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Underwater photographer's work on display at PHCC

Film has given way to digital. The work of darkrooms is now done on desktops.

But to this day, the key piece of equipment in Burton McNeely's photo bag is the plexiglass camera casing that he custom built in 1968 so he could take pictures underwater.

Lens controls are on the left. Trigger is on the right. And McNeely can manipulate the settings without taking his eye off the viewfinder — so he never misses his shot.

Through the half-inch thick window of the shoebox-sized casing, McNeely has captured countless images of life on — and under — the water, sometimes with diffuse light, never with distortion. And after 40 years, he still swears by his plexiglass creation.

"It's still in use today," said McNeely, 83. "I just had to convert it to use it for digital."

Thanks in part to that casing, McNeely carved a lucrative niche for himself as an underwater photographer.

From the 1960s to the mid 1970s, he covered hurricanes and shot sharks among his many assignments for Life and National Geographic magazines. Then in the late 1970s, he went into advertising, snapping images for travel posters and waterski ads.

"It was a specialty of mine," McNeely said of his pursuit of underwater photography. And with few other photographers able to do it, "that's what opened the doors for me."

About 30 selections from his 45-year career will be on display through Oct. 4 at the Pasco-Hernando Community College Art Gallery.

Among the more tranquil aquatic images is Ocean Encounter, a dreamy shot of a female diver swimming with the dolphins off the coast of the Bahamas.

A poster for TWA shows a couple running along a shallow shore with a coconut tree in the background. Another ad for St. Vincent Island shows a volcanic sunset against a gray sky, an image McNeely described as "beautiful, gorgeous, unreal."

But there are reminders elsewhere in the exhibit that nature isn't always a passive beauty. A black-and-white photo from 1965 shows the storm surge from Hurricane Betsy sending waves crashing into the second stories of South Florida's waterfront hotels.

McNeely thought of that photo when the 2004 tsunami devastated Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of southeast and south Asia. People then wondered what a tsunami would look like on America's shores.

"This picture here would give someone an idea — that's just the storm surge from a hurricane," said McNeely, who titled his picture Tsunami in Miami.

The Land O'Lakes resident had a more personal brush with a natural disaster four years ago, when Hurricane Jeanne tore open the roof of his film lab at Creative Color in Tampa. Thousands of dollars in photo processing equipment and supplies were lost.

"It damn-near wiped me out," McNeely said. "It was a life-changing thing for me as a person."

He has been rebuilding the business, a specialty lab that creates wall graphics, trade show displays and other commercial images. But he hopes to sell it so he can get back to shooting pictures. He was among the 75 original photographers who started the stock photo service in 1974 that ultimately became Getty Images, and he'd like to get back to taking stock pictures.

McNeely can't complain about a lifetime spent on beaches and boats. But picking a favorite image?

"I like them all because I've enjoyed all the stuff I do," McNeely said.

>>If you go

Photography exhibit

What: Creative Color Photography, a collection of works by Burton McNeely.

Where: Pasco-Hernando Community College Art Gallery at the Alric Pottberg Library, 10230 Ridge Road, New Port Richey.

When: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, through Oct. 4.

Tickets: Free

Underwater photographer's work on display at PHCC 09/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 12:34pm]
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