Of Bathysphere fame, ecologist William Beebe lived on sixty-seventh street in Manhattan and also underwater. He made record-setting deepwater dives in a steel, pressure-resistant sphere. He filmed underwater life, including coral reefs which are today rapidly deteriorating causing the sea floor to sink. Beebe and his team–many of whom were women–also made a number of playful, fact-based films with scenes of fishes dancing, scientists fishing, and specimens being prepared, along with cartoon renderings of sea creatures. Members of his crew went on to Hollywood fame and fortune, filming KING KONG and HIGH NOON. A stunning exhibition of illustrations, diagrams, notations, newspaper advertisements, publications, and a live-action and animated video from as early as Beebe’s 1927 expedition, is now at The Drawing Center in New York.

Beebe, born in Brooklyn in 1877, was one of the most famous men of his day. He published 24 books in his lifetime. He worked through both World Wars. Coincidentally, he went to high school in East Orange, New Jersey–three miles from Thomas Edison’s Black Maria film studio which was then in full production. Beebe began as an ornithologist but made his name when he turned to sea life and became a marine biologist and ichthyologist. He established the Department of Tropical Research (DTR), a field-based group of scientists and artists of both genders, which explored primarily in South America. It was founded in 1916 in the jungle of present-day Guyana. The DTR became a part of the New York Zoological Society, which is today the Wildlife Conservation Society based at the Bronx Zoo.

©Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of the WCS Archives.

During his expeditions with the DTR, William Beebe made a world record by diving 3,028 feet underwater during a 1934 expedition in Bermuda. The deepest point of the ocean is about ten times that, 35,787 down, which was only reached in 2012 by film director James Cameron (TITANIC). Beebe, like Cameron would, helped engineer his own submarine to reach that depth for the scientific purpose of collecting specimens. Beebe’s submarine was called the Bathysphere and he designed it with Otis Barton to be a spherical iron submersible. It was first put to use in 1930.

The Bathysphere made one of its first public debuts at the 1939 World’s Fair held in Corona Park, Queens. The New York Zoological Society had a tent which featured a model of the Bathysphere, along with a giant panda, an electric eel, and other shocking sights. Down the street from the Zoological Society tent, the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí staged an exhibit which also featured images of the deep. “Dream of Venus” was an exhibition and performance which drew inspiration from Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece painting The Birth of Venus.


Members of the DTR used various methods of representation in order to document and study the creatures they were observing. As the DTR’s staff artist Isabel Cooper wrote in a 1924 article titled “Wild-Animal Painting in the Jungle,” “I have had to work out for myself many of the details of my profession. For instance, there’s no such thing as a school of snake artists, so when the problem of making a portrait of a snake presented itself I had to think up the technique for myself. There were many odd little worries connected with this problem, such as the invention of the proper anesthetic for deadly reptiles, to put them out of the misery of posing and yet allow the colors of life to linger from day to day.”


The DTR artists also sketched underwater with steel pencils on zinc tablets. Expedition artist Else Bostelmann wrote in an article, “Notes from an Undersea Studio off Bermuda,” for the February 1939 edition of Country Life (excerpted in The Drawing Center's catalogue), “the greatest fun was actually to paint at the bottom of the ocean. After I had descended, my painting outfit was lowered by ropes from the boat. Generally I used an iron music stand for an easel on which was tied my frame covered with stretched canvas. My palette was weighted with lead and on it were squeezed gobs of color in all the rainbow hues. The use of wet colors under water in this way might at first strike one as impossible, unbelievable. But oil colors have never yet mixed with water, nor have they ever lost their brilliancy in this medium.”

Other drawings were done in part based on relayed information from a telephone connecting the people in the Bathysphere, often Beebe or Barton, with the artists on the ship above. Then, specimens were brought to the surface, or deepsea nets trawled for specimens and used these as references to improve upon the accuracy of the drawings. Bostelmann continued in her 1939 article, “often those on my table vary from one foot in length to the dimensions of a pea—or less. The first time I was confronted by the scaleless, silvery or jet black little fish, my curiosity quickly gave way to enthusiasm. Through the microscope a new world of undreamed of beauty was revealed.”


©Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of the WCS Archives.

Beebe and his research team were interested in studying the behavior of animals. Film is one of the best ways to study behavior, because it records movement. Beebe was also committed to science communication; he travelled and lectured–often presenting films–at museums such as the American Museum of Natural History, and universities such as Harvard and Yale. Based on hours of footage from a 1927 expedition to Haiti, and Bermuda expeditions from 1930 and '34, the film in the Drawing Center exhibition was cut by the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, which holds Beebe’s archive; the video is part live-action and part animation.

Beebe’s films do not seem amateur. In a director’s report written by Beebe for the New York Zoological Society in 1927, he details the members of his staff which include Floyd Crosby as photographer. In his career Crosby shot over 100 films, the first of which he made with pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty, and the most famous of which was HIGH NOON (1952). Other DTR staff members included Ernest Schoedsack and Ruth Rose who wrote and directed KING KONG which played in the US in 1933. For the DTR’s 1927 expedition to Haiti, Beebe outlined five objectives–the third was to “obtain motion pictures of the life of a coral reef.” To do this, Beebe built his own camera.

In 1928, Beebe published Beneath the Tropic Seas; A Record of Diving Among the Coral Reefs of Haiti, about the 1927 expedition. In a chapter by his assistant John Tee-Van, Tee-Van writes that because the purpose of the expedition was to study the behavior of fishes, “very little time could be devoted to photography alone.” He continued, “under such conditions it was imperative that the under-water motion picture camera be simply made, easy to operate, not too large or heavy, and capable of doing the most exacting work under the surface, using sunlight only as an illuminant.” The camera used on the expedition was a DeVry, and was contained within a brass box with a glass pane in the front, and fitted onto a tripod. It could record 1,000 feet of 35mm film, which Beebe writes that Crosby bought.


©Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of the WCS Archives.

In France at the same time, the filmmaker Jean Painlevé, thirty years Beebe’s junior, was making underwater films. Painlevé worked actively with surrealists including Salvador Dalí (of the World’s Fair). Painlevé’s filmed underwater using a Parvo camera (first patented by the Debrie corporation in Paris in 1908), which spun 35mm film, enclosed in a waterproof box with side handles. The Museum of the Moving Image’s collection has two Parvo cameras from 1925; one was owned by Al Mingalone who shot, for Paramount News, newsreels which would run in theaters before feature films.

Tee-Van writes that he, Beebe, and Mark Barr (a physicist who was part of the DTR’s regular staff) constructed their camera in New York before leaving for Haiti. They conceived of the camera and it was then constructed by J. Schrope of the AMNH. Tee-Van writes that the DeVry camera was selected, “after careful consideration of the smaller, motor driven cameras mainly because of its shape,–a rectangular box, about which it would be simple to fit a brass case.” It weighed 39 pounds. The Museum of the Moving Image’s collection also has a DeVry 35mm camera which features a hand-crank for the film, and was manufactured by DeVry in 1926.

On the 1927 expedition, Floyd Crosby recorded 1,200 feet of film of coral reefs at thirty feet underwater. Beebe wrote that in the film, “living coral of many species, sea-fans, and fish are shown.” He continued, “the director in a helmet can be seen in various activities demonstrating methods of study on the sea bottom. Once a barracuda swims so near the camera that it more than fills the entire screen.” Beebe thanks George Eastman for contributing $100 toward film costs.


©Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of the WCS Archives.

Eastman, who founded Kodak, was interested in expeditions; he supported the films of Martin and Osa Johnson who filmed wildlife in Africa in the 1920s for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). In 1926, Eastman travelled to Kenya with taxidermist Carl Akeley and with the Johnson’s to collect specimens for what would become the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the AMNH. Eastman brought along his Ciné-Kodak camera, the first camera to use 16mm film. This was known as safety film at the time, as compared to the widely used flammable nitrate film.

The Drawing Center exhibition brings the incredible artwork of William Beebe and his team of scientists to the public’s attention. “I would say, [Beebe’s] major scientific contribution is the way he changed scientific conversation,” anthropologist Katherine McLeod told Science & Film. “Beebe was able to bring ideas about ecology and the relatedness of things in the environment to a popular audience. He worked to convey to New Yorkers and other urbanites that their cities were spaces of nature and enormous environmental processes and interactions. He was a major voice in the scientific community regarding the importance of studying interactions between living things, place-based work on evolution, and what we now call 'ecology' in general.”

McLeod co-curated “Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expedition” with Wildlife Conservation Society archivist Madeleine Thompson and sculptor Mark Dion. “Exploratory Works” is up now through June 16 at The Drawing Center in SoHo.