We take a look at the fantastic life and times of Peter A. Reiserer:

Peter Alexander Reiserer may never have set foot into a formal photography classroom, but he was still one of the art’s greatest pupils. The German-born underwater photographer first grabbed a camera and housing as a way to pass time on long dives serving in the navy. But through years of experimentation and practice, Reiserer would transform photography with his avant garde take on the world beneath the waves.

“I didn’t want to be a reporter of the real world,” said Reiserer, perhaps best known for his images of “Aquanauts.” “I want to be a creator of a fabulous world – my world underwater.” Born in Rosenheim, Germany in 1935, Reiserer honed his diving skills over nearly two decades training and serving in the navy. His photography abilities, on the other hand, were purely self-taught.

He began taking pictures underwater in 1955, at a time when diving was still an adventure and divers were considered a rare breed. His job as a naval diver brought him to places like the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Working underwater for long hours, Reiserer couldn’t resist taking a camera down with him.

Early years

Reiserer started his underwater photography career with a Robostar camera, followed by a Rolleimarin – at that time, the king of the underwater cameras. In these early years of underwater photography, Reiserer’s intuitive craftiness proved invaluable. As the underwater photographer must be ready for any situation, Reiserer was always ready to play handyman. Not the kind of underwater photographer to just mercilessly shoot the flora and fauna in front of him, Reiserer hand-crafted the photogear and props he needed to create the underwater world of his imagination.

In 1975, Reiserer moved to Ibiza, Spain, where he opened a diving school called Subfari. By that time he had changed from the two-eye reflex to a one-eyed Hasselblad. But it wasn’t just his camera that changed after the move, but his entire photographic style.

Plundering can be dangerous, as we never know what effect our technology may have on this new planet and what might be hiding here.

Plundering can be dangerous, as we never know what effect our technology may have on this new planet and what might be hiding here.

Ibiza inspiration

Reiserer started off like other underwater photographers at the time, taking snapshots of colourful fish in his Mediterranean backyard. But when he met Israeli photographer David Pilosof, everything changed. Pilosof was beginning to incorporate models (more or less dressed) into his portfolio. Reiserer started to work with models as well, exploring the feeling of weightlessness and the use of a variety of artificial lights in his images.

All of his subjects began to melt into the blue of the subsea, and with artificial lights, Reiserer fought to bring out a greater variety of hues. “Colour doesn’t exist except for the period of time when you bring necessary lights, and it disappears quickly with a subjects’ distance,” Reiserer said of using colour and lighting.

Forging ahead

The wide-angle lens soon became his most important tool for generating exaggerated perspectives, as only a 40mm Distagon on a Hasselblad would do. Years later, many underwater photographers began using wide-angle lenses and models, but none with the force that Reiserer was exacting, equipping his models with diving suits and futuristic costumes.

While Reiserer never learned photography formally, he still understood the art down to the smallest detail – especially since shooting underwater brought with it countless technological and artistic challenges at the time. Instead of fighting the difficulties that came along with shooting underwater, Reiserer used water’s properties in his photography, linking its weightlessness to that of space exploration, and visually transformed aquanauts into astronauts on inter-planetary explorations. His images tell stories in ways that few others have attempted.

Reiserer’s use of futuristic paints and unusual fluorescent colours appear underwater like explosions, accentuated his heavy use of filters that emphasised the reds and saturated the blues. “It is hardly necessary to go very deep in the water for this kind of image, ten meters or so is enough,” explained Reiserer. “But what is necessary above all is water that is as clear as possible, and lighting set up artistically in order to avoid the appearance of suspended particles.”

The complexity of Reiserer’s photography made it impossible for the German photographer to work alone. Instead, most times Reiserer worked with the aid of his guests from his diving school in Ibiza. In fact, Reiserer even installed a veritable underwater studio, fitted with multiple lights that attracted attention as much for its novelty as for its creativity. Students flocked to Reiserer not to dive with fish, but to have the opportunity to assist one of the true pioneers – a master of experimental photography – in his photographical quest for the cutting edge.

Even after his passing in 2010 after a long battle with cancer, Reiserer’s legacy continues to shine. As one of the first photographers to produce commercially viable underwater images, Reiserer opened up the niche art to a new audience, and inspired a generation of underwater artists. Reiserer is still regarded as one of the most innovative European photographers, and his work still has a timeless importance that transcends his era.

Viewing his work today, Reiserer’s imagery still holds up against similar photographic concepts that are nowadays supported by digital technology and mass-produced underwater lighting tools. The execution of these photographic concepts would today be much simpler than they were in his day, but the artistic vision is still uniquely his. Reiserer’s images continue to inspire, immersing us in the underwater universe of his singular imagination.

We take a look at his work:

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This article feature in Scuba Diver Through The Lens (Issue  03/2012) – Words by Javier Pierro Ruis and Alain Sebastian Wienkoop