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

August 11, 1985|PAUL DEAN | 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.

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