC9, MD8O, Airbus 319, 320, 321, 330.
Dragged into the wonders of diving by a military, Black has not looked back since. Thirty-five years going underwater, he has accumulated over T5400 dives across the globe. Black, who has a Master’s degree in Journalism, has a natural tendency to record phenomena, to communicate, to share information; an innate appreciation of media and technology.
Enter photography, a non-obtrusive, art-producing combination of science and technology.
Nearly four decades in uniform and witness to conflict and devastation, it is perhaps natural for the man to seek relative co-existence and completion in another universe, so to speak. A universe underwater, where life moved in the natural logic of things.
Aside from flying friendly skies and diving dark waters, Black has shot underwater video that he edited himself. The media man in Black finds post-production technology challenging, but fun at the same time, though time-consuming an endeavor. His views on Photoshop are sensible (perhaps the military in him) and moral: thou shall not lie.
That the man is eloquent is a blessing. What a waste of a spectacular adventure it would have been if he were not. Jim Black’s narrative of rubbing a 14-foot, female White Shark’s nose is worthy of Discovery and Hallmark Channels. Am looking forward to his tales of being attacked by Bull Shark, and meeting a ghost in Truk Lagoon.
How do you assess the difference in your photography with that of other photographer professionals, as a result of your extreme-range personal background?
I can’t think of everything, so when I see a great photograph by a pro or otherwise I take something from it. Eventually it all builds a database in my head. Am I original with a definitive style? No, I studied and stole things from everyone before me and whether it evolves into “my” style, I will leave that for other people to judge.
In your travel both air and sea, where have you traveled twice and realized you have become a different traveler from the last time? If so, how different?
My profession has enabled me to see the world. There are very few places I haven’t been to more than once. I have seen the worst (War and conflict), and the best of people and times. Diving has brought me to the most remote areas on earth with a promise of an untouched underwater paradise. What did I learn? I have always felt that I am no better than anyone else as that is God’s great trick on you…so with that attitude I can get along anywhere with most anyone. The military background and the savvy traveler in me keep me safe from the unprincipled that don’t fit into the statement above. There are places I really do enjoy time after time: South Africa, Thailand, Philippines, Costa Rica, and Bali. The most gentle, mannerly people I have ever met were in Ethiopia. The South Africans are the most “real.” Those are generalizations, perceived impressions born of experience really, but valid I think.
What is your preference, both personal and professional-color or black and white? Why/why not?
Professional color slide film, because underwater the animals and the reef are so vibrant. Film sometimes doesn’t do it justice. I have used some Black and White film on underwater wrecks. It gives an eerie, surreal cast to the images, which is a perfect complement.
What motivations and/or machinations are behind your choice of angle or detail for a certain image? Any particular technique that makes it more simple? Or more difficult?
I believe that in nature photography, you must capture what that animal does, and its behavior-how it lives, feeds, mates, survives-and find the most succinct method to capture that daily grind. It is a world-famous joke, but I do want to capture it with its best face forward or its best side. A lot goes into getting the shot: being a hunter, not being obtrusive, smooth movements, and minimizing your size, for example.
The animals will accept you and eventually not consider you a threat. As one of them, you can go about your business. You will be surprised what you can witness them do and be able to photograph. Another aspect that I am strict about is to shoot the animal at eye level, not above or below, like being there. I believe that it allows the person viewing the image to project himself into the image itself.
Any particular attachment (professional/emotional) to a certain story you’ve covered?
Too many to mention. How about a shark story?
Gaansbaai, South Africa. Inside a cage to photograph White Sharks. The boat Captain, Andre Hartman, says that a particular shark has forsaken the bait and has an interest in me. So we agree to let the cage drift. Now this 14-ft. female White Shark can move around the cage without the boat being in the way. It is great. I have a Nikonos V with a 15mm lens, and f/11 light on the surface. Great sun.
The shark with bright yellow Pilot Fish in accompaniment comes and goes. She disappears. Next thing you know…BOOM! She hits the cage and her nose is stuck through the viewing/camera port on the cage staring at me. I wasn’t in any danger. But to this day I wonder why I didn’t take any shots of this. It is the first time I can say I enjoyed the moment more so than capturing it on film. I was mesmerized and totally forgot about photography. I rubbed her nose for a long time and as I got close to her eyes the nictitating membranes flickered. She just stayed there. I finally pushed her out and she smacked her tail on the cage. She was off like a shot. So we reeled in the cage and I got out. On deck, we didn’t figure on her returning. A few minutes later she was back for more. I got in the cage with another roll of film and a 20mm lens and burned that roll too. It was a grand day.
Sometime, I must tell you about the time I was attacked by a Bull Shark or the time I met the Ghost at Truk Lagoon. .
Are you then a thinking photographer based on technique or a feeling one? Or Both How much of this aspect is brought profession?
Be prepared. Have a plan. Have a backup plan and be ready to take advantage of targets of opportunity. Technique or feeling-you have to have both. There is nothing more satisfying than capturing an image identical to what your minds’ eye has envisioned. The emotion of the shot, the anticipation-and at the correct moment, the technique and ability to capture the shot. Exhilarating!! Trouble is, don’t show it.
The animal senses a heightened persona at that moment of anticipation misreads the situation as being hunted and flees. There goes the perfect shot. So you must stay under complete indifferent control at all times, and things will fall into place. One other thing topside photographers don’t have to deal with- don’t stir up the bottom into a water column. Otherwise you will get a nice shot of a critter in a snowstorm, or a crummy, out-of-focus picture because the water column is moving you around in unexpected surges.
What are your views on Photoshop? Or digital technology? How much of your work is post/Photoshop produced?
I use Photoshop and sometimes Elements but rarely. I use it for sizing images and occasionally removing floating debris from an otherwise lovely shot. Philosophically, Photoshop can open up a can of ethical worms. Like a gun, it is a tool…good and bad. As long as the truth is not a victim, I am wholeheartedly in favor of technology, but we have to guard the truth at all costs. In this world, whoever controls information controls public opinion. Enough said, we all know where lies can lead you.
For example, if an ad agency runs a shoot and the model uses the red bathing suit instead of the blue one. Photoshop the blue one and save a ton of money that would be a second shoot and move on. Additionally, I just had a novice photographer friend spend $6000 for a dive trip. He is a high school teacher. All of his film came back badly overexposed. I suggested that he and his class do a project to try to save his shots with Photoshop. They learn, and he gets a few shots back that encourage him. He goes back next year and tries again hopefully learning from his previous mistakes. All is well. I did say it would be painful.
What camera/s do you use? Lenses? What’s on your equipment list?
Nikonos RS Underwater SLR, and a Nikon F4 in a housing with all the lenses.
Any favorites? Why?
I use the macro lenses a lot in both cameras and my aftermarket 18mm lens for the RS for wide angle. Nikonos RS underwater SLR because of its water contact lenses. You do not have to shoot through a glass lens of housing. The images are impeccable.
What’s the first/oldest camera and lens you bought?
A guy owed me money so he gave me his Yashica with a 35mm lens to pay me off. I had no clue how to us it. But, it got started.
What is your usual or favorite camera setup?
My Nikonos RS with 2 strobes and the most appropriate lens for the occasion. Remember, you cannot change lenses underwater unless you are really, really fast enough to keep the water out. So make a wise choice.