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The Living Art Of David Hall by Ross Rice

Can natural photography be considered art, or is it strictly documentary? Landscape and nature painters are considered artists by virtue of their technique and ability to capture and creatively interpret a natural moment, so why not afford the same respect to the photographer of the same? Especially if the images—which require substantial skill, patience, and (for lack of a better term) soul to produce—manage to transcend the subject?

After viewing a series of astonishing photographs taken by world-renowned underwater photographer and Ulster County resident David Hall, this writer finds himself ready to take the artist’s side of the discussion. Visiting his website at, one gets a heady mixture of Jacques Cousteau and Jackson Pollock, with many recognizable marine images, and some . . . delightfully unrecognizable.

We visit David and his wife Gayle Jamison—also an award-winning photographer (and Roll cover artist)—at their restored 1911 craftsman-style house in Woodstock. Affable, yet very focused and precise, David graciously answers questions over coffee, during an afternoon snow dusting outside. He’s such a nice guy, I blurt out my big question first: Do you consider what you do “art?”

David smiles. It turns out he has had an exhibition of his photography a while back in an Ulster County gallery, which was well received and glowingly reviewed by the Daily Freeman. The gallery has since changed hands, and the present director would “probably die before having an underwater or wildlife photography exhibition.” David understands the resistance, but demurs: “Personally, I believe that any kind of photography can be art, depending on exactly what the aims of the photographer are, and how successful he or she is (in achieving them).”

David’s career started with a degree in zoology and medicine, then 35 years as a radiologist at Benedictine Hospital and River Radiology in Kingston (“where my job was basically looking at pictures!”). He started photography as a hobby while interning in 1968, doing black and white shots around Manhattan, but after a snorkeling trip to the Caribbean, was so taken by the visuals, he wanted others to see them too. “I went out and bought the best camera I could afford, which was a $50 Kodak Instamatic inside a little plastic box, with an external attachment for flashbulbs.”

“When I started out [with underwater photography] in 1968, I was basically just trying to document what I saw. I didn’t have any goal beyond that. I had always wanted to be a scientist—some profession ending in ‘ology’—and had never thought of myself as being ‘artistic’.

“But, as I got more into underwater photography, I started noticing that people . . . liked the photographs, saying they were beautiful. I thought ‘beautiful?’ I created something beautiful? I began thinking that I must have some talent in that direction even though I had never realized it, hadn’t worked at developing it.

“And gradually, my aims became more and more artistic, and less and less documentary. I still love to photograph something unusual or rare, but the images that make me the happiest are the ones that I think are the more creative, even if the subject itself is mundane.”

Fortunately, the technology has improved greatly in the last decade, providing for new creative possibilities. When David started out, it was all fairly primitive and improvisational, with photographers often designing their own waterproof Plexiglas boxes and mechanisms. Few shots were possible during any given dive due to being unable to change film or lenses underwater. “There were no underwater strobes—we used flashbulbs! I had to carry 36 flashbulbs, and change the bulbs between exposures.

“In those early days, it was sometimes said that if you could get a photograph of something underwater that was recognizable, it was publishable.”

Keeping up with the latest waterproof housing upgrades has been tough—the housings usually cost twice what the camera does—and David has recently embraced the convenience that digital camera technology offers the underwater photographer, allowing for far more exposures and accessible camera settings during a single dive.

Technology aside, David has an uncanny eye for capturing amazing moments. As Gayle points out, “Because he understands so much of the science behind what we’re seeing, he can anticipate how it will be best shown to advantage.” David and Gayle don’t limit their “fishing trips” to balmy equatorial islands either. “He’ll go where it’s dark, where it’s cold, places most divers avoid,” quips Gayle. Like British Columbia (Canada) or the coast of Hokkaido, Japan in the middle of winter.

Serendipity is a big part of success in their field, and one trip to the Galapagos stands out for David. “I was photographing a starfish when a young sea lion came along, and grabbed the starfish—right in front of me. And then she started to play with it! She did these loop-the-loops, she went up and dropped the starfish in front of me and swooped down and caught it in mid-water. She played with it for two or three minutes, and when she got done, she dropped it back in front of me and swam away! I was fortunate to capture the whole thing on film.” The photos won entry into the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Book in 2001.

Last year they spent seven weeks in Indonesia in the Papua region, as well as Ambon where diving has only recently been possible again after seven or eight years of ethnic and religious conflict. That January a very unusual-looking fish was discovered that no one had ever seen before, related to the anglerfish family, but instead of “fishing” out in the open with its “lure”, it lurked in the holes of coral, blending in. By chance, David and Gayle had previously booked a trip to Ambon, just in time to be one of the first to photograph the fish. David had two whole weeks to study and document what has been found to be a previously unknown species.

“It’s considered a very important discovery. A new scientific name has been proposed, but I’m not allowed to disclose it until our paper has been published (later this month). If it appears in print prematurely, it would automatically invalidate the name.”

We look through a small part of David’s considerable collection on the computer monitor. What inevitably draws my eye is the folder marked “abstracts,” where natural mutations and fractals produce colors and patterns that resonate, as if painted or expressed somehow as a creation. Many of these shots have mundane-seeming descriptions: parrotfish, sea urchins, starfish. A close-up of a group of sponges releasing orange roe-like eggs looks like volcanoes on an alien planet. Few photographers other than David take the time and effort to get shots like these: extreme close-ups of very small, easily overlooked moments. Some of these microcosmic photos are, quite frankly, the most compelling of the collection.

Still you have to wonder why David goes to such great lengths to get these images. After all, it’s a pretty cost-prohibitive venture, with little room for profit. He also admits that he doesn’t particularly like to travel. Hates flying, especially these days. Not too fond of boats either, or having to charter them in foreign countries. Gayle chimes in, “He doesn’t like to get wet either!” Bottom line: he really cares about the subjects he photographs, the creatures of the waterworld. “It’s not possible to create exceptional images if you don’t have a passion for your subject, if you don’t really love what you’re photographing.” In a way, it’s fishing at its best: catch (with a photo) and release, no harm done. His hobby has become his vocation now, having opted out of his partnership with River Radiology in 2007, and he and Gayle have plans for more diving trips in coming months, as soon as March.

David has documented a vast array of rapidly vanishing marine life for which generations to come will be truly thankful, with images that are often “beautiful” and strangely inspiring. Wiser and more cultured heads may quibble over defining these images as “art” per se, but personally, I get something from seeing that world through David’s—and Gayle’s—camera eye, something more than just pretty animals in the wild doing their thing. I’ll close with David’s ultimate assessment of his work:

“For me the ultimate challenge has always been to create images that appeal even to people who don’t particularly like animals. If I can do that, I figure that I must be doing something right.”

Visit for more information and images from David Hall and Gayle Jamison.

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