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Cathy Church - Ocean Devotion

Cathy Church, Grand Cayman's pioneering underwater photographer on life under the ocean waves.

"I must be a mermaid," mused Anaïs Nin. "I have no fear of depths and great fear of shallow living." Enter Cathy Church, conduit between terrestrial and submarine worlds, whose four-decade-long photographic journey continues to unveil the awe-inspiring mysteries of the deep. A passionate environmentalist and vegan who, "Can’t not care," she teaches as she goes, preaching preservation and conservation along the way. Recipient of the 1987 NOGI award for Art from the Academy of Arts and Sciences and inducted into the Woman Divers Hall of Fame in 2000 and the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in 2008, Church has more awards and accolades than you can shake a stick at. Yet, once, hers was a story of closed doors and narrow minds and a drive to go where no woman had gone before.

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Devil's Grotto (1997), custom processed black and white film,
printed on silver gelatin and scanned for digital.

Church credits her female lineage with instilling an early love of nature. Unerringly curious, hers was a childhood spent bird watching and pond dipping; launching a Reptiles and Amphibians Club with her brother and, later, in cahoots with her mother, sneaking money from the family food jar to purchase scuba gear. It was her father, however, who, while engendering in her the perfect blend of Science and Art, introduced her to the harsh reality of being a woman in a man’s world.

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Angel Eyes (2006), taken with digital Nikon D2x.

Willing and able to turn her hand to anything, the pragmatic Church set her sights on going to college to study Biology, a decision her father would call “an unwarranted assumption.” Believing women’s education to be a waste, he may have been the first to try shutting the door on her ambitions, but, as if lured by the tides, Church strove on. Securing financial sponsorship, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, also learning to SCUBA dive. “I was dating the instructor. There was no scuba certification or PADI. You just jumped in,” she quips… and in many ways, she never came up again.

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Sea Goddess (1998), on special Kodak underwater film.

During her Masters in Marine Zoology at the University of Hawaii, Church’s awe at experiencing her first open water dive at the Hopkins Marine Biology Station in Monterey, California, coincided with meeting future husband, Jim Church, an innovative underwater photographer and diver. Keen to document her work and observe creatures in situ, she joined him in experimenting with land-based camera equipment for work underwater. Soon, a revolution took hold beneath the waves.

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Blue Christmas Tree (2002), on Velvia film.

Dubbed the ‘Documentary Years’, Church perfected the ‘how to’ of underwater photography. Using old fashioned flash cubes adapted to illuminate the depths, homemade focal framers and light meters sealed in watertight empty peanut butter jars, modified and refined techniques were documented in an underwater guide that brought rarely seen species to the surface, only this time in pictographic form. Yet, the following ‘Editorial’ decade saw her put her skills into action, thanks to another auspicious encounter.

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Morning Rays (2007), with a wide lens and a digital Nikon D2x camera, at Stingray sandbar. Cathy and a friend slept on the boat overnight so that they could get up with the sun and photograph the rays in the early morning.

Smiling, Church recalls an alcohol-fueled conversation one night. “Jim was leaning against the fridge, listening to a man complain about how underwater photographs failed to intrigue.” The man was Jim Ouxier, Editor of Skin Diver Magazine; the rest was history. With the next fifteen years spent as Contributing Photo Editor for Skin Diver, producing four books and co-authoring hundreds of magazine articles, Church’s innovative images were in high demand “It was the sixties,” she expounds. “No-one had seen these things before.” It would be 1972, however, before Church’s love affair with the Caribbean began.

Invited by friends to their newly established Spanish Bay Reef Resort in Grand Cayman, in exchange for accommodation, Church ran a lecture and dive series for guests which, even at this early stage, stressed buoyancy control and reef preservation. Resoundingly successful, she began dividing her time: teaching in California year round and running Super Courses in the Caribbean each summer. Committed to safeguarding fragile reef ecosystems, Church’s message was then, as it is today, one of environmental responsibility. Intimately attuned to the underwater environment and the slightest signs of degradation, she began lobbying tirelessly locally and internationally for its protection, showing the world its peerless beauty via her lens. In 1988, Cayman became permanent home to her eponymously named company, Cathy Church’s Photo Centre and Gallery at the Sunset House Hotel and Church’s photographs entered the realm of high art.

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Blenny on purple (2004), on Velvia film, taken at La Mesa with a Nikonos RS and 60mm lens.

Studying with John Sexton, assistant to famed landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, the artistic language of Church’s fourth decade was black and white. “Black and white translates colour, allowing the imagination to fill in the gaps,” she enthuses. Each work attested to Church’s skill in the darkroom, measuring and mixing chemicals, handling intricate equipment and complex zone systems. Watch her describe this process and you realise, gone are the days of the documenter; here stands an artist. Immersed, she gazes into her work with mesmerising intensity: hand following the rhythm of her composition; fingertips tracing textures and tones as if for the first time.

Despite a severe blow dealt by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Church’s indomitable spirit remains undeterred. Now compiling an, ‘Imagination Collection’, Church has rebuilt her photo empire, embracing the new era of digital with its capability and freedom to reshoot infinitely. “I didn’t know it at the time,” she reflects, “but I gained more than I lost.” No longer concerned solely with subject, her latest works explore more abstract themes of pattern and form in macro detail, engaging the imagination in the process of becoming.

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Happy Sponge (2008), taken with a Nikon D2x digital camera.

Sharing her passion as the world’s foremost authority on underwater photography, Church leads as she has always done, never losing her childlike zeal: a legend in her lifetime, always learning, always caring, always paying it forward. At heart a teacher, she illuminates the depths, shining her light so that others may see. “I share every single thing I learn with everyone I meet. For me, there are no secrets.”


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