Search Database

Translate this page

  Louis Boutan

Louis Marie Auguste Boutan was born in Versailles, France on March 6, 1859. After graduating with degrees with science and literature, he received his doctorate in science from the University of Paris at the age of 20. That same year, 1879, Mr. Boutan was hired as an assistant at Paris's University of Science, and became extremely interested in the study of natural science. In 1880, he accompanied a French government delegation to the Melbourne Exposition in Australia to study marsupials. He returned with several wildlife specimens for further investigation. Within three years, he was working at the Sorbonne as an assistant to renowned biologist and zoologist Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers.

By 1886, Mr. Boutan was selected 'maître de conference' at the University of Lille, and in a few years began studying marine life in the Red Sea. This led to an interest in underwater photography as a potential research tool. Between 1892 and 1900, he conducted several underwater experiments at Banyuls-sur-Mer's Arago Laboratory (the scientific wing of the University of Paris founded by Mr. de Lacaze-Duthiers). After mastering the use of Auguste Denayrouze's diving helmet, Mr. Boutan assisted in the construction of three underwater cameras built into the helmet. Using Lumiere Brothers' plates, he produced images that are believed to be the first underwater photographs. In 1893, he continued his experiments in underwater photography as a full-time professor at Arago Laboratory (which is now known as Observatoire Océanologique de Banyuls-sur-Mer). He later recounted in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, "As it is not difficult to take a landscape in the open air, why, I asked myself, could I not succeed in making a photograph at the bottom of the sea?" He further explained that although water is denser than air, objects within water are still distinguishable with the human eye; and therefore, should be capable of being photographed with certain adaptations. By the end of 1893, Mr. Boutan had invented the first underwater camera (and taken the first underwater 'selfie') and articulated the basic fundamentals of marine photography.

With his engineer brother Auguste as his assistant, Mr. Boutan developed several types of underwater cameras and equipment. The camera, a rectangular metallic box fitted with Darlot anastigmat lenses and specially varnished Lumiere plates, was affixed to an adjustable metal tripod. External controls were used to adjust the shutter, and a rubber balloon was manipulated to adjust buoyancy as needed. However, Mr. Boutan discovered that despite using isochromatic or sensitized plates, the captured images were still cloudy. So, he added blue-colored glasses to the interior of the waterproof camera box to act as filters for greater clarity. Mr. Boutan also developed, with his assistant, Joseph David, the first underwater flash bulb. He published a trio of underwater photography books in 1894, 1898, and 1900, and his underwater slides were exhibited at the Expositions Universelle Paris in 1900. In 1915, he and his brother Auguste were working to develop Army diving equipment during World War I, and by war’s end, had devised a complex scuba system and diving helmet.

In his later years, Mr. Boutan served as director of the Station Biologique d'Arcachon, and inspected fisheries in Tigzirt, Algeria. After his retirement, he headed the Zoological Society of France. Seventy-five-year-old Louis Boutan died in Tigzirt on April 6, 1934 in Tigzirt, and is buried in Tigzirt’s Christian cemetery. In addition to his academic textbooks and papers, he left behind the first underwater photographs that gave birth to an exciting branch of photography and became an essential scientific tool to better understand the complexities of the sea.

1898 The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. LVI (New York: The Century Co.), pp. 42-49.

2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1416-1417.

2015 Louis Boutan (URL:

1901 Photographic Times, Vol. XXXIII (New York: The Photographic Times Publishing Association), pp. 29-34.

# 3630
2019-08-10 22:23:38

Return to Previous Page
Return to the History Librarium

Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera