[Tom Biederbeck] Last summer I was fortunate to join a group of kayakers offshore of Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As we paddled, one of our companions, Petrula Vrontikis, worked out with her underwater camera. A celebrated designer, educator and design thinker, Vrontikis is also a devoted scuba diver, turning many of her aquatic adventures into thought-provoking photos. Now she’s applied these images in a striking set of self-published all-occasion cards. Once I saw them, I had to learn more.
We started by talking about her enthusiasm for the ocean.
We’ve written here about your passion for diving. How long have you been at it?
Since 1999 or 2000. I learned by way of yoga; a friend of mine who is a yogi is also a scuba instructor. He said, “You really have to learn diving, and I can teach you.” This was in anticipation of a trip to Thailand; I wanted to tour the country, but also dive in some of the really beautiful spots they have in southern Thailand. It started as an idea, but turned into a passion.
I found a community of people who have a great love for diving—not just for the sport, but out of respect for the beauty of nature. It’s been great for me because I get away from the computer…it’s the perfect antidote for the restrictions of our field.
There must be intrinsic things about it that you love, too, beyond the change of pace.
I suppose it’s the same feeling that a lot of people have when they go to a forest in a national park. It’s a privilege to be there, to witness the whole physicality of it. Being in nature is a completely full experience. My recent dive off Kona put me eye to eye with a majestic 40-ft. whale shark—this is like a hole in one for a golfer!
And of course when you’re diving, you can’t say anything. There’s a different way of expressing your feelings about the experience—you’re using your body. It takes breathing, and strength, and physical agility.
In addition to using your body, you’re also using your camera.
Sometimes it’s best not to take a camera down. With a camera, you’re recording things, and you can find yourself recording instead of experiencing. I balance dives with a camera with dives without a camera. Experiencing without the camera is exquisite, because you’re just in the moment without trying to capture that moment.
That’s probably why my diving photographs are different than those of many other divers. They’re trying to record what they’re seeing, and I’m trying to figure out what’s down there that we don’t see. That’s a theme in my series of “above and below water” photos. It’s a metaphor for this place that is infinite, but we barely see it—not just the place that’s under water or above water, the place between, the mysterious edge. It’s about the beauty of transition and a reminder of how little we really understand. I’m finding that what we take for granted is the deepest inspiration.
What about your camera equipment?
It’s a Panasonic Lumix with an aftermarket housing. I don’t have great camera equipment. When people are really into underwater photography, the investment can be significant. Not that long ago, you’d have to spend six grand to get a decent camera. Now with $700 you’ve got a great camera and housing…with limitations on lighting and that kind of thing, of course.
So I can’t shoot the kind of photos that serious underwater photographers shoot, and I actually don’t care. I want to be spontaneous. I don’t look through the viewfinder when I’m taking those photographs. I’m just trying to take advantage of the situation, place the camera half in the water, and shoot. I can’t set up anything more than a circumstance.
Taking those shots in the water by Cannery Row, you saw me in a kayak, putting the camera in the water and taking a shot by chance. I don’t take a lot of time; I don’t set up. It’s about figuring out what the potential of the moment can be, and taking my chances.
Let’s talk about the cards. What was your motivation for producing them?
It was about appreciation. I give my clients a gift every year, and this year I thought it would be meaningful to give them something they could use that I had envisioned. And of course the 20 stamps included in each set are also from my vision. The type on the front of the cards shows depth, water temperature, f-stop and shutter speed. Because the project was created for 2013, each set includes 20 stamps and 13 cards.
What’s your next diving destination?
Bali at the end of August, a week on a live-aboard so we don’t have to return to harbor each day. That way we can stay farther out. It’s going to be one of those big, life-shifting trips!
The design work of Petrula Vrontikis has appeared in more than 150 books and publications and is part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress. She lectures at conferences and universities worldwide about her work with Vrontikis Design Office, graphic design education and creative inspiration. She has taught the senior graphic design studies course at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design since 1989. In 2007 she received an AIGA Los Angeles Fellow Award honoring her as an essential voice in raising the understanding of design within the industry and among the business and cultural communities of Los Angeles.
See more underwater images by Petrula Vrontikis here.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos © 2013 StudioAlex