See Vintage Pictures of Sea Creatures From the 1920s and ’30s

Jean Painlevé devised ways to photograph and film the lives of sea animals in incredible detail.

From the ethereal mating dance of seahorses to octopus tentacles emerging from a watery fog, Jean Painlevé presented common sea creatures as both scientific specimens and as works of art.

The visionary filmmaker and photographer spent much of the 20th century turning underwater fauna into graphic, architectural wonders. Inspired by a childhood on the Breton coast in France, Painlevé explored the underwater world in photographs taken through a microscope, more than 200 films, and even a range of sea creature–themed fashion accessories.

His work was shown as scientific research at the Academy of Sciences in Paris, inspired artists from Pablo Picasso to Joan Jonas, and was even a potent symbol for champions of gender equality.

Seahorses and Social Change

His best-known work, a film made in 1934 called L’Hippocampe (The Seahorse), was one of the first to show the reproductive biology of seahorses. The intimate fornication of these creatures — in which the female impregnates the male, and males give birth — was not only censored but sparked a conversation about gender-role reversal, which Painlevé keenly encouraged. (See a seahorse give birth to 2,000 babies.)

He wrote on the subject: “To those who are ardently striving to better their daily lot, to those women who long for someone free from the usual selfishness to share their troubles as well as their joys, is dedicated this symbol of a tenacity which unites the most masculine efforts with the most feminine maternal care.”

The extreme magnification that is signature of his practice was achieved using a “micro camera,” which he made himself by combining a microscope with a camera. Painlevé set up the first non-professional diving club, called Club des Sous l'Eau (or “under the water”) in 1935, with the great inventor Yves Le Prieur, in an attempt to explore the creatures in their natural habitat. (Learn more about the surprising mating habits of seahorses.)

But the technology failed him, and since there were no underwater cameras at the time, Painlevé created most of his work in aquariums, which he set up in a studio laboratory off the coast of Brittany in France.

Surrealism Meets Science

Painlevé’s pioneering techniques and artistic flair caught the attention of the contemporary surrealist artists such as Man Ray and Alexander Calder, as well as the New Objectivity school of German photography.

“But he never belonged to any movement,” says Brigitte Berg, a Painlevé archivist and director of Les Documents Cinématographiques in Paris, France. “He was a maverick in a way, and he would often disagree with the official dogma; he was very much a libertarian.”

While his photography and films may have been celebrated by avant-garde artists of the time, Painlevé’s target audience was the indifferent public. “He was conscious that you had to do something to make the science interesting, because he believed most people weren’t interested in it,” says Berg. “He really took pleasure in making films for the general public and sharing the animals that he fell in love with.” (See more underwater photography in “Explore the Ocean in 24 Hours.”)

Music played an essential role in Painlevé’s mainstream appeal. Animals’ movements were set to scores by the iconic movie composer François de Roubaix as well as electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry. “He let his imagination go,” says Berg. “The imagery, the narration and the use of music all combined to making these films appealing to the public.”

The educational value of his work — as much as its aesthetic poetry — was also an important part of Painlevé’s practice. And his deep affection for the underwater inhabitants that he spent a lifetime documenting served not only to enlighten and entertain, but to position these creatures in the artistic canon. He anthropomorphized them, so that the seahorse was as much a muse to Painlevé as Dora Maar was to Picasso. (Read “Why do Octopuses Remind Us So Much of Ourselves?”)

“The animals — the shrimp, the urchin, the octopus — they become subjects through his films and photography,” says Berg. “He helped make them part of our world.”

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Jean Painlevé holds his Debrie camera in a waterproof box. Saint Raphaël, France, 1936

See more of Jean Painlevé's work on the Archives Painlevé website.