Two Worlds: Above and Below the Sea

Image of Two Worlds, Above and Below the Sea
Release Date: 
September 15, 2021
Publisher/Imprint: 
Phaidon Press
Pages: 
128
Reviewed by: 

“Doubilet offers, in perfect drawings of light, a place and a moment where a bird can love a fish, the sky can love the sea and, for a brief instant, in a razor-thin place, we can all be right at home.”

There are certain rules to putting together a book of photography, and with that in mind it’s necessary to note that Two Worlds: Above and Below the Sea by David Doubilet completely fails. 

The first and most important rule is this: as with any artistic portfolio, you must put your best photographs at the beginning, and your best photographs at the end, and in the middle shovel in all of the filler you’d rather everyone not notice. Doubilet fails, here, because he seems to have completely forgotten to include the filler, and instead packed his entire book with an absolutely overwhelming series of perfect photographs.

Now, it’s important that we get to the root of Doubilet’s failings, to better understand where he went wrong here: Did nobody tell him he had an obligation to the larger photographic community to not demoralize them and make every photographer in America feel technically and intellectually inferior? Did nobody tell him that it is impolite to make something like this, but to make it look effortless to boot?

Yes, the longtime National Geographic photographer, who has been taking underwater photographs since the age of 12, has a great deal to answer for.

Doubilet is certainly not the first photographer to bring their lens below the surf; many preceded him, and many will follow. But here a more clever conceit is finally and consistently offered: what happens at the water’s edge, in the one razor-thin place and one lightning-quick moment when the water laps up, where the camera and photographer holding it are witnesses to two worlds. In Fiddler on the Roof, Reb Tevye wisely asks, “a bird may love a fish, but where would they build a home together?” and Doubilet finally offers him an answer: in this place, at this moment, in my hands, in my lens. But blink, and you shall miss it.

It is odd, in the modern age where documentarians are so richly rewarded for it, to find naturalist storytelling without horror. But here Doubilet resists, largely, the temptation to bow to the anthropocene: the seal pup goes unclubbed by man, and the man goes uneaten by sharks. The iceberg’s still there. There is almost, if one squints, hope.

Here, also, there be monsters, great big sea monsters, greatly evolved from those found on ancient maps: right beneath our treading toes massive whale sharks lay waiting, and rotting warbirds that once killed men are now home to a thousand things that flit and foam. At the surface, too, there is a hulking, menacing goliath: us, and our garbage. It is not the theme of the book—no, that is simply dumbstruck wonder—but it is punctuation enough to remind us that there is so much beauty in the world that we cannot see, but can surely destroy.

“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth,” wrote Arthur C. Clarke, “when it is quite clearly Ocean.” How inappropriate, too, to call us Man when we are quite clearly water. Here, Doubilet offers, with great poise and great poetry, a compromise. A reminder. A suggestion. Doubilet offers, in perfect drawings of light, a place and a moment where a bird can love a fish, the sky can love the sea and, for a brief instant, in a razor-thin place, we can all be right at home.