Underwater photography was a second career for Cutter. In her first, she worked as a fine arts painter. Some of her paintings and serigraphs can be seen on her website. Her work was sold in numerous galleries and was much in demand, but after several decades, she wanted a new challenge.
With her husband, psychologist and author Fred Cutter, she had taken numerous snorkeling, vacations, and during one of them had the opportunity to take a brief diving course at a resort in the Bahamas. Initially unimpressed, she did not expect to continue diving but, at the urging of her husband, she earned her certification. Their next snorkeling vacation was spent in the British Virgin Islands. Cutter tried diving again, and this time, she was " hooked."
"When you're diving, what you see is very different from what you see when you're snorkeling," says Cutter. "When you're snorkeling, you're looking through a window into another world. When you're diving, you become part of that world." Cutter also enjoyed the freedom and sense of weightlessness experienced by divers. "At times," she says, "you feel almost like you're flying."
After the Bahamas trip, she acquired the necessary equipment and began learning the techniques of underwater photography—a science and an art that is, according to Cutter, very different from land photography. "Things appear larger than they really are, she notes, and they are not exactly where they appear to be." Lights are used to illuminate the subject, and "you shoot where the light is."
Many of the sea creatures photographed by Cutter are so small that special equipment, methods, and a guide are needed in order to capture their images. Cutter's favorite locations for underwater photography are Indonesia and Malaysia, in part because of the tremendous variety of unusual species, and in part because of the many "tiny organisms with incredible color and designs , such as pigmy seahorses so tiny you can barely see them. The pigmy seahorse in one of the photographs in her book, enlarged to show the details of its features and coloring is, in fact, barely 1/8" tall.
Other favorite diving locations include the Maldives, the Red Sea, the Soloman Islands, Micronesia, New Guinea, Fiji, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, and Bonaire. Asked about the most memorable things seen during her underwater photography career, Cutter recalls fantastic landscapes featuring colorful soft coral such as the giant red sea fans deep in the ocean near the northern Solomans, and the wrecks in the Truk Lagoon in Micronesia.
The Great Barrier Reef, despite its fame, is not among her favorites. The Cutters took several diving trips there, but found the area to be "over-dived," and were dismayed to find that runoff from development in Australia has caused serious damage to the reefs.
During the years she was diving, Cutter saw major changes and damage to the reefs in other areas as well. Global warming, she says, is real, and the reefs are dying. In the Maldives, once-magnificent reefs are gone. In the early 90's, when diving in the Truk lagoon, she noticed white anemones, something she had never seen before.
Cutter subsequently learned that the bleaching process is the first sign that the organism is dying. An upward change in water temperature of just one or two degrees can start the process. If the temperature goes back down, the organism will recover. If not, it dies. Cutter notes that when the reefs die, the fish populations they shelter die too, "and the ocean's ecology is severely undermined."
Although there has been some damage to the reefs in some areas, sights such as those recorded by Cutter's photographs can still be seen and enjoyed, and she recommends diving as a sport for people of all ages, so long as appropriate precautions are taken. Diving is not dangerous, says Cutter, " if you do what you're supposed to do and don't push the envelope. Don't go too deep, don't stay down too long, and use a guide when you need one."
When a diver gets into an unexpected situation, Cutter says, it is essential to stay cool, stop and think, remember your training, and come up with a plan. The places Cutter considers most interesting for underwater photography, Indonesia and Malaysia, are also the ones she considers most challenging in terms of diving safety. Updrafts and downdrafts and strong currents can get the diver into trouble if not handled correctly, and it is easy to get lost.
Cutter's underwater photography career spanned about 15 years. During the entire time, she used film cameras. Digital cameras were coming into use around the time she moved into her latest careers, land photography and photo editing. Most of the photographs in her book were taken with a Nikon 90S camera in a Nexus housing, with a 105 mm macro lens and Fuji Velvia film. Only minimal editing of the shots was done, to remove background "noise".
Cutter now uses digital cameras and edits her images on her computer. She considers the editing process a kind of return to her original career as a painter, since many of the principles are the same. The career transitions seem to represent a key part of Cutter's philosophy of life – "what is important in life is the process of what you're doing, not the end result." .
Is there another photography book in the future? "Yes," says Cutter. She has not yet decided on the subject, but with hundreds of thousands, of photographs to her credit, and thousands more taken every year, she clearly has plenty of material to choose from.
Peregrine Falcon Image on Banner by Cleve Nash