Portraits of the Ocean : A Photographer at Peace With the Sea

Times Staff Writer

The young man and the sea have made a deal.

He will not maraud as he dives. The ocean will bring him no harm. Concordance. Affinity.

So Chris Newbert has been nudged and tugged into rolling, romping midnight play with Galapagos sea lions. He has heard and felt a humpback whale and its sepulchral serenade vibrating his soul. It was, he believes, singing for him.

Tag with white tip sharks. Hide-and-seek within a writhing tower of barracuda. Dolphins jabbering into his face mask. Sometimes, he said, when the visit is over and he must depart, man and the mammal exchange significant looks--like friends.

'My Positive Influence'

"I just feel I belong there," Newbert explained. "I convince myself of my position in the sea as being a very positive influence. . . . I therefore am very relaxed and comfortable, even in the presence of many dozens and sometimes hundreds of man-eating animals."

Then, while relaxed, when the sea creatures have sensed his peace, he photographs them. He dives deep and far-off remote shores, Australia, Micronesia, the Coral and Red seas, to find their naturalness. Being integral to the submarine community becomes his entree to the personality of its residents; as Edward Weston found character in the routine and Ansel Adams saw his own Yosemite.

"The thing I always try to do," said Newbert, 36, tanned, compact, "is to get pictures that display certain personalities of the animals rather than just record shots for marine life encyclopedias.

"I think it's important that the first pictures I sold weren't to a magazine. They weren't pictures of divers diving or doing something stupid with a fish. They were pictures that were meant to be wall-hanging art. Portraits of the ocean. Portraits of the sea. . . . " Also a portrait of a cheeky, bubble-eyed blenny fish peering from behind coral in a passable impersonation of Kermit. Newbert's octopus is a close-up of its drowsy eye. His dolphins are the Blue Angels in perfect formation.

Obviously, and quite profitably, Newbert's photographs have appeared in magazines. The big ones. National Geographic. Omni. Oceans. Discovery. Etc. And the book divisions of the Smithsonian and Time-Life and Audubon Society. Etc. There have been one-man shows in Honolulu, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Newport. Etc.

Now comes the inevitable book, "Within a Rainbowed Sea," a collection of 158 Newbert photographs that have exhausted critics' superlatives.

It's a $50 volume. That's the cheapie; but on expensive Warren, 100-pound Lustro Gloss Enamel paper, there's a $2,000 version. That's the limited edition; bound in Nigerian goatskin and delivered in a handmade Koa-wood box lined with Brazilian suede.

Book of the Year

"Within a Rainbowed Sea" has won more gold medals than Edwin Moses. It is one society's Book of the Year. Another group has nominated Newbert as its Photographer of the Year.

And that has brought a shy, sly pride to Newbert--once a longhaired '60s stereotype, a love-preaching, flower-power pacifist who (sighed his rigidly conservative father in Boston) would never amount to anything.

"My father, a Nixon Republican, was always very intent on what was I going to do with my life, how would I earn an income, that kind of thing. But as a hippie in the '60s, money was irrelevant, money was bad and I was going to live in shabby jeans until I was 80."

There was Newbert's student deferment from Vietnam. His dress was a Joan Baez T-shirt above those seriously damaged blue jeans. His culture was the guitar, folk songs and bad poetry; his main philosophy was that steady work in search of security was as immoral as war.

"My father was a highly decorated pilot who flew The (China-Burma-India) Hump during World War II, and I was very much the liberal . . . so we had a few ripsnorting arguments . . . mother wasn't thrilled by shoulder-length hair . . . these were typical, typical, turbulent teen-age times with parents."

What neither side recognized, however, was Newbert's obsession with the ocean. As a child there was a fish tank and a ceramic diver and in the stream of air bubbles there were a boy's endless fantasies.

He surfed, taught sailing, raced Mercury 15s, and registered for diving school already knowing more SCUBA theory than his instructor.

College threatened all of this. He was accepted by the University of Massachusetts. "Too cold for water sports," said Newbert. He was accepted by the University of Miami. "Lousy surfing." He chose the University of Hawaii. "As a biology and marine biology major . . . surfing really, but that wouldn't have gone over well with the parents, so I had to fake a burning scientific interest.

"I became your basic beach bum pretending to be a college student."

He dropped out in his senior year. The ocean was calling. He moved to Kona on the big island of Hawaii to teach diving and become a reef guide. It led him to photography as a diversion on dives where there was nothing to do but watch divers take pictures of other divers.

Newbert's intent, however, was to photograph the gentle life he saw. Especially its nuances. Here, he suspected, was a way to show society the interrelationship of a life form. Within a rainbowed sea.

'Man Is Just a Thread . . . '

"I think if people understand . . . that naturally leads to an increased concern among man over his environment. If you realize that everything is interconnected, then you realize that man is just a thread in this fabric of life. And like anything fabric, it has to be healthy or it shreds and rots."

So he shot pictures and dabbled and tried again. Then a tourist noticed the diver with cameras. She asked to see some prints. He showed her two 16-by-20s. A hermit crab. Coral cups.

"She asked how much, and I thought real quick how much it had cost me to make the prints and then doubled it. She said: 'OK, I'll take this one and this one.' Dipped into her purse and handed me $100 and walked off with the prints."

All of which, Newbert decided, sure beat diving for a living. On the other hand, diving sure beat picking papayas for a living. So he stayed aboard the trimaran Fair Wind by day and spent nights waiting tables at the Kona Surf Hotel so there would be money for better equipment.

Then more cameras. Big strobes. A boat of his own. Magazine sales. And finally, the independence of regular free-lance assignments that allowed a decade of devotion to The Book.

It entailed traveling the world. To places most persons need an atlas to find. To Palau and Ponape and Belize and Roatan and Truk Islands. And then beyond to where no man has dived, such as reefs 200 miles off Queensland, Australia: "I have to be in areas where there is no such thing as tame animals, because if they're tame it means they have been around people a lot, which means they are not displaying natural behavior in my presence."

He perfected his harmony with the ocean until he was one with its residents. Their response was curiosity before coyness and conditional acceptance: "I've gone down on dives and been surrounded by 50 sharks or more that just come swirling in. But they just want to look. You can get engulfed in barracuda so thick that you are at the center of a sphere of these animals."

Above all else, he respected the marine environment. He taunted no animal. No fish were taken. He had a position in the sea: "I've done my best to treat the ocean with respect and hopefully given something back to the sea in terms of what I do with my pictures. And I think that if they (sea animals) can somehow sense our benign intentions they are less likely to run away. But it's not something I think about consciously . . . when I'm down there I just feel at home. I feel good about where I am. I belong."

So he has made pictures where the delicacy and color of sea growth is pure horticulture. Some shots frame vast, blue distance that, he says, emphasizes the sea as an empty universe punctuated by pockets of matter.

"Within a Rainbowed Sea" is their final portfolio.

That rainbow, Newbert said, refers not just to the rainbow of colors, but to the spectrum of life "and the fact that we all came from the same source and are just different aspects of the evolutionary process."

It is not a preaching book. Newbert's text conveys sparse information. But it does tell much of the photographer's emotions, insight, respect for the sea and its creatures, the security they offer . . . and their deal, because Newbert understands. Completely.

"The sea takes you away from anything you've ever known before. Everything is different. You're weightless. Sounds are different. There is no smell. Visual effects are different and you see crazy colors, strange surrealistic animals swimming in and about you.

"It's a total transformation and the ultimate distraction."

It also has afforded Newbert a life style that is close to a permanent vacation. Financially, he said, he is "comfortable" with sights set on being "filthy rich." That translates to a house in Kona among avocado, orange, guava and banana trees.

"I play tennis a lot of the time, ride an 18-speed mountain bike around Kona, don't own a three-piece suit and only learned to tie a necktie seven months ago . . . for the cocktail-party circuit." He roared with laughter at such compromise. "I see it as a major step towards my ultimate decline."

Newbert's father ("a nuts-and-bolts, bread-and-butter photographer . . . very, very good but because of the commitments he had made in his life with house and family was forced into doing something that was a predictable income field") died a few years ago. But not before son and father had repaired their past.

"We were able to look back and have hysterics about the past," Newbert said. "Was he proud of me? Oh, exceedingly. To the point of embarrassment. You'd think he was the only person in the world that had a kid who had done well. It was awful. But wonderful."

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