Blancpain presents a new version of the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date watch – the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date Desert Edition. This 500-piece limited-edition model inspired by a Blancpain diver’s watch from the 1970s is characterised by a gradient-coloured sandy beige dial featuring a sunburst pattern. This nuance evokes the desert, and more specifically Death Valley in the United States, where Ernest H. Brooks II, a pioneer of underwater photography and contributor to the Edition Fifty Fathoms project, made a spectacular dive in 1962.
“It is unbelievable how hot the sun blazes at seven o’clock in the morning in infamous Death Valley. We could already feel the hot sand under our feet as we set off [to dive]“, says Ernest H. Brooks II. The dive he is referring to is Devils Hole, an underwater chasm that plunges into the bowels of the earth at a depth of more than 120 metres before opening out into a gigantic underwater river. Devils Hole is also unique in that it is the exclusive home of a seriously endangered species of fish, Cyprinodon diabolis, of which Brooks took the first pictures.
The new desert-coloured Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date is for adventurers, enthusiasts and creative minds. In the 1970s, Blancpain‘s own innovative mindset led the Brand to break with the traditional aesthetic codes of the Bathyscaphe models by producing a series of pieces featuring a cushion-shaped case, an inner rotating ring – replacing the conventional outer rotating bezel –, a gradient-coloured grey dial as well as the day of the week and date indication. The dial of the Blancpain Bathyscaphe Day Date Desert Edition adopts this style, which it combines for the first time with a subtle gradation of sandy beige, a hue that is new to the collection. Its shades and sunburst finish endow it with remarkable clarity, while its boldly-sized rectangular hour-markers guarantee instant readability of the information displayed. A chapter ring punctuated with Arabic numerals marks the five-minute intervals while evoking the inner rotating ring of the 1970s watch. Just as on the period timepiece, the date and day of the week windows are located at 3 o’clock. The hands are coated with Super-LumiNova® and feature the same baton-shaped design as earlier Blancpain Bathyscaphe models. The dial of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date Desert Edition is enhanced by a unidirectional rotating bezel with a brown ceramic insert and Liquidmetal® hour-markers.
Although this new model has a vintage look, its mechanism is resolutely modern. Housed in a 43 mm satin-brushed steel case and water-resistant to 30 bar (approximately 300 m), the Manufacture-made 1315DD movement offers all the performance attributes essential to a diver’s watch. It also features a five-day power reserve, which is particularly useful in daily life. Another major asset is its balance fitted with a silicon balance-spring, a guarantee of accuracy and resistance to magnetic fields. The sapphire crystal caseback of the watch allows one to admire the finishes of this top-of-the-range movement, including its gold oscillating weight coated with a NAC treatment, thereby endowing it with added character.
Issued in a 500-piece limited series, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date Desert Edition model comes with a sandy-coloured sail canvas strap matching the warm tones of the dial.
Ernest H. Brooks and the first dive in Death Valey
Most people are under the impression that the Missouri is the longest river in the United States. Many scientists, however, think a far longer body of water flows underground from the Rocky Mountains underneath Death Valley all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In 1962 a group of divers first set out to explore this subterranean river through a tiny entrance in Death Valley.
“It is unbelievable,” says Ernest H. Brooks, when he starts telling us his extraordinary story, “how hot the sun blazes at seven o’clock in the morning in infamous Death Valley. We could already feel the hot sand under our feet as we set off wearing nothing but swimming trunks and a 10-liter double pack.”
Brooks was one of the first to dive into Devils Hole, right in the middle of the Nevada Desert. “By midday, after our first dive, the sand was too hot to walk barefoot. We hadn’t thought about that when we started, and aft er the dive, we couldn’t care less as we were setting out to solve one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the underground fresh water deposits in the Nevada Desert and in California. Had we known before what was awaiting us, we might not have been quite so euphoric.”
In January 1962, Brooks and his diving buddies Jim Houtz and Merl Dobry set off together to explore a subaqueous cavern, the Devils Hole, to explore a possible link that might reach one of the largest freshwater deposits in North America.
Today, Devils Hole is under the protection of the National Park System and it truly does its name justice. As a matter of fact, the chasm is at times only a few centimeters wide, yet it penetrates a depth of over 120 meters before meeting a gigantic underwater river. But back in 1962 nobody knew about this—yet!
“We were in good form,” recalls Brooks, “and we had enough air for any eventuality and we had our own compressor. I wanted to experiment with my new fl ashlight system during our adventure in the cave. In 1962 each dive was a test for new equipment, especially regarding photography and fi lm technology. We hadn’t stopped to think too closely about what exactly to expect in the Devils Hole. We were young and adventurous.”
Today most divers who hear Brooks recount how he and his buddies completed their first few dives without a safety line will shake their heads in disbelief.
“Although,” Brooks grins, “when they hear that the only accommodation at the time near Death Valley was a brothel, they will no doubt understand our enthusiasm for the many dives we did…”
Ernest Brooks always takes his camera on each of his dives. He is passionate about photography. Th is is no coincidence, as he inherited the skill from his father who was a photographer, who had made a name for himself as a war photographer during the First World War. In 1945 Ernest Brooks Sr. founded the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. In 1960 Brooks II started teaching classes in underwater photography, and thus turned his father’s institute into the first commercial college for this complex type of photography. In 1971 Brooks II followed his father’s footsteps and took over the management of the Brooks Institute of Photography. Under his leadership, films, as well as underwater still photography, were integrated into the regular curriculum. Th is is still true today, despite the fact that Ernest, known as Ernie to his friends, sold the Institute to the Career Education Cooperation in 1999.
Brooks had begun teaching at his father’s institute, among others, on the topics of underwater and scientific photography several years earlier, and so it was really no surprise that he took multiple cameras on his expedition into Devils Hole. One of the cameras was dedicated to colour photography. Brooks says they had made most of the housings and even more the flash systems themselves.
“Other than our cameras and our triple tanks, all we had were masks, fins and swimming trunks. The water was very warm at 33 degrees Celsius and extremely clear. Had the cavern been lit, I am sure we could have seen to the ground — which at the time we had estimated to be 50 to 80 meters deep…”
Brooks took the first pictures of a small, endemic fish that lives in this waterhole in the middle of the desert. The Devils Hole pupfish Cyprinodon diabolis has lived peacefully in the upper 10 meters or so of the three by seven meter waterhole for the past 50,000 years. There, the tiny, 3-centimetre-long pupfish feeds on algae that continue to grow in the warm water despite only moderate solar radiation. Today the fish generates more interest than Devils Hole itself. Entry into the fi sh’s habitat has now been banned. Diving is only permitted in the Devils Hole for scientific reasons and with prior permission.
Of course, as we learn from Brooks, back in 1962 things were rather different: “No one dreamed of coming up with crazy ideas like getting to quite literally the deepest depths of Devils Hole. We were different. Unfortunately, we only had very weak lamps, which in our case barely illuminated the black hole. Aft er less than 10 meters down, we found a small tributary, which turned out to be a dead end. The hole then narrowed down dramatically until it opened into a larger room at 30 meters with a rock formation resembling an anvil. As a matter of fact, this place has since been known as the Anvil.” Directly below the Anvil, a second side arm led vertically upwards, back towards the surface. But no light penetrated from there. The entrance was again so narrow that Brooks and his buddies had to take off their tanks to dive through the entrance. Anyone, including Brooks, who has ever dived with a twin-hose regulator knows exactly how stressful it is to breathe with the regulator above you. “A few meters on, the narrow gap expanded again and as we dived upwards some 30 meters until we got to a larger space, a cave within the mountains above the water surfaced. We even climbed into the cave and quickly took a couple of pictures with our underwater housings. These are probably the only recordings anybody has ever taken in this forsaken place. Then we dived back again. Our first adventure in Devils Hole ended successfully.”
The next day, the divers had planned to follow the descent into further depths and therefore placed spare tanks in the Anvil and in a second position at the entrance of the upper sidearm to serve as decompression tanks later on. Little did they know at the time exactly how important these would become…
Ernie Brooks once said, “Black and white are my favourite colours.” Maybe this is the reason why he still exclusively shoots in black and white. According to Brooks, infinite shades of grey in a black and white composition appear in different colours in the eyes of the beholder, or wherever their imagination takes them. Brooks explains the most important aspect of his passion as a black and white artist by comparing each black and white photograph to a setting for a yet another colourful fantasy. Th is is in contrast to a colour photograph, which deprives the observer of this imaginative self-interpretation right from the start.
What Ernest Brooks wants to do is to teach us to think creatively. He is a gifted teacher who doesn’t simply lecture in a schoolmasterly way in front of his students, but always tries to stimulate creativity within the group wherever possible. Brooks likes to illustrate, and succinctly summarizes his philosophy with the following story: “I went diving with a group of students,” he says, “and after a few minutes my student photographers looked at me as they were wondering whether to abort the dive due to the miserable visibility. I then asked one student to lie down on the ground and breathe evenly and I followed the rising and expanding bubbles. Just before they reached the surface, where the light breaks into diffuse water and bubbles are at their greatest did I take a picture. One single picture—the way I always do when a photographic idea crosses my mind. This picture, which stems from one of the most boring dives I ever made, is also one of my most popular ones.”
While most modern photographers use digital cameras and take hundreds of photos per dive, pick the supposedly best ones, process them with Photoshop only to think of the significance of the picture afterwards, Brooks, on the other hand, says he uses his creativity to fi rst consider how to deal with light in the sea in order to create a unique photographic piece of art.
On day two of his expedition, January 7, 1962, Brooks no longer wasted his time with the Devils Hole pupfish. “We wanted to reach the bottom of the main source,” he says, “and we dived down to the Anvil as fast as possible. After quickly checking the diving equipment left out on the previous day, we continued down, one after the other into the abyss. I was the first one to descend so I could take photos of my buddies behind me. When we still couldn’t see the bottom at 60 meters, I stopped losing time taking pictures. Our goal was a depth of 80 meters. We had sufficient gas in our triple tanks and none of us appeared to suffer from nitrogen narcosis so we kept going deeper and deeper. At 80 meters it looked like our lamps were lighting up the ground. We took one look at each other. Merl signed to me: three minutes left. And so we took the risk and went down to 100 meters.”
“In truth,” says Brooks looking back, “we probably all three suffered from nitrogen narcosis as none of us stopped the other from performing this reckless act”.
“As it turned out, even at 100 meters depth we still had no solid ground beneath us. Far from it! In the final meters of our dive, the water increasingly blew into our faces and it was full of sediment. Our dive lights reflected some larger rocks from deep below us. We estimated that the ground had to be at a depth of at least 120 to 130 meters. At the end of the tunnel, we could feel the tremendous power of the subterranean river all over our bodies. Even today it makes me shiver just at the thought that this gigantic torrent flowing deep under the sun-baked surface of the desert is connected to the Pacific Ocean.”
Today it is a known fact that it’s the water from the underground river that presses into the vertical sidearm. In 1962 Brooks’s adventure journey ended right there. “We aborted our exploration dive at about 100 meters and we turned round and went up as fast as we could. Not because we had no air left, but any experienced diver can work out quite how long our decompression had to be. Once we got to the Anvil, we reached our 10-litre double tanks for decompression, but only changed tanks once our triple tanks were really empty.
“Thank goodness the water was warm so that no one got cold. All in all, it took us over two hours to complete our decompression. We did not have tables so we can only thank our lucky stars that this dangerous dive ended well for all of us. We logged the ground at 120 meters (400 feet) in our logbook.”
Later, it turned out that the bottom really lies at 500 feet. Whether Brooks actually went deeper than they had originally assessed or whether their lamps lit up an intermediate floor is now impossible to say. One thing is certain, one of the wildest and craziest dives in Brooks’s life had a happy ending and Brooks took the very first photographs of a hitherto virtually unknown cave system in the midst of the desert. And these photos have travelled the entire world ever since.
Ernest Brooks is famous for his black and white photography, and with his book Silver Seas (which is sold out), the photographer’s fame travelled far beyond the borders of the United States.
When introducing the new Fifty Fathoms in 2008, Blancpain wanted to give prominence to the art of manufacturing this great watch and Marc A. Hayek came up with the idea of comparing the art of watchmaking to the art of photography. Because the Fifty Fathoms is a divers’ watch and Hayek himself is a passionate diver and photographer, he dreamed up Edition Fifty Fathoms, to date the only book series on underwater photographic art. None other than Ernest H. Brooks II introduced the black and white portfolio, which is the first of a 12-volume collection of the Edition Fifty Fathoms (2008 to 2020) and will bring together 50 renowned underwater photographers. When the 60th anniversary of the original Fifty Fathoms watch was held, five unique volumes of the strictly limited edition had been published, including the works of 20 renowned photographers.
For the first Edition Ernest H. Brooks was invited to Japan in autumn 2008 to present his work in Tokyo. Many more exhibitions followed—most of them organized in connection with the latest series of the Fifty Fathoms dive watch. The Edition Fifty Fathoms never strayed from Brooks’s philosophy according to which photography is something truly unique and photographic art is the perfect interpretation of the photographer’s thoughts at the precise moment of the shutter release.
And this is exactly what Brooks did while the three of them were doing their decompression time at the end of the very deep dive into Devils Hole: “I wasted no time contemplating our recklessness. Instead, I reached for my camera and took a unique photo that reflects my memory of that special dive: Merl, as he hovers with outstretched arms just below the entrance to Devils Hole, backlit by the morning sun. It looks like he was floating in an endless connection between heaven and hell.”
Of course, this last photo turned out to be the most well known in the series made from Brooks’s fantastic Devils Hole photo expedition; it is a unique Brooks’s photograph that tells an incomparable story.
Text: Dietmar W. Fuchs
Photos: Ernest H. Brooks II
Addendum: Two years after Brooks’s expedition, two divers lost their lives in the attempt to reach the bottom of Devils Hole. In 1967 a regulator was found in the Pacific that bore the serial number of one of the two divers. Grim evidence that Devils Hole, in the middle of Death Valley, is indeed connected via one of the world’s longest rivers to the Pacific Ocean.
“Edition Fifty Fathoms”
There are two magic numbers in the history of the dive watch and photography.
The first one is 12, a magic number in time as it is the number of cyphers shown on watch dials and the number of letters in the name of the very first diving watch, Fifty Fathoms. In photography, 12 is connected to the most famous photography formats: Hasselblad (6×6), Leica (24×36), television (4×3) or even the new format 16:9 is the power of 4×3.
The second magic number is 50 as in Fifty Fathoms — the depth limit for sport diving, but also the number of pages in each Edition Fifty Fathoms, the art magazine of underwater photography. Furthermore, each issue of this magazine displays 50 incredible underwater shots—four portfolios of 12 pictures each, plus cover and back cover shot. In 2020, after 12 years, the combined Editions Fifty Fathoms will consist of the finest 50 underwater photographers, who will form the Fifty Fathoms Hall of Fame.
The first five issues—the first named Fifty—were published before the 60th anniversary of the Fifty Fathoms watch. The final seven issues will be published in the next seven years.
Blancpain invites you to enjoy fine art photography and hopes that you will become one of the 1,000 collectors of the limited Edition Fifty Fathoms.
Interview with Ernest H. Brooks II
In connection with Ernest H. Brooks’s portfolio in “Edition Fift y Fathoms 2008,” Dietmar W. Fuchs talked to the renowned photo artist.
DIETMAR W. FUCHS: Ernie, the underwater world luxuriates in an abundance of color. You favor black and white. Why?
ERNEST H. BROOKS: The reason I see in black and white is because of my early mentors, Armando Salas Portugal and Boris Dobro. Portugal is a masterful Mexican photographer who specialized in photographing the Maya and Aztec ruins in large format black and white images. Russian-born Dobro took a journalistic approach to photographing everyday life in black and white. The American photographer Ansel Adams was also very infl uential in providing me with an easy path to follow. The ocean’s shades of blue became my grayscale — from highlights to shadows.
FUCHS: You were president of the renowned Brooks Institute of Photography. What did you learn during all those years about your own photography and what did you teach your students?
BROOKS: One of the greatest lessons I learned was how to take criticism. It is an essential part of one’s growth and the honing of one’s ability to see. We taught students not to compose in their minds, but to get all the elements in place and in the viewfinder.
FUCHS: Very often, average pictures in black and white are declared art. This appears to be all too easy. What is your take on photo art?
BROOKS: The old adage is that “Art is in the eye of the beholder,” so perhaps the definition of what is art truly is a personal one.
FUCHS: What influence has the digital revolution had on your black and white photography and most importantly on the darkroom process?
BROOKS: My photography was done prior to the digital revolution: on film and in a real darkroom. However, images in my book were digitally scanned and enhanced in the digital darkroom and the book was produced using digital technology. The digital darkroom does not produce the toxic chemical waste that a real darkroom does and it opens the craft to an incredible world for everyone.
FUCHS: Can you tell us about your next endeavour?
BROOKS: At an age of 79 I have reached a point where my satisfaction comes from mentoring others. There are many superb younger photographers out there, especially underwater photographers, and I feel it is time for the next generation to shine.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Day Date Desert Edition Technical Specifications
- Day Date
- unidirectional satin-brushed steel bezel with ceramic insert and Liquidmetal® hour-markers
- dial with subtly graduated sand colouring
- Diameter: 43.00 mm
- Thickness: 14.25 mm
- Sapphire crystal back
- Water-resistance: 30 bar
- Interhorn space: 23.00 mm
- Calibre 1315DD
- Diameter: 34.75 mm
- Power reserve: 120 hours
- Jewels: 37
- Components: 281
- Limited edition: 500