Submerged: The Underwater World Of Brian Bielmann
As seen in the new issue (July 2013) of TransWorld SURF magazine. Subscribe today and get a free gift!
When it comes to surf photography (and life in general), TransWorld SURF senior photographer Brian Bielmann has seen and done it all—we’re not sure how many times, but certainly more than twice. He was part of the original staff of photographers when the magazine launched in 1999. And back then, after already having amassed an incredible portfolio of work from the past 20-plus years, he began experimenting with shooting underwater imagery. Underwater photography isn’t anything new, but it’s notoriously difficult. On a technical level, if you were doing this in a clear water lake, dealing with water clarity and getting decent color and the right exposures is challenging. Now imagine trying it at six-foot Teahupo’o, where most of Brian’s best shots have come from. Bombing sets are exploding, sending churning walls of whitewash rolling all the way down to reef, and there’s nowhere to swim under or escape. Ironically, smaller days have produced a lot of great images too, but the solid days are where the stories come from and when guys are actually out surfing.
Brian’s dedicated himself to it for more than 15 years now and has captured some of the most iconic underwater images in the surf world, and beyond. We’ve been running them throughout the mag for as long as he’s been shooting them but felt it was high time to put them all together in one place. Enjoy this breather from fin ditches and fisheye barrels, and have a look at the dolphin’s view of things. We’ll let Brian, himself, say a few words and welcome you into his underwater world.
“The underwater stuff has set me apart from everyone else and has kept me excited about doing what I do. It gets me excited every time. The first underwater shot I saw was a girl duckdiving a wave by Aaron Chang, which might sound cliché now because you see those shots, but at the time it was so incredibly unusual and cool. That snapped me into the whole underwater thing. But there were a lot of people who have influenced me, especially underwater. Tom Servais did a lot of stuff early on, Ted Grambeau, Art Brewer. But there was a guy named Howard Schatz who shot all these dancers underwater, and that’s what really got me paying attention to it. If you look at my stuff it has nothing to do with that, but that was my biggest influence. I took it into my world and started from there.
My first really good underwater photo was the one of my wife in a white dress, which ran in TransWorld a while back. That was the beginning. I remember thinking it was the first photograph that really set me apart from surfing photography. It’s not even a surf photo, but it really caught people’s attention and was outside the box. That was about 15 years ago.
Most of the photos you see of underwater stuff are surfers going by and people duckdiving waves—the standard shots. I’ve never claimed to be the first guy to do this, but I’ve spent a lot of time doing it and thought about it a lot. The longer you do it, you start to realize what’s typical, and you notice the things that are different and that you don’t see all the time.
A lot of guys do it now, and I don’t want to claim it’s because of me, but I’ve had a lot of shots run all over the world in all different magazines, and now there are so many people doing the underwater thing. But at the time, nobody was doing it. You didn’t want to take a chance on missing someone like Andy Irons in a barrel above the surface, but I was willing to take that risk and got a much more interesting photo of Andy from underneath.
In fact—that one photo with Hilton Dawe in the top of the lip—after that session, Hilton showed me his photos and I felt like I really blew it. like I failed. He had incredible shots of Andy in the barrel above the surface. I was looking at what I didn’t have. But as time has gone on, that stuff I got that session, well, I wouldn’t trade it for the best surf shot above the surface, for anything.
I had to free my mind from that mantra of not wanting to miss anything and dive into the whole world below the surface. I was just in my own zone. There were people all around me, but they had their heads above the surface and I’d be in my own little fantasy world just below the surface. It’s like being in two different dimensions.
I usually use a snorkel because I don’t like to come up. I try to stay down as much as I can and stay in my own world down there. I get a breath of air, go down and shoot a wave, and come right back up. I don’t ever stay down through two or three waves; it doesn’t make sense. You shoot one wave, come up for air, and position yourself for the next wave. I’ve figured out how to get as close to the wave underwater. I’m much better at it below than above the surface. There are so many guys who are better at that than I am, but underwater I’ve done it so much more than everyone else that I’d like to think it’s second nature to me now.
Some photographers might have thought I was crazy. Like, who would be stupid enough to miss what’s happening above the surface? I can get burned out on shooting surfing, but when I’m underwater it’s like I don’t ever want to come up. It’s so beautiful, and I feel like I belong there doing it.”