Welcome to “After Hours," a series showcasing the creative, passionate people that make Gap Inc. They are more than their titles; they are innovative individuals with awesome stories to share.
Although Gerda Hurter grew up loving the mountains, she is drawn to the depths of the ocean.
The Senior Business Analyst with Gap Tech is also bent on capturing those depths — and the abundance of marine life that inhabits them — with her camera. But her beautiful, colorful photos don't reveal the inherent difficulties of underwater photography.
As opposed to taking pictures on land, where a photographer is able to take the time to find the right photographic angle and adjust camera settings perfectly to the amount of daylight, underwater photography requires equal parts vigilance and improvisation — all while wearing restrictive scuba diving equipment.
“You are in a hostile environment, and you only might have one shot," she explained. “You don't want to touch anything — you never touch animals, never touch coral — but you need to be hovering. And there might be a current, so working against a current… You normally try to take three pictures, and once you have the three pictures, you know which light setting is the best, and then you do it again."
“It can be challenging. It's very often … OK, [mimes hovering, focusing] … Click! And then, pfft [mimes being swept away] — you're gone."
That challenge in capturing the perfect shot, in discovering and capturing a glimpse of widely unexplored marine life, adds to the draw of the ocean.
“It's almost like another universe," Gerda said. “It's just so vast, and we don't know much about it. Space and the ocean — we hardly know anything about them."
Gerda was persuaded to take her first steps into proverbial outer space by her husband, Pierre. While the pair were vacationing in Hawaii, he found an instructor with equipment, and persuaded her to try it with him. “It was never in the pool; it was right in the ocean. And I fell in love with it," she said. That was about 17 years ago.
Gerda and Pierre are now a part of San Francisco Reef Divers, where they are both officers. Once a month, the group will drive south from San Francisco to the Monterey Bay area — one of the richest ecological regions in California, host to a wide array of marine life.
“What's really fascinating to me is the diversity that you have down there. There's so much to see and there's so much little detail," Gerda said.
But this diversity of life was why, initially, she was hesitant to pick up the camera. “Someone handed me a camera four years ago and said, 'Hey, give it a try.' And I was like, 'No, there is so much going on; there is so much to see!'" she said, not wanting the camera lens to restrict her underwater experience of the ocean and its illusive endlessness. But her curiosity eventually won out. “I took my first photo and I was totally in love — totally hooked."
Part of what hooked Gerda was the photographic revelation of so much more detail than her eyes could process when floating underwater, trying to take in the entire ocean.
“Very often when I look at the pictures afterwards and zoom in, there's so much more in the pictures that I didn't even see. My eye probably saw it, but it did not register that, 'Oh, wait a minute, there's another shrimp here or there's something else there," she said. “I'm more drawn to the smaller, macro pieces than the bigger wide angles."
She uses a standard point-and-shoot camera — a Sony RX100 — to capture her underwater stills, with the important addition of a strobe light.
“Light becomes more important underwater because the deeper you go, the less colorful it becomes, because water filters out the light spectrum," Gerda explained. “So if you are at a certain depth, you need to make sure you do have the light so that you bring the color back in, otherwise you would not see it. Everything gets greenish-gray. Red is the first color that goes away, and a lot of things are red down there."
Gerda rarely edits her photographs post-production, instead relying on her subjects' natural colors to come through the lens. When, occasionally, her lighting fails to capture color, but she still sees something interesting to display within the frame, Gerda will either convert the photo to black and white or ramp up the contrast to transform the image into more of an abstract artwork.
There is so much to see — and, alternatively, so much to miss — that Gerda can become wholly absorbed in the camera lens.
“You become so enthralled in your look, that you do not necessarily pay attention to what's going on outside of your focus point," Gerda said. “I make a conscious effort to really make sure I know what's going on around me at the same time, because conditions can change very quickly. I don't want to get separated from my buddy and/or the group when we're diving within a group. Safety, for me, is the most important thing."
Her husband jokes that when they go diving together, he's actually solo diving next to Gerda. But in reality, they're a team — both for safety's sake, and in spotting photographic gold.
“We keep track of each other, and kind of sign to each other what's going on," she said. “He's good at pointing things out as well. But if I already took five photos of one particular nudibranch [underwater snail] and he keeps on pointing out the same species ... [she mimes signing OK] 'Oh yeah, great,' and pretend to take the photo." [Laughs]
But sometimes, for safety's sake, Gerda does have to let the perfect shot go. “Don't bother, because you're going to go into decompression; you're going to run out of air. There are just consequences that — it's not worth it," she said. “There will be other times."
This year, Gerda and Pierre will travel to Indonesia to dive and to see the Komodo dragons and the Philippines. And next year, they'll head to the Maldives. They usually plan out their vacations — always with a diving agenda — about two years ahead of time.
But Gerda's favorite place to dive thus far has been California. “It's just amazing what is here," she said.
The Galapagos and Alaska come in as close seconds. In Alaska, “everything is much bigger and more abundant. And there's no dive where you don't see a whale [from the boat]," she said. “There's so much top-side to see while we're on the boat — it's just like the Alps halfway underwater. It's just incredible."
Diving has given Gerda a connection to another world, and photography a means to share it — and even relive it. Through her photography, she can travel to another trip, to another time.
“If I look at a picture that I took three years ago, I know exactly what I was thinking at that moment. I know exactly what the conditions were. I know exactly what was right next to me. There's just something that makes a connection in my brain. It's amazing."