Ernie Brooks: Photography and Legacy
BY NASTACIA SCHMOLL
Ernie Brooks, photographer and educator, comes from a family of photographers. Brooks, by inspiring students to take up the camera themselves, is creating a legacy of photography to capture and examine the world we live in.
He’s traveled all over the world diving, taking photographs, and giving talks. Often considered the Ansel Adams of underwater photography, he’s won numerous international awards, contributed work to many museums and magazines, and has focused on education, conservation, and philanthropy. Recently, he donated the former Brooks Institute of Photography Jefferson Campus (valued at nearly $8 million), with stunning views of the Channel Islands, as a permanent home for Santa Barbara Middle School so that the students could be influenced by the artistry of the nature that surrounds them.
impactmania caught up with Ernie at the Our Channel Islands exhibit at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, where he gave a presentation and donated a selection of his photography, with all of the proceeds going directly to support the museum. He talked to us about the importance of photography, protecting the environment, and educating youth to appreciate nature and art.
What first inspired you to be a photographer?
My grandmother took portraits at the turn of the century, 1892. My uncle was a landscape photographer in black and white in 1925. My father was a flower photographer in Brazil two years after I was born, 1935. When I was in kindergarden I had stains on my fingers from the chemicals processing my father’s film. My sister did acetic acid and water, so she didn’t get the stain, but I got the stain. So it was in my family. Coming from a photographic family, that’s what you talked about at night. We processed my dad’s 4X5 films or 8X10 films. We’d go on field trips. We were the models, my sister and I, a lot of the time. We did the Pismo Beach Sand Dunes for advertising. It just get’s in your blood.
And on your fingers apparently.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
How has growing up in this photographic family affected the way that you see the world?
I’m not into the electronic world. I don’t do that. I don’t listen to news. I don’t watch television; I watch good films. And so I’m really focused on what I do; the world needs to know what’s happening on our planet. With the things that are occurring, the tornadoes and the high seas. I mean, everything’s upside down. And it’s human caused.
I want to illustrate that in my images, to show the beauty of our oceans and the beauty of our climate. Clouds and waterfalls and rivers, oceans, trees, all of those things. That’s my life, and I really enjoy giving programs all over the world to do that.
I just got in from Las Vegas a week ago. I had a big show there, and it was incredible. I have a violinist that plays music to my images, and it’s wonderful. And I can touch people that way. You know? You can’t touch politicians. That’s what’s wrong with our country. But that has to change too. We have to really start doing our part. America needs to be doing that.
I give programs in China, in Abu Dhabi, in different places around the world, in France, in Italy, in Germany. They understand it. And they’re doing something. Germany especially, with solar energy, wind energy, and all of that. And we’re doing very, very little in our country. Our young people really need to start addressing this too. So a lot of my programs I do for the younger generation.
You say that a lot of countries are starting to address this and we’re kind of behind. What do you think it’s going to take to make people wake up and become aware of these situations and move forward?
Well, what’s really going to happen is cause and effect. Look at the Line Islands. People can’t live there anymore. Their homes are gone. And that’s caused by something happening in our atmosphere that’s changing the way ocean currents are going and the warming that’s happening.
America’s educational system needs to change. We need to get serious about our life on our planet Earth. That’s one of my pledges to young people. To get into photography you can’t use the cameras that I use; mine are old! But you can use new technologies to record what’s happening and make a statement and stick by your statement.
How do you think photography helps facilitate this process?
It’s visual. It’s happening. And so that’s the biggest link. You can write about it all you want. People don’t read today. Magazine industries are gone. Books are hard to come by. You look at this one over here by Wyland. If you picked up his book, or mine, you’re going to learn something, because there are images in it.
We need to get our young people in gear. You go to countries like Germany and you give programs there that the kids are so interested in. I go to Santa Barbara Middle School, guess what? They want to do what I’m doing in the world. And they will. They have a photography program, and it’s marvelous. I love the school.
You donated the campus to Santa Barbara Middle School. What inspired you to do that?
First of all, their head master, Brian, their teachers, their board, but most of all, the kids. I remember when I first leased the campus to them. They wanted a 10 year lease. I gave them a 30 year lease. See, that used to be Brooks Institute’s Jefferson Campus, and I gave a program in the auditorium, and the kids were crying during my program because it was beautiful and touching and they all stood up and they came up and they wanted to do what I was doing, and that touched me from the inside.
The other is a very, very dear friend of mine, Mike DeGruy. Mike was killed in a helicopter crash, but he had in his heart for video what I have in my heart for still photography. And that was a tremendous loss. That was the other reason.
The third was the location, where the students could sit in the classroom or in the parking lot and look out and see our Channel Islands. It’s beautiful. And one day I said to myself, “I want this to be their home.”
So we had it appraised, and I took the lowest appraisal. A CPA and attorney from Santa Barbara Middle School was on the board, did all the work, and didn’t charge, which is what we wanted. And that’s how it happened.
Earlier you said we need to change our education system. How do you think this school helps to achieve that?
I think it makes it affordable for them to do things that they’ve never been able to do before. I really do. You look at their biking program, you look at their ocean programs that they have going on. I know what it costs to lease the vessel and things like that. Well, they can afford that now. They don’t have any expenses and there’s no taxes. They’re non-profit, which is perfect.
And the guidance of the school is fantastic. I walk down the hallway and I see the way these young kids react. They interviewed me too, and I just loved it. They want to get into visual arts. You know, they want to have things like that. And I understand. It’s wonderful. And the artist Wyland is going to paint a blue whale on the wall that they built down by the basketball court.
What has been a surprising learning on this journey?
I think my flying years have helped. I was able to fly very, very high when I was in the air force. I saw the curvature of the earth. Looking at clouds a different way. Looking down at the clouds, or vertically at clouds, I started seeing faces and the things a cloud represented to me. And the purity of the cloud, and clouds over different nations. I was photographing Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1954 and I did it in one flight. There were no clouds, and that’s why I was able to do it. The very next day or so the clouds came in and you could never do it. So that appreciation of flying and seeing our planet from above, and then diving and being in this liquid environment, which is like being in space. I mean, it’s weightless; it’s a weightlessness. And I try in my work to show that simplicity, beauty, and grace, and make it everlasting.
That’s amazing. From above, and then also from below, you get to see different perspectives. We ask all of our interviewees, who has given you perspective? Who has made an impact on your life?
Number one I’d have to say Dr. Hans Hass. He was an Austrian explorer back in the 30s way before Calypso. He and his wife Lottie Hass are the most beautiful couple I’ve ever seen in my life. I met them in 1960 or 1961 at the Santa Monica film festival. He was giving a program, and I fell in love with his work and him and his boat and what they were doing. He was a real inspiration.
And then Ansel Adams. Ansel’s black and white work of Yellowstone and Yosemite and these places, the beautiful qualities of light. And then Edward Weston and Steichen … early photographers of the 1900s. I followed their work.
If you could choose one word to describe your journey, what would that be?
Elegant. Beyond words. There’s really no word to describe it. But yeah, elegant and eloquent. Our planet is that way.
The Our Channel Islands Art Exhibit runs at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum through May 2017.