by David Thompson
I’m sitting on an overstuffed couch in Don Brown’s home, staring across the room at a framed photo-graph of a yellowish-brown... something. I can’t figure out what it is until Brown plucksthe picture off the wall and puts it in my hands. Suddenly, a spiny-headed fish emerges—a longfin sculpin that blends in perfectly with the intricate golden sponge it’s lying upon.
Brown has spent six years carrying a camera underwater, recording thousands of images to surprise and delight unsuspecting viewers like me. In some of those images, like the one of the sculpin, Brown finds creatures whose camouflage works as well on paper as it does in nature. In others, he zeroes in on the dazzling colors and patterns of marine organisms, revealing close-up detail that verges on abstract art. In still others, he backs off to revel in the wonder of the deep, capturing glimpses of a diver hovering in a distant shaft of light or a silvery school of mackerel swirling through a kelp forest and blotting out the sun.
Jewels of the Sea
Brown’s early life gave no hint of what was to come: He grew up far from the sea in suburban Detroit and spent summers camping and hiking in the Michigan woods. He worked as an urban forester and in a bank, sold furniture and camcorders, shot wedding videos and rebuilt batteries. One day, he lucked into a free camera and a stash of expired slide film. By the time he lucked into marrying a scuba diver, he had become a full-blown shutterbug.
Brown learned to dive on his honeymoon in Bonaire. He was hooked instantly. Soon he had an underwater housing for his camera, and in the 1,100 hours of bottom time he’s logged, he’s rarely been diving without photo gear. He’s lived throughout the Pacific and shot at many of the world’s most renowned dive sites. Now he calls Hilo home: In 1999 Brown and his wife (a physician) decided to settle on the Big Island.
Recently, Brown selected a few of his favorite images to create what he describes as a fine art series; prints in the series can be found on the Big Island in Hilo’s Grove Gallery and in Kailua-Kona’s Eclectic Craftsman gallery. I met Brown at his home to talk about his work, his adventures and his love of the ocean.
You’ve got eighteen photographs in your fine art series. What is it about these images that you think separates them from good photography and bumps them into the realm of fine art?
I go through thousands of pictures where I’m documenting animals or showing their behavior. And then I come to one that makes me go, "There’s something deeper here." In a lot of my pictures, I’m looking for a strong physical composition, for symmetry or balance. I also try to reveal the hidden, the overlooked. In other photos, it’s about a creature’s personality. I’m trying to document what a fish is like.
Is personality what you were going for in the image Western Clownfish?
Yeah. Male clownfish have this tough-guy attitude. In this image, the male is coming out of his anemone and challenging me. Clownfish hang around anemones for protection, and every group has one male. The rest are female. They go through what’s called "sexual dimorphism"—if the breeding male dies or is killed, one of the females transforms into a male. A lot of fish do that. The male becomes the protector. He’ll swim right up to your face and bite your mask or fingers. Clownfish are one of the most popular things that underwater photographers shoot. They’re so photogenic. The problem is they never stop moving, so you get a lot of bad, blurry photos.
Your image Closing Time shows clownfish bunched up above what looks like a giant pink tomato. What’s happening there?
That’s an anemone called a magnificent anemone. It’s really big and when it’s open, it looks like a big, floppy piece of carpeting with tentacles. Food gets stuck to the tentacles, and eventually it closes up into a big ball and digests the food. When it’s done, it opens back up.
What do the clownfish do when their anemone is closed?
They’re nervous and concerned, and they all hang out in what’s left of the tentacles as the anemone closes up. And then they swim around going, "Oh, oh, oh, oh" until the anemone opens up again.