At first glance, many images from underwater photographer Henley Spiers‘ black and white series are disorienting: sea creatures in motion are captured with crystalline clarity but appear abstract. Some photographs require further inspection to figure out exactly what’s in frame. Others are breathtaking glances at rarely seen moments. Altogether, the series stirs emotions and reminds viewers of the sheer beauty and brilliance of the planet’s oceans—of which humans have still only explored five percent.
Spiers not only documents marine life but simultaneously indulges his artistic eye. “Submerged is where I feel most at ease, filled with immense calm, and wonder at the life below,” he tells us. “It’s a hard feeling to convey in words, and taking up photography was a way of transmitting the beauty of the marine world where words failed. Photography honed my appreciation of beauty, slowing me down to the point where I’ll happily spend hours observing a single fish.”
Spiers began his career as a diving instructor. In leading others on adventures, he formed an insatiable appetite for underwater imagery, prompting him to purchase the necessary equipment. “The most human reaction to beauty is to want to share it with others, and that is the driving force behind my photography. Nature is art in my eyes, and the ultimate ambition is to create imagery which embraces the beauty and art inherent to nature,” Spiers says.
On the surreal, otherworldly feel of his shots, Spiers says, “Being underwater does indeed have a feeling akin to being in space—and astronauts actually use scuba diving to simulate space walks. The neutrally buoyant state achieved means you experience an incredible feeling of weightlessness—able to propel yourself in absolutely any direction you choose. Added to that is the experience of seeing some truly alien-looking creatures, such as the larval octopus in the print collection, found in the middle of the night over deep water as it began its life far from the light of the sun and of the reef.”
Not all of his photography is monochrome; plenty convey the vivid colors of underwater animals, corals and plants. In fact, his two books embrace the vibrance of the ocean’s natural hue, emphasizing it from below, as the sun pierces through. But, it’s his black and white works that garnered him a spot on the 2020 Underwater Photographer of the Year shortlist.
“Black and white photography can be a powerful way of showcasing the underwater environment, and I especially enjoy shooting close to the surface, where the boundaries between land and air blur, such as the moment a cormorant dives down onto a shoal of fish,” he explains. “Although this image is entirely taken underwater, you are left wondering if the bird or fish are outside of their natural environment as two worlds collide.”
Images courtesy of Henley Spiers