Ernie Brooks: Bringing Us Photographic Treasures from Under the Sea

ernie brooks photographer
Panorama resident Ernie Brooks relocated from Santa Barbara, California to call the unique retirement community home. He enjoys traveling and giving talks around the world.


By Gale Hemmann

ernie brooks photographer
Ernie Brooks spent several decades diving in almost every sea in the world to take his unique, poetic photos of the life there. He has also trained a generation of marine photographers.

Photographing sharks. Diving beneath arctic icecaps. In his multi-decade career, underwater photographer and educator Ernie Brooks has had an incredible array of adventures, capturing it all in timeless black-and-white images for the world to see. A current Panorama resident, he is one of the many talented artists who call this vibrant community home. From leading expeditions to training a new generation of distinguished photographers, Brooks has made an indelible mark on the world of sea photography and has been a pioneer in the field.

I met with Brooks at his cozy Panorama home, overlooking tranquil Chambers Lake. Warm and gracious, he invited me to sit down and spend the morning talking about his life’s work and poring over photo collections of some of his favorite projects.

Brooks is originally from Santa Barbara, California. His father, Ernest Brooks, Senior, was a famous photographer, and founded the prestigious Brooks Institute (photography runs deep in the family genes). After serving in the Air Force, Ernie Brooks attended his father’s institute, and went on to serve as a teacher and then president for over three decades (producing some world-class alumni). He began diving by exploring the islands in the area, and has since gone on to dive in nearly every ocean in the world (as well as some incredible land expeditions, such as working on the Shroud of Turin project). Mentored by the legendary photographer Ansel Adams, Brooks has gained international acclaim for his talent behind the lens.

Ernie Brooks’ work has been featured everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Smithsonian. He has won many awards, and his name is well-known in the photography world. A recent event honoring his work in Santa Barbara drew over 2,000 friends and former students. But he says it is not the awards or recognition that mean the most to him. Rather, it is the experience of diving a favorite coral reef again after many years; capturing an intimate portrait of sea kelp in perfect lighting; or talking to an audience of young students about preserving the oceans that resonate. He has often been called “an ambassador to the sea,” and it is this sharing of what he finds that most excites him. (When he was teaching at the Brooks Institute, one of his favorite experiences was taking students out on a fishing boat for weeks, teaching them to capture the beauties of the ocean.)

ernie brooks photographer
Brooks’ photos take a rare, intimate look at life in the seas of the world. Here, a scuba diver makes friends with a seal.

Ernie Brooks has developed many new underwater photography techniques over the years, but still takes photos exclusively in black and white. He thinks of the 21 steps on the scale between black and white as a color spectrum in itself, perfect for capturing the light and dark qualities in the water. He aims to make each photo a timeless statement for the viewer. As Brooks’ career so amply illustrates, there’s an entire world to be found under the water’s surface. He continues to shoot photos, and recently began working with an infrared camera.

Brooks came to the Northwest twelve years ago. An avid boater, he joined the Olympia Yacht Club, where he met the Panorama founder Ed Loveless. Hearing about the unique and high-quality community at Panorama, he decided to move there in 2012. He says he enjoys living in Olympia so far, though he admits the rainy season has been an adjustment. He especially enjoys the Washington Center for the Performing Arts, local restaurants, and the fact that we are such an outdoor-oriented populace.

ernie brooks photographer
“Spot” is one of Brooks’ all-time favorite photos. He got to know this seal well, and photographed it over several years.

In addition to his photography work (and in large part because of it), Brooks has also become an environmental advocate, having seen the changes in marine life over the past several decades. He speaks to audiences around the world about conservation (a recent talk in Singapore drew nearly 27,000 students). He attended meetings in Thurston County about the plastic bag ban, and truly hopes to inspire people of all ages to do their part in protecting our earth’s resources. In fact, one reason he loves Panorama is that the community is so dedicated to “green” efforts. From the Green Team and the Pea Patch gardening club, to a great recycling program, Panorama’s environmental commitments fit well with Brooks’ passion for preserving the planet he has so enjoyed photographing.

As we wrapped up our interview, I marveled at the fact that I’d just gotten to sit and talk with such a famous person, right here in Lacey. I asked Brooks what advice he’d give to people – of any age – who want to pursue their dreams and make a difference in the world. How has he achieved such great success and personal satisfaction in life? No matter how you look at it, his life has been one well-lived, rich in friends, stories, and impact. Brooks thought for a minute, then told me with a smile, “Just like you focus a camera lens to get the photo you’re after, you focus your lens in life on the vision of what you want. Get the image sharp.”

To learn more about Ernie Brooks and his illustrious career, visit his website. You can also research him online, through the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, for example.

ernie brooks photographer
“The Magnificent Blue” represents a long process of Brooks getting close enough to this shark to photograph it.

Brooks is a great example of the energetic lifestyle that many at Panorama enjoy. When he’s not traveling several months out of the year (upcoming trips include Laos and Indonesia), he enjoys meeting his neighbors and the positive, upbeat atmosphere there.  You can even find several of his photos on display in the Panorama main building.

As Brooks notes, it is truly one of the nation’s most special retirement communities. To learn more about Panorama, visit their website or join them on Facebook.

All photos courtesy Ernie Brooks.

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