Between sea & sky, with Petrula Vrontikis

[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.

The cards, envelopes, custom stamps and gift box. Printing and production by Clear Image Printing. Note the 20 custom stamps included with each set.

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.

Photo © 2013 Petrula Vrontikis

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.

Photo © 2013 Petrula Vrontikis

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.

Petrula Vrontikis photographing kelp off the California coast. Photo © 2012 Jacek Smits.

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.

Photo © 2013 Petrula Vrontikis

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 author and Petrula Vrontikis, post-kayaking on Monterey Bay, Calif. Photo by Patrick Coyne.

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

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Comments (10)

  1. Posted by Julie Prendiville Roux on 03.8.13 at 2:35 pm

    Love the article, Tom! If you’ve ever taken a yoga class led by the fabulous Petrula, you understand how she physically pulls this off. And her eye–other-worldly!

  2. Posted by Matt Porter on 03.8.13 at 3:00 pm

    I received a box of these around Christmas and was honored and delighted. The time we shared in Monterey at Design Family Reunion was the best weekend shared with friends I’d met through my professional work in my life. Petrula and Tom were a big part of that. Now I know how Petrula made those fantastic images. I hope we see most of the same faces when we gather again in Santa Fe on Thursday September 4, 2014.

  3. Posted by Jen Bilik on 03.8.13 at 3:44 pm

    What a great day in Monterey that was! Friends of Petrula’s have been able to enjoy her spectacular photography for years. I’m so happy to see it introduced to the public. This is the kind of life you can live and art you can make if you’re curious, passionate, and open! May we all strive for such a life.

  4. Posted by Pam Williams on 03.8.13 at 5:15 pm

    What a great story … Beautiful, other-world photography brought to life through a thoughtful, elegant set of cards for personal correspondence. As a lucky recipient of one of these coveted sets, (thank you Petrula!) I can only say that they are even more beautiful than what you see here. It’s wonderful to read the backstory … And to have been part of the Monterey gathering. Tom, thank you for bringing this to everyone!

  5. Posted by Michael Osborne on 03.8.13 at 6:17 pm

    Awesome photos, very interesting interview, and I love the cards! I just wanted to keep on reading and reading this piece. Petrula, you should do a book on Blurb with your photographs, stories and interviews. Are you familiar with a photographer here in SF named Susan Middleton? She works with the California Academy of Sciences and her work is absolutely stunning. She also has a book out called Evidence of Evolution that I think you’d like:


  6. Posted by Sally Duncan on 03.9.13 at 6:16 pm

    Beautiful photography from a beautiful person. What more can I say. In the frantic pace of life, she, by her very presence, insists….pause, breathe, relax, love and appreciate.

  7. Posted by Deana (Matan)Wardil on 03.10.13 at 7:32 am

    Petrula, Your photography is amazing. Congratulations on your successes. Your mom and dad would be so very proud of you. (I can remember you so well from your family gatherings (one of Stella’s friends from Laker Airways.) Continued success. xo

  8. Posted by Emily Potts on 03.11.13 at 10:22 am

    Great article Tom! What beautiful images Petrula. Thanks for sharing this story–I had no idea! Do you dance underwater, too?

  9. Posted by mary scott on 03.11.13 at 2:38 pm

    Great story Petrula, I admire anyone who is brave enough to do this. Your images are poetic and lovely, it’s a good vicarious experience.

    Best, Mary

  10. Posted by Petrula Vrontikis on 03.11.13 at 2:40 pm

    Yes, Emily, I dance whenever and wherever I can.

    Thank you Deana, Sally, Michael, Pam, Jen, Matt, and Julie, for your kind words. It means so much to me to have this project appreciated by all of you.

    This morning I read a recent ADC interview with Kyle Cooper. When asked what is the most gratifying part about what he does, he said, “… it’s the people and it’s the conditions.” I couldn’t agree more.

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