This month saw the release of Chris Leidy’s new book, The Coral Triangle. The latest publication to join Assouline’s Spring 2020 Classics Collection, this covetable title takes us beneath the surface of an extraordinary expanse of ocean.
The Coral Triangle is an area encompassing almost four million square miles of ocean and coastal waters surrounding Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands, which is known above all for its staggering diversity of coral. Almost 600 species of reef-building coral exist here, alongside six of the world’s seven sea turtle species and more than 2,000 species of reef fish, with appearances made by marine mammals such as blue whales, dolphins and the dugong. Together, this marine life makes the Coral Triangle one of most captivating underwater environments on our planet.
Having established himself as one of the world’s foremost underwater photographers, Chris Leidy—the great-great-grandson of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer and grandson of fashion designer, Lily Pulitzer Rousseau—has continually been drawn back to this marine environment. This new coffee table book now invites readers into that world, beginning with an introduction written by the aquanaut, ocean conservationist and documentary filmmaker, Fabien Cousteau—the grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau—known for furthering people’s understanding of the underwater world.
To mark this inspiring new book’s launch, the underwater photographer gives us insight into the time he’s spent in this captivating part of the world.
What was your first experience of diving in the Coral Triangle?
My first dive in the Coral Triangle was in Papua New Guinea about 11 years ago. It felt surreal, like stepping into another world; a world filled with abundance of life and color.
What makes this part of the ocean so extraordinary?
This part of the oceanic underworld is so extreme in its marine biodiversity – the variety of reef color and inhabitants makes you feel small. I grew my water wings at a very early age in the Bahamas, and prior to my first trip diving the Coral Triangle, that was the only place I’d ever dived. While the Bahamas is stunning too, it doesn’t hold a flame to the Coral Triangle.
You can find everything within the triangle. In addition to the incredible marine life, I dove in and around wreckage of WW2 planes, tanks and jeeps, I’ve found undetonated bombs and bullets in Papua New Guinea, and even sat in the seat of a downed Zero fighter plane. Sitting in that seat underwater, imagining what was racing through the mind of the pilot as he was careening towards the ocean was an intense experience.
What encounters stand out from your time diving there?
The most beautiful experiences you have when diving occur when you take your blinders off; they happen when you least expect it. Going into a dive with an open mind and an open eye allows you to see and experience so much more. I’ve had turtles approach me and nestle their big heads into my armpit.
I had a one-on-one encounter with a bottlenose dolphin out in the ocean, where the two of us hovered vertically at a depth of 80 feet, fin-length apart. We floated there, silent, in total curiosity of each other for what seemed like an eternity. At one point I stretched out my arm to scratch the underbelly of this huge dolphin with my left hand.
I still laugh when thinking about this, as I was so lost in the wonder that I forgot I was holding a camera. Thankfully, I remembered my camera and raised it with my right hand while still scratching the dolphin to snap one frame. As if on queue, with the click of the photo the dolphin snapped back into reality, gave one good flip of its tail and reversed, disappearing into the abyss.
Which parts of the Coral Triangle have you found most rewarding for underwater photography and diving?
I have been on boat trips all throughout the Coral Triangle in search of magical opportunities. Within this exploration, I have developed a powerful draw to certain parts of Indonesia, especially Komodo, Raja Ampat and Wakatobi. I have travelled the world, but I always seem to find myself back there, floating around the incredible, color-filled reefs and waters so alive that you’d think you could discover something or someplace never seen before by others.
Are there any photos in the book you find particularly meaningful for the experience behind them?
It is amazing that when I look at my photographs from over the years, I’m immediately transported right back to the moment when I captured the image. From the image alone I am able to remember not only where it was taken, but all the details from the dive – what it was like, what I saw, what the temperature and color of the water were. It prompts literal photographic memory recall. Each one of the chosen photographs that made it into the book holds a special place in my heart – what exists in the photo as a single fleeting moment in time will carry on forever in mine.
What challenges do you encounter working in the underwater environment?
The challenges are plentiful when working underwater, but the most challenging obstacle to me is the light. Light can make or break an image. Light allows you to capture the mood and essence of what is happening in the frame. However, when you look at my art, you will see that a lot of the times, the lighting I’ve chosen might seem incorrect or unnatural, in that it is not the same way that you are used to seeing things. This is exactly my plan. My mission is to create thought provoking work that challenges my viewers’ minds. I’m an underwater abstract photographer, turning the familiar underwater world upside down.
What is it about underwater photography that’s led to you dedicating your art to this specialism?
My passion is my life and my life is my passion. I am constantly thinking of what’s next, where and how. I dream of fantastic underwater scenarios that bend the rules of reality and when I wake up, I try my damndest to recreate those dreams.
Find out more about ‘Chris Leidy: The Coral Triangle’ at assouline.com.