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His artistry bubbles under

Daniel Wheeler leaps into backyard pools around L.A. to capture

April 13, 2009|Bob Pool

He's one artist who really immerses himself in his work.

Daniel Wheeler tightly clutches his waterproof camera, takes a giant gulp of air and jumps into backyard swimming pools across Los Angeles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Underwater photographer: An article in Monday's Section A about Daniel Wheeler's pictures snapped from backyard pools referred to Duncan Miller Gallery owner Daniel Miller as David Miller.

When he hits bottom, he aims the camera upward and exhales, sending a cascade of bubbles toward the water's surface.

For Wheeler's camera, the bubbles and the ripples they create when they burst through the surface turn into a unique lens through which to view a quintessentially Southern California lifestyle.

Above water, lush gardens and looming hillsides appear to be shimmering beneath the signature blue sky. Sometimes stark and other times abstract, the real and the imagined blend colorfully in the photos Wheeler captures.

That's the way the former Cleveland resident tends to view Los Angeles.

"I'm from the Midwest -- with crappy weather, cold and very few swimming pools," said the 48-year-old Los Feliz resident. "Here we live in the desert, but there's this huge garden here in the middle of it. I've always liked the strangeness of that."

The inspiration for his underwater perspectives came unexpectedly when he was asked to do a poolside sculpture for a client's backyard. He used a cheap, disposable waterproof camera to get a representation of what the sculpture would look like to swimmers.

The backyard pool is an iconic image, but most of that imagery is tied to psychological interactions that occur poolside, he said.

"Here we have mini-gardens all around us that come from all this watering. And in the middle of it is this gigantic pile of water. The idea of being in the water and using it as a lens to look at the landscape we're in seemed like a good place to start," he said.

"Water distorts, it's imperfect. And in the same way, politically and socially, water distorts every discussion we have in Southern California -- having it or not having it. And we get seduced by having it. The results are the extreme beauty and the ability to support all these people."

So Wheeler bought a wetsuit, a weight belt, a pair of Olympus digital cameras with underwater housings and wide-angle lenses -- and set out to illustrate it.

Over the last two years he's jumped into several hundred L.A. swimming pools. Most of the time he's invited into the backyard by the homeowner. Other times he has simply invited himself in.

"I've jumped fences," he said. "And jumping fences in a 7-millimeter wetsuit is not an easy thing. When dogs see guys all dressed in black rubber, they tend to get a little aggressive. I've been chased out by dogs."

At times, Wheeler has turned to satellite maps to find potential pools to photograph from. "You can see them a mile away, literally," he said of the blue squares and ovals.

During a 2007 Griffith Park brush fire, Wheeler hurried to photograph, from the bottom of a nearby Los Feliz pool, the smoke boiling up from the hillsides. When the wind changed direction and blew the smoke east, he rushed toward Atwater Village to search for a new vantage point.

In his dripping wetsuit, he ran past firefighters and residents gawking at the blaze before realizing that he had no idea where any swimming pools were. He called a friend by cellphone to have him look on Google Earth for nearby backyards that had them.

The first pool owner Wheeler approached waved him off. But a neighbor finally ushered him through the smoke to the back of her house and pulled off her pool's cover. The water was brackish and green, but he gratefully jumped in.

The resulting photograph is ominous and foreboding. It's one of 18 prints on view through May 30 at the Duncan Miller Gallery, 10959 Venice Blvd., West Los Angeles.

"The images by themselves are quite beautiful, even if you don't recognize what it is at first," gallery owner David Miller said of the photographs -- some of which are 4 1/2 feet square.

Wheeler calls the show "GULP," for "Generative Urban Landscape Project." With GPS coordinates, he identifies the location each photo was taken.

Does he plan to take the plunge and expand the project to include out-of-town swimming pools? Don't hold your breath.

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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