164 pages, White Star
Review by Pat Black
Jeff Rotman likes the big blue. If you don’t know who he is, you’ll almost certainly have come across his work. This book is a showcase of his photography through the years, shot in the Caribbean, Australia, the Red Sea, the Galapagos, the freezing cold north Atlantic and god knows how many points in between.
Rotman’s a photojournalist, so his colour prints from the deep dominate the book. There is some commentary that’s worth reading, going over his career as an enthusiastic freediver based on the east coast of the US in the 1970s through to his pre-eminence as a freelance photographer. But the chief pleasure is in the images – schools of shimmering barracuda, girthy, grinning great white sharks, clownfish peeking out from between the protective embrace of anemone and a million waving polyp hands bursting out of their coral armour.
But it wasn’t so much the photos of creatures that most nature-watchers will know well from documentaries or diving holidays that impressed me. Rotman cherishes the weird, and the lesser-known denizens of the deep, too. “Ugly is beautiful,” he says, showing us the spiny horror of the goosefish on the seabed off the coast of Brittany. “Beautiful” you may not agree with, but “unique”, you will. While it’s not exactly boring to see the toothsome face of a great white shark nudging the bars of a protective cage, it’s not exactly new, either.
Flora gets as much attention as fauna, too, with one highlight being close-ups of watery glades of kelp off the coast of California, straining for the light like pine on the land. And the little creatures get some love, too. Rotman’s macrophotography, often taken at night for maximum colour contrast, is eye-popping. He theorises that the underwater world at night is mostly unknown for obvious reasons, and therefore worth checking out. His extreme close-ups of shrimps, bristle worms and flatfish who live and die in darkness are incredible in their colour and detail. Even a tangle of starfish devouring a mussel in the freezing cold Atlantic reveals striking purples, blues and yellows, in a place where such vivid bursts have no right to exist before human eyes.
My favourite shots were the one of a giant Pacific octopus shooting past some divers through the water, and resembling the shape of a human (by coincidence or design, we cannot say), a whale shark puckering up for the biggest kiss ever, a shrimp hiding among the arms of some plant or animal that spookily resembles William Blake’s “red dragon” painting, and a close-up of a coral grouper, livid red with sky blue spots, and not looking best pleased at having its photo taken.
This massive book – it’s a “collect down the Post Office” job if ever there was one – is surprisingly difficult to track down on Amazon. To be fair, it is 17 years old. 1995 wasn’t yesterday.
I first saw it a year ago when I went to the Hay Winter Festival. I loved the book on sight and took care to flick through it in one of the Welsh town’s many second-hand shops, but – already glutted with new books for my birthday – I felt it’d be greedy to buy another.
Undersea Journey anchored in my mind, though. When I went back to the Winter Festival this year, I was delighted to see it still on the shelves in the same shop. I made no mistake this time.
It’s a reminder, I guess, as we stuff the tills at Amazon in time for Christmas, that there are good stores out there run by people who love books at least as much as we do. If you can spare the time, effort and most importantly the money, take a little trip into a second-hand bookshop for a couple of presents this year. There would be a horrific gap in our culture if these goldmines were to vanish.