Swimming Against the Tide
by Jim Cornfield
June 01, 2012 —
I wasn’t more than two days into a week-long stay with Cathy Church and her staff on Grand Cayman Island before I discovered that Church can’t seem to walk more than 20 feet in any direction without someone—friend, stranger, local or tourist—approaching her to gush over her book, My Underwater Photo Journey, or to thank her again for a photo class she gave last year to some scuba club from Duluth. Church is considered the reigning queen of underwater photography as well as the leading educator in this specialty. Her eponymous Photo Centre, located at Sunset House dive resort for the past 20 years, is a Cayman landmark, and Church herself enjoys a kind of rock star status, particularly among the wet suit set.
These days, visiting scuba divers have barely stepped off the airplane when they’re instantly immersed in Church’s mojo. As of this past April, Church’s permanent 9x122-foot panoramic photomural spans the walls of the baggage claim area at Grand Cayman’s international airport. The enormous, stunning image, a seamless Photoshop composite of 60 separate underwater shots, features gigantic groupers, stingrays and turtles, as well as the reef’s multi-colored sponges and coral, all set against the deep Windex blue of the Caribbean.
Out at Sunset House, on the island’s west end, is the basement headquarters of Church’s Photo Centre. The wood-paneled print gallery downstairs also serves as a classroom (there’s a long conference table with a couple of Macs and large-format monitors for group crit sessions), and an outlet for sales and rentals of photo equipment. A long, private room in back is home to a row of computer cubicles, manned by a few of Church’s 12 full-time staffers. They book reservations for classes and gear rentals, track print sales, retouch photos, and manage Church’s nonstop teaching and travel itinerary. (She and her team also provide full photographic and video coverage of weddings when requested.)
Usually on hand is Church’s operations manager, Jenn Mark, a soft-spoken UC Berkeley grad, who oversees practically all the Centre’s activities, and whose main challenge seems to be keeping the boss on schedule. And then there’s Church’s husband, Herb Rafael, her one-time student, who is now a major player in all Photo Centre operations.
Taking on the Good Old Boys
Obviously, the hectic swirl of activity that’s become a day in the life of Cathy Church is a symptom of her success. But the powerful personal brand she’s created using her own unique imaging style and the teaching skills required to shoot pictures in this rarefied and unforgiving environment—what she calls “the most difficult medium on earth”—didn’t randomly emerge out of chaos. Church is a driven, dedicated artist, teacher and entrepreneur. Her career arc is partly a true grit saga and partly the story of a woman swimming against the tide (in her case figuratively and literally) in a field stubbornly dominated by men.
“As far back as grad school,” she remembers of her training as a marine biologist, “I had to deal with sexism. This was in the 1960s, and women were barred from research vessels. Can you believe it? During the whole time I worked on my master’s degree, I was relegated to shore-side lab work.” Her relationship with pioneering underwater photographer Jim Church, whom she married in 1969, allowed her an entrée to the burgeoning new world of scuba, underwater picture taking (Jim started with an Argus C-3 protected by a leaky plastic bag), and an emerging dive magazine, Skin Diver. Together, the couple produced feature stories and went on to develop training techniques using then-primitive underwater equipment, a Calypso camera, a twin-lens Rollei with waterproof housing, and flashbulbs. Through her articles and books, Church gradually established her pedigree as an expert in this exotic new breed of imaging. She spent hours beneath the surface, creating astonishing photographs and experimenting with techniques that under 60 or 100 feet of water were nothing short of daring.
She was the first teacher to identify and correct common errors that plagued divers using lighting equipment—including the simple problem of accurately aiming a flash unit underwater—and she recognized very early on the stresses of shooting at depth, particularly from the standpoint of a student in this foreign, intimidating environment.
“The underwater medium changes how every muscle functions,” she says, “and once your ears are filled with water, your brain seems to turn to mush.” That knowledge follows her to this day. “If it were easy,” she muses, “I’d be out of business.”
Work kept the Churches together as a team for a time, and they eventually alighted on Grand Cayman, collaborating in a program of high-intensity “super courses” for guests at Spanish Bay Reef, a dive resort. But after a while, it was time to move in separate directions. The divorce was liberating for Church, whose career finally began to morph into the island-based underwater photo empire over which she now presides. She says her second husband, Herb, helped make this happen. “He came along at the right time and with ideas about how to market this huge library of photography I’d put together all these years.”
Print and book sales are a big part of Church’s enterprise, but her husband also added promotional touches like expanding her sales floor into the Sunset House gift shop, adding Cathy Church T-shirts and caps to the inventory, outfitting her employees in distinctive red polo shirts, and splashing the Photo Centre logo on the company’s Caribbean-blue delivery vans and, in oversized type, along the hull of the 30-foot powerboat she uses for student dives.
A Doer and a Teacher
One morning, I spent an hour underwater with Church off the Sunset House reef, learning a few of the fine points of underwater shooting. It’s immediately apparent why she draws thousands of photography students to Grand Cayman: she’s both a doer and a teacher. Church has an uncanny sense for anticipating your next move in the water, or your next problem, continually helping you adjust your buoyancy—the skill most critical for an underwater shooter—and correcting settings on your camera as lighting changes, all the while scanning the reef for signs of an interesting shot. In our case, it was a brightly-colored, long-spined squirrelfish, shy enough to require some finesse in approaching with my ungainly Olympus camera/housing/strobe combination. With hand signals and an occasional note on the waterproof slate she carries, she placed me exactly where I could make a decent close-up of this timid creature, without disrupting his life or endangering mine.
A week after my return from Grand Cayman, renowned environmentalist and film producer Jean-Michel Cousteau weighed in on my Church story: “I have one of Cathy’s prints on my wall at home,” he told me. “Every time I pass it, I silently thank her. The sea is our life support system, and Cathy’s one of the rare artists who reminds us of that by revealing it as something beautiful, something to treasure. That’s the message in her work.”
The True Legacy
The afternoon after our dive, I managed to spirit Church away from her daily hubbub for a chat on a terrace at Sunset House. The only place I’d seen Church this relaxed was underwater, where, oddly she seems more at home than on land. “I could live under water,” she joked, “I know for sure I could sleep there. Some of us are just water people. I’m one of them.”
This affinity is at the core of both the passions she brings to her work. But between shooting pictures and teaching, teaching seems to have won the day. “After my divorce, I studied with John Sexton, who’d worked with Ansel Adams for years,” she explains, “and he sparked the idea in me that once you’ve achieved a great picture, it’s time to ask, ‘how can I make this better?’”
This is one reason why Church, unlike many other former film shooters, took so easily to digital after-capture techniques in Aperture and Photoshop—Curves and the History Brush tool, especially. “But after all that work, “ she says, “I look at my prints and realize that what I’m really selling are souvenirs. On the other hand, teaching someone this complex skill—something that requires not just camera technique but situational awareness and environmental sensitivity—that’s more than a souvenir. It’s lifetime gift.” One she has built into a lifetime business.
As we headed back to the Photo Centre, Church remembered a moment with film director and deep-sea maven James Cameron: “He once told me at an awards presentation that my pictures are what got him interested in all this.” High praise, she admits, but those pictures are not her true legacy. She reserves that honor for the images her students produce. Underwater, this dedicated group is more to her than just students. “They are,” Church insists, “my living camera.”
Southern California-based writer and commercial photographer Jim Cornfield (www.jimcornfield.net) is a Rangefinder contributing writer. A certified scuba diver, he covered underwater imaging for the magazine in his May 2010 piece, “Going Deep.”
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