As an acclaimed underwater photographer who travels the globe capturing impossible images of everything from whale sharks to whelks, Chris Leidy has found the COVID-19-induced ban on international travel to be particularly hobbling.
To keep his creative juices flowing, he’s been developing new techniques and experimenting with environmentally friendly inks. “I create different colors in a bottle and drip them into the ocean and start shooting,” he says of the “Water Ink” images he’s been posting on Instagram during the pandemic. “As they dissipate, they create these beautiful kinds of rolling colors.”
It’ll do in a pinch, but it’s not Leidy’s usual MO. On a normal day, you’d find him in a remote location, camera in hand, embarking on his next waterlogged photo shoot. But today he’s on Long Island, having just driven his 1973 Volkswagen bus north from Palm Beach. Tomorrow he’ll head out to Martha’s Vineyard. Next, he’s thinking of “doing a big loop, maybe over to Yellowstone.”
Even on dry land, 38-year-old Leidy embraces a certain kind of unplugged, nomadic wanderlust. “I love to be able to incorporate stepping off the grid into my life routine,” he confesses. “I love to be able to photograph something from a far-off destination—a little speck of paradise somewhere in the middle of the ocean—and then to actually come back and show people what I just witnessed.”
Once pandemic restrictions have been lifted and travel is reinstated, Leidy says he’ll be back in the water (“probably in Bali,” he muses) with his dive gear and camera in tow. That’s just where he feels most comfortable. “It’s all uncontained when you’re underwater,” he explains. “It’s all just a moment drifting by you. That’s kind of what I like about it, to be honest. Just the uncontained and the rawness of it.”
That rawness includes both the beauty and the fragility of the world’s marine ecosystems. Leidy says that in his line of work, you can’t help but notice destruction and pollution. Still, his focus is on presenting images that inspire, not frighten. “My work helps people see what is under the water, which will hopefully spark their desire to protect it,” he says. “Every reef around the world is declining in its own little way. I feel that if I just focus on the beauty of it, that will highlight the fragilities of it as well.”
Leidy’s newly published first book, The Coral Triangle (Assouline), does just that, chronicling nearly a decade’s worth of images he captured while diving in the massive region that stretches across a 2-million-square-mile coral reef network. From Indonesia to the Philippines to the Solomon Islands, the area contains 30 percent of the world’s coral and boasts more fish and coral species than anywhere else on earth. “Everything there is just so plentiful—the abundance and the color and the light,” Leidy says, “It’s just all-around beautiful.”
For Leidy, the book and its more than 100 images are a way to share his experiences with a broader audience. “When I’m diving, 90 percent of the time I’m alone,” he notes. “The next best thing to having somebody there with you is to show your experience on the actual paper and be like, ‘Look what I was just blessed with seeing.’ You can sometimes see a spark in them; you can see them being intrigued and wanting to know more about it, and then the questions start to come. It’s just this whole dynamic you get from people just by sharing, which I love.”
While some underwater photographers focus on taxonomy and reality, Leidy’s lens is more abstract. “I love to curveball the eye of my onlooker so they start to ask, ‘What is that? Where is that? What am I even looking at?’ I love to question the mind’s eye a little bit. I like to take something like a piece of coral and then say, ‘All right, I want my people to not see and know that I’m looking at a piece of coral. I want it to look like a fricking tree or something.’”
That whimsical lens comes from nowhere strange. The grandson of fashion icon Lilly Pulitzer (known for her imaginative designs) and publishing scion Peter Pulitzer (known for his pioneering panache), Leidy carries the spirit of his family with him, no matter how remote his next photo shoot destination may be.
“I still get inspired by the voice of Granny in my head,” he says. “Our past conversations very much still inspire me. Her DNA pulsing through my own veins is enough in itself to keep the drive alive. She was full of whimsy, man. She was all about textiles and patterns and creating color. And that’s what I do as well. We’re very, very similar. She marched through her own world, to her own beat. And I’m swimming through mine with fins.”
Leidy’s family connection is evident in more than just his lineage. Apart from his photographic body of work, there’s the network of tattoos that cover his body: On his chest, a peony with a capital L inside it for his grandmother. On his back, his grandfather’s portrait. On his arm, a lighthouse for his father. “I’ve got my brother. I’ve got my little nephew. My dogs. It all wraps around family and the pillars of my life.” There are also tattoos to commemorate Leidy’s many travels, including longitude and latitude coordinates. He admits there are “some randoms” sprinkled in as well. “As every person who wears tattoos, there are a number that don’t have any story whatsoever. The tramp stamp and all that kind of stuff,” he says, laughing.
From his personal life to his work life, it’s something Leidy does particularly well: mixing the sublime with substance. One of the things he’s most proud of in the new book is the forward, penned by Fabien Cousteau, another famous grandson; in Fabien’s case, the legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Leidy calls their partnership on the project kismet. “There are a ton of things that the Cousteaus just know,” he says, pointing to a certain science-based gravitas that cerebrally explains what Leidy’s photographs show through aesthetics. “To have that knowledge on paper put down to share with everybody, or highlighted by my art, it gives it a really nice balance.”
Leidy says it’s this marriage of conservation and inspiration that is central to Coral Triangle and his photography as a whole. “I think you have two different kinds of opportunities to spread awareness. I’m not going to pretend that sometimes I don’t encounter a beautiful reef or big sea fan with a garbage bag wrapped around it,” he says, his voice growing somber. “But I want to focus on the beauty of what we need to protect. I want to get my reader to a place where they see a photograph I took and they say, ‘God, that’s so freaking beautiful. How can we let that go?’”
For Leidy, zooming in on optimism fuels him. And he hopes it inspires his audience as they flip through the pages of The Coral Triangle. “Let’s bring some beauty into this thing and show people what is actually out there that we need to protect,” he says. “I’m not here to motivate people to act out of fear and horror. I’m here to stand on the side of light.”