Twenty-five cents can buy a gumball, 15 minutes at a parking meter or a phone call on a pay phone. But for world-renowned underwater photographer Stephen Frink, a quarter led to a profession, a passion and a lifetime of success.
Stephen always wanted to be a scuba diver, but his ultimate motivation was the offer of a part-time job cleaning yacht hulls that required him to be dive certified.
“I always say I got certified as a scuba diver for 25 cents a linear foot, because that’s what I got paid for cleaning boats,” he joked.
Stephen grew up a landlocked Midwesterner, but constantly fantasized about what it would be like to scuba dive. He took his first and only photography class while getting his master’s degree in experimental psychology at California State University at Long Beach.
“Seeing the black-and-white darkroom and the alchemy coming up in the tray, I just knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said.
Stephen bought his first underwater camera from a surfer, and initially enjoyed underwater photography as a hobby. Once he finished school he spent six months in Hawaii working as a tourism photographer, shooting what he described as “drunk people at luaus at night,” and diving and shooting underwater photos during the day.
Subsequently he gave up the island life and scuba diving for “coat weather” and a darkroom job as a custom color printer in Colorado.
Competitive swimming had been a big part of Stephen’s youth, and coincidentally it’s what brought him to the Florida Keys. An old friend from his swimming days, who was living in Key Largo and working as a treasure hunter, invited him to visit.
He arrived in Key Largo in April 1978 and immediately realized he could make a living processing film and renting camera equipment.
He rented a small space in what was then the Ocean Divers building, eventually buying the building and creating what is now the Stephen Frink Gallery and his working office.
Surprisingly, he has never taken an underwater photography class. Instead, he perfected his craft by trial and error.
“Underwater photography is so unique,” Stephen said. “Each day you dive is going to be a little different, and there’s always the challenge to photograph even a familiar subject in a better way.”
On a rainy winter day in 1979 — a day he remembers distinctly — he began his work as an educator.
“A guy drove up in a brand new Cadillac and asked me if I taught underwater photography,” Stephen said. “I thought the guy looked like he could pay for it, so I said, ‘Of course I do,’ and I’ve been teaching ever since.”
Today, he teaches master photographers through the Stephen Frink School of Photography, hosting two underwater photography seminars in Key Largo each summer.
His photojournalism career began in 1982 when a Miami–based magazine needed underwater photos of Marathon. Although Stephen had never used a wide–angle lens, he borrowed one from a friend, took a model down to Marathon and got the shots. Two weeks later, he was called to hit the road and travel to the Cayman Islands to shoot for the magazine.
Since then, Stephen Frink has traveled the globe as a photojournalist and worked with publications including Skin Diver magazine, Scuba Diving and Alert Diver magazine. He also authored a coffee-table book titled “Wonders of the Reef.”
An active environmentalist, Stephen sits on the board of directors of the Sanctuary Friends Foundation of the Florida Keys — a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and sustainable use of the area’s coral reef ecosystem. He finds himself in constant awe of the world that lies just offshore in the Keys.
“Sometimes I’ll be out with my buddies and we just shake our heads with disbelief,” he said. “So many places I go just don’t have much marine life anymore, and we have this legacy of conservation here — it is such a big deal. I truly enjoy diving and living here.”