There’s beauty in the unpredictable, and even in the dangerous. Photographer Chris Leidy found it.
“I’m so claustrophobic, you don’t understand.” This coming from a man who spent three weeks last summer diving through holes in the Arctic ice wearing a 50-pound lead vest, sinking into the deep blue sea under a frozen 8-foot-thick ceiling.
For Chris Leidy, facing that fear was necessary to capture the images milling around in his mind’s eye. And really, it wasn’t hard for him to overcome. “Down there, you’re in the zone, so you lose any kind of fear or thoughts of being trapped,” he says. “It’s so spiritual—everywhere you look, you’ve never seen anything like it before. The air bubbles start to look like mercury; it’s trippy. I was like a sponge soaking it all up.”
For the past 10 years, Leidy’s wanderlust has taken him to exotic locales like French Polynesia, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea, where he captures underwater images so beautiful in their abstraction you sometimes forget how very real it all is. This isn’t a bunch of post-production magic. Leidy, as he describes his process, edits in camera: “I see something I want to shoot and visualize how I want it to appear, setting my camera—white balance, exposure—so the end result looks like what I’m seeing. There’s expression in all types of art, but my thought is, what I see when I take the shot… That should be the image.”
Shooting in 20-degree water was a major departure for the Palm Beach native, who is represented by New York’s esteemed Marlborough Gallery. He traded his wet suit for a uniform that consisted of two pairs of long johns, two pairs of wool socks, a long-sleeved tee, a down onesie, down boots, and a dry suit. Every morning, he and his Inuit guides would head out of their yurt, hop on a dog sled or snow mobile, and zoom out to an ice-locked berg. They’d drill a hole, and Leidy would shimmy down and let nature dictate the outcome.
“There’s a current pulling you, it’s dark, and the elements are so intense,” he says. “Some guy you just met is holding this rope attached to you. He’s your lifeline. You hear cracking and the ice moaning. It’s wild, man…. But I just went out there. I had a vision of my photos and was going to take whatever came at me, as it came.” marlboroughgallery.com
What made you decide to switch things up and shoot in freezing temps?
I thought it was a much needed change, a shot of inspiration elsewhere. I’ve spent my life in the tropics, in warm waters, in [swim] trunks. I needed to test myself on other levels. It got to be a little bland, and I guess I needed inspiration from a different outlet. Stepping out of your comfort zone and being immersed in a place that kind of scares you a little bit is very attractive to me.
What was your daily plan going into the trip?
There was no general plan or direction. I was there to see stuff, to experience what [the natives] do 365 days a year. To get into it as they get into it. Typically, it was an early rise and coffee. Then we’d pack the sled and kind of just cruise. I was eating raw narwhal, which is packed with vitamins, and seeing polar bears in their natural environment. That was a super spiritual experience.
What’s one thing you didn’t expect at all about diving in the Arctic?
Ice cream headache! My head wasn’t in the dry suit; it was exposed. As soon as I’d submerge, I’d have ice cream headache instantly.
How important were the Inuits to your success?
Having those guys was life-saving. Out there, every step you take is danger. You don’t know how deep the ice is, etc. Local knowledge was key.
How did you find your camp site?
Well, I was put in touch with a village elder. He put together a team of dogs and we’d dog sled 400 kilometers out from land into frozen ocean, to the floe edge. Then we’d pitch a tent about a mile back.
Your work was recently a part of a show for the National Resources Defense Council. Is there a conservationist side to your work?
Absolutely, that’s part of it for sure. [Climate change] is the real deal. Ice is melting quicker and taking longer to form.
You’ve said that capturing these once-in-a-lifetime moments under the water is important to you. Are you a “stop and smell the roses” kind of guy in everyday life?
Well… Up until I was picked up by the Marlborough Gallery [in January], it was just me. My world was my work and vice versa. When I’d come back from travels, I’d get kind of bogged down, and I’d lose that mentality. But when I travel, I’m this sponge that soaks up and learns and feeds my soul. It’s what I live for.
Is there a photo you’ve sold that you sort of wish you’d kept?
Nope, absolutely not. So much energy, time, effort, and emotional baggage goes into getting the photos. I travel for the photo, take it… If it makes the cut, I proof it. Then I print it, frame it, hang it on the wall. By that time, it’s the last thing I even want to see. It’s like, good riddance. Plus, there’s a pride [in selling] in that I know people like it.
What’s the best part of the gig?
I’m much more into the lifestyle that comes with what I do. I get to travel, to see, to immerse myself in traditional cultures around the world and get lost. When I went to the Polynesian atoll of Rangiroa, I lived with a family for a month. They didn’t speak any English; I was just kind of dropped into their lives. But once they let you into their family, you’re a part of them. I did everything with them: camping, fishing, diving…. We were just living off the land, catching lobsters at 3 a.m. I am so blessed to have had this experience. It touched my heart. A bond was made, and it’s something I’ll never forget.
So what’s your end game as an artist?
I want to share my work and have people be moved by it, maybe learn from it. I don’t really care about the whole artsy-fartsy thing.
View Leidy’s work at his Palm Beach Gallery, 219 Royal Poinciana Way, leidyimages.com.