Deep Breath – The Search for Fame

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John BantinIt’s almost unthinkable that a group of British divers in their mid-thirties would not of heard of the actor James Stewart but that is what I encountered on a liveaboard recently. To think that such a famous stalwart of the Hollywood Dream Factory could have been forgotten only half a Century after he made such classic movies as Vertigo, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance was shocking to me but that seems to be the story of fame.

I grew up watching James Stewart in black & white movies almost every Sunday afternoon on television. On the other hand, as an OAP, I haven’t heard of such famous people as Ashton Kutcher or Mischa Barton (I picked these names out of my teenage daughter’s celebrity magazine.)

When it comes to diving, almost only one name stands out with the general public and that is Jacques-Yves Cousteau who lives for about the same period of time (1910-1997) as James Stewart (1908-1997) and continuously worked at hard at his own self-publicity as he did making unique films about the undersea world.

Fame can be short-lived. Commander Lionel Crabb, the diving hero from World War 2, would have been long forgotten if he had not disappeared in mysterious circumstances yet today’s journalists still continue to confuse him with Buster Crabbe, a Hollywood actor that once played the part of Tarzan.

Scuba diving is a comparatively young activity. Many of its most famous exponents are still alive but mainly forgotten about by the diving public. Hans Hass still lives in his native Austria and Stan Waterman, the man that among other things was the cameraman on Peter Gimble’s iconic Blue Water White Death, is ninety and still diving. As one young person patronisingly said on an Internet forum recently, “I’ve never heard of him but if he’s still enjoying his diving, that’s good.”

I discovered Dick Rutkowski, the virtual inventor of Nitrox for recreational diving, taking tea in his little diving museum in Key Largo surrounded by cuttings from all the popular contemporary sources vilifying him for expounding the use of such a ‘Devil gas’. Howard Rosenstein, the man that almost single handedly promoted diving around the Sinai peninsular and can claim to have discovered the Dunraven, now anonymously sells camera housings at dive shows. Ron and Valerie Taylor have sunk from view. Valerie was known as the ‘Shark Lady’ for her antics with sharks in front of Ron’s camera, a title she shared with once-famous American ichthyologist Eugenie Clark who beguiled President Sadat of Egypt into making Ras Mohammed a marine park.

Bret Gilliam, once the record-holder for the deepest dive on air and the founder of TDI still leads recreational diving trips abroad but otherwise concentrates on legal work connected with diving but I was shocked when a leading technical diver recently confessed he’d never heard of him, or Tom Mount (the founder of IANTD) for that matter.

Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. If you don’t know whom Andy Warhol is, Google! It seems that fame is an ephemeral thing that can only be maintained if you continue to pursue the business of keeping in the public’s eye. Divers that relentlessly pursued fame at the risk to their own lives, such as Rob Palmer, Shek Exley or John Bennett made the mistake of dying in the pursuit of it and disappeared from view both physically and publicly. How long will it be before Carl Spencer is forgotten?

The fact of the matter is that scuba diving is an activity that is almost invisible to the world at large. There are no medals to be won for scuba diving in the Olympic games and even there, most Gold Medal winners may only be remembered years later by the cognoscenti.

Yet we continually see divers relentlessly self-promoting in the belief that it will make them somebody important. In the twenty years I’ve been involved with Diver Magazine, I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go. They set themselves up as gurus and they surround themselves with acolytes who help with the illusion – but it is an illusion. Underwater photographers are the same.

Years ago, in the days of film, underwater photography competitions were dominated by one name, the Swiss photographer Kurt Amsler. He was so good he won everything. Eventually he nobly decided to take a back seat and let others have a chance at the glittering prizes, but those prizes are meretricious. Today, almost anyone can take a good underwater picture if they put their mind to it and that is thanks to the technological wizardry of the digital age.

Some might kid themselves that their underwater pictures are important but I’d like to remind them that I was a mainstream photographer thirty years before I got into diving and large corporations spent millions of pounds making sure my photographs were seen by the general public, but I won’t bore you with the details. I was never famous for it beyond the tiny minority of those in the business but at least I walked away with big fees. Alas, that rarely happens with any pictures today and less so with pictures taken of fishes.

There was a television commercial for a camera popular in the ‘eighties with the pay-off line “Who’s David Bailey?” I have heard people say that for real recently but he was a founder of modern photography and not so long ago either.

Yet when all that is said and done, divers still aspire to recognition and often do some life-threatening things in the pursuit of it. I say ‘life threatening’ because no matter how many courses a diver embarks on nor how much redundant kit he takes with him; he still does what he does in a non-inspirable medium. Diving remains dangerous but, more to the point, diving remains invisible to the public at large.

Recently, a dive guide in Egypt called Valeria Crucilla, heroically saved the life of a British rebreather diver. She saw him collapse whilst climbing the ladder of the boat and had the presence of mind to react accordingly. She left her group at the surface, swam down after his unconscious body and collected him from depth, raised him to the surface and performed CPR, literally resurrecting his lifeless body. (Evidently, he’d gone in without any O2 in his unit’s tanks.) She should be famous. She is not.

So I exhort all of you to enjoy what you do, get good at it by putting in lots of practice, hone your skills and go diving. We are part of a privileged minority. Don’t try to be a famous diver. Fame is not something you can achieve by pursuit. Fame is something that is thrust upon you and you don’t want to be famous for a day in an obituary column somewhere. It isn’t worth it.

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4 comments for “Deep Breath – The Search for Fame

  1. nigel llewellyn-smith
    October 2, 2012 at 11:51 am

    John Bantin? Never heard of ‘im….

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  2. October 2, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    “…almost anyone can take a good underwater picture…”
    Really?
    :-)

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  3. Bret Gilliam
    October 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    John is right: “fame” is fleeting and is rarely achieved by “show boating” as a deliberate path to celebrity. It’s simply too obvious and a bit pathetic. And it seems for many to be an exercise in fatal Darwinism.

    Most persons in diving that are deserving of “fame” found themselves in such status by virtue of long careers of meaningful contributions to various segments including manufacturing, filming, writing & photography with a unique style, or their involvement in innovative companies that fundamentally changed the sport.

    Like John, I lament the preservation of diving’s history and the wonderful characters that led the early pioneering ventures beneath the sea. My earliest heroes were Hans Hass and Bev Morgan. Later I was privileged to be mentored by SCUBAPRO founder Dick Bonin. But today most divers have no recognition of such names. It would behoove the industry to provide a more thorough historical background to diving in basic training.

    Fo those with such interest, consider joining the Historical Diving Society. They have a wonderful print magazine and sponsor some incredible seminars and special diving trips.

    And I can’t resist a plug for my popular book “Diving Pioneers”. It features interviews with 20 of the most interesting divers from the first and second generation of divers. It’s officially sold out but I have a few copies left that I sell privately. Contact me if interested: bretgilliam@gmail.com

    The history of any sport is compelling and provides a perspective on how we got from origin to the present. Those that charted that journey should not be forgotten.

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  4. Bradford Johnson
    April 17, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    John,

    Nice article and very true about fame and glory seekers…
    One forgotten underwater pioneer you may put in your next article is E.R. Johnson. He was a pioneer in underwater photography who invented the “O” ring, but never patented it, although he had over 90 patents to his name. Hans Hass, Cousteau,Stan Waterman (you can still ask him!), all used his camera housings and lighting equipment..they were the worlds finest at that time. Dr Chris Lambertson, the inventor of the rebreather and Navy dive tables, called him a unsung hero of the early UDT program. Johnson put a camera housing down to 3,000ft successfully…back in 1931.
    Johnson retreated from public life after filming the first submarine launched off a submerged subs deck in 1952, at that time top secret equipment being developed at the navy base in ST Thomas, BVI.
    His camera housings are amazingly modern even by today’s standards…look for them under the FenJohn company label.
    You can see many of his underwater color movies and photos taken in the late 1920′s and 1930′s at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia…
    An amazing inventor and contributor to underwater photography and marine life study who is completely forgotten except for a few of us…

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