Feo Pitcairn History
In 1951, at the age of 17, Feodor Pitcairn made the first of what would be many visits to Africa. It was on this first trip that he encountered what would become two of his lifelong passions; one was the girl who would eventually become his wife, and the second was wildlife photography.
Feo also received his first hands-on lessons in the challenges of shooting in the field during this first adventure. Having brought a large format 4 x 5 camera and developing tank with him, he found the only way to change the plates was covered by a blanket inside the closed trunk of a car.
Working in black and white from the darkroom built in the basement of the family home, Feo was particularly interested in studying the work of Ansel Adams and Eliott Porter.
Two of my aesthetic mentors are Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter. They each combined keen artistic and compositional skills with a deep knowledge of technology and the process, combining art and technology to deliver something inspirational and outstanding in their field.
Ansel Adams mastered exposure and expanded upon the capabilities of the technology of the day. He recognized that a light meter doesn’t know the difference between a black horse and a white horse but would render both as percentages of grey. He came up with an exposure scale of what film could record and divided it into zones. Through his dark room development techniques, he could alter the development time of the negatives to expand or contract those zones. He would try to expand the given zones to the widest possible spectrum by adding to or subtracting from the development time. The result was spectacular range of detail in the darkest darks to the brightest, glistening whites, within a single photo.
There are certain applications of these insights that can be applied to current HD cameras; there is a switch on the camera that essentially lets one expand or contract the zones along the same lines. Understanding these principles pioneered by Ansel Adams informs me today in how I use my HD camera and employ that technology.
Eliot Porter understood how color would shift during long exposures and used filters to compensate for that shift. These are people who went the extra mile in appreciating the medium they were using. Their technological innovations combined with their compositional strengths led to the lasting status and power that their work still has today.
Feo Pitcairn, from an article in RealScreen Magazine, Jan. 2007
Feo’s love of photography soon took a backseat to other, more pressing duties. After a stint in the Army, he attended the University of Pennsylvania where he majored in Economics. After graduating, he spent four years working in a bank before joining the family company. He would spend the next 26 years at the Pitcairn Trust Company, the last six as Chairman.
During this time, Feo was very active in various civic and environmental organizations. As chairman of the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Planning commission where he worked to protect open space from unnecessary development. He founded the Pennypack Watershed Association, which eventually became the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, today a national model for the preservation, restoration and management of open land. He served on the board of the Ocean Conservancy, as a Trustee of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and on the board of the Environmental Defense Fund, ultimately serving on the Executive Committee.
During these years, Feo continued with his photography, incorporating Feodor Pitcairn Productions, Ltd. in 1977. During the first four years, they produced calendars of underwater images. Then came the first book, CAYMAN UNDERWATER PARADISE, a collaboration with Paul Humann, published in 1979.
In 1981, his photography exhibit, GALAPAGOS: BORN OF THE SEA opened at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History and then went on a four-year tour with the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibits. In 1984, the New York Graphic Society (Little, Brown) published HIDDEN SEASCAPES, a collection of Feodor’s photographs emphasizing his concept of portraying the seascape in natural light. The collection has been exhibited at Penn State Campus and the New Jersey State Aquarium. His stills also appeared in many magazines and calendars. A portfolio of his natural light photographs was published in Audubon in 1989.
Feo’s growing interest in conveying the hidden mysteries of the marine world in ways that would educate and inspire others to conserve and protect the oceans co-evolved with his interest in moving pictures.
In 1990 when Feo made up his mind to pursue a career in television production, he started with broadcast cameras shooting to video. Nobody was using television cameras underwater for television production at this time; film was the standard. Frustrated with the limitations of film, Feo began experimenting with video.
“I’ve always had a respect for film, after all, I started my career in still photography. In transitioning to television production, however, I was early to recognize that commercial broadcast cameras had developed to the point where they rendered the marine environment in an uncanny, beautiful way.”
- Feo Pitcairn
As underwater housings for these broadcast cameras simply did not exist, Feo tracked down an engineer in Florida who was making consumer grade underwater housings and had him fabricate two custom housings for the Beta SP cameras he would then shoot Ocean Wilds with.
At this time, broadcasters were not accepting video as a format, but Feo made his decision independent of where the industry was at, convinced that video was the future. This process would be mirrored again later when High Definition cameras came along. Feo was one of the very first to get an HD camera underwater, and was acquiring footage for his library and productions in HD years before it became a widely adopted format for broadcast. Again he found himself in the position of commissioning custom housings for the SONY HD cameras, as there were none commercially available when they first came out.
In 1991, Feo retired from his business life in order to devote his full attention to his production company. Since that time, Feo’s focus has been on the production of high-end, blue chip natural history television programming and films for institutional theatre. The results have included the 5-part Ocean Wilds series, broadcast on PBS, Ocean Voyagers, narrated by Meryl Streep, and Ocean Odyssey, commissioned by the Smithsonian.
Always an early adopter of new technologies, Feo acquired the new Hasselblad H4D-40 Medium Format DSLR. The H4D-40 camera features a 33×44 mm CCD sensor with 40 million pixels. Outfitted with an underwater housing, Feo immediately set out to field test his new camera through a variety of rigorous shoots in demanding locations, including Africa and Indonesia.
Today Feo continues in his pursuit; capturing still images of living seascapes and landscapes that tell a story about both habitat and inhabitant.