Photographer Creates Abstract Art From Sea Life

Photography by Larry Tackett

“Colors From the Sea,” the newest exhibit at Oglebay Institute Stifel Fine Arts Center in Wheeling, depicts magnificently hued sea creatures magnified up to five times and then enlarged into prints, presenting viewers with abstract, up-close encounters.

“Colors from the Sea” is Paden City native Larry Tackett’s first exhibit of the magnified and enlarged photos of coral reef marine life he shot during more than 6,500 dives in the Indian and Pacific oceans with his late wife, Denise.

Many of the photos from their 30-plus years of diving have been published in calendars, magazines, books and promotional materials. But nobody wanted the close-up shots.

“They don’t really know what they are,” he said with a laugh.

But when a mutual friend put Tackett in touch with OI curator Michael McKowen, McKowen knew he wanted them.

Tackett first showed McKowen his people photos — the land inhabitants of Indonesia and other countries where the dives took place. He then showed him the colorful marine life from the dives. The photos were beautiful, but not unique, McKowen said.

“As soon as he started to show us those (abstract) photos, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s it,” McKowen said, adding that color, texture and pattern top his list of favorite design elements, and Tackett’s photos burst with all three.

McKowen said the abstractness allows viewers to interpret the images however they choose.

“It’s a testament to Larry. He has a great sense of composition, a great sense of design,” McKowen said.

The Stifel exhibit features 60 of Tackett’s mysterious works, 55 of which Tackett printed himself and five of which Oglebay Institute had enlarged. One of those, “Mouth of Anemone” depicts a half-inch by three-quarter-inch section of the animal enlarged to 4 feet by 6 feet, the centerpiece of the second-floor gallery space.

Tackett said it was a thrill to see the hung exhibit; for years, he only had seen the photos on his computer monitor or in small prints.

“I was astounded. It’s really cool,” he said. “And it’s not just because they’re my pictures; it’s just to see the subject matter so big.”

One room on the second floor features two projectors, where visitors can sit in the semi-dark on a soft couch and immerse themselves in vivid, detailed imagery as Tackett’s underwater images silently fade in and out of focus on two walls.

Under the Sea

Tackett’s underwater journey began growing up in Paden City. Inspired by Lloyd Bridges’ “Sea Hunt,” a young Tackett figured with the Ohio River conveniently close, he could learn to scuba dive through a correspondence course advertised in the back of Popular Science. His mother said no.

“My mother was wise beyond her years. I can’t imagine now, if I went in the Ohio River, I would never have come out,” he joked.

Tackett eventually learned to dive — not in the Ohio River but in Summersville Lake. He may never have pursued it if not for his passion for underwater photography, however.

His parents presented him a single-lens reflex camera for Christmas 1973 while he was in graduate school for chemical engineering at West Virginia University. He taught himself everything he could about photography and then became interested in shooting sea creatures.

“I actually learned to dive so I could take the camera underwater,” he said.

Working his first job at Union Carbide in the mid- to late-1970s, he was sent around the country to visit customers, and one February day he landed in Arizona. Attracted by the climate, he asked the client if they were hiring. They were.

A few months later, in 1980, he moved west; and a year and a half after that, he met his future wife, a New York City native and also a diver.

Their adventures began when they became diving instructors in 1983 and one of their students was Dr. George R. Pettit, director of the Arizona State University Cancer Research Institute. He wanted to dive to collect specimens — invertebrates, such as sponges and bryozoans — that he believed had anti-cancer properties.

Tackett saw his opportunity: He asked the researcher if he needed two underwater photographers to document his upcoming trip to Papua New Guinea. He did. They went diving with him; and, upon their return, they got married, sold everything and became a permanent part of Pettit’s crew, Tackett said.

For the next 14 years, they worked underwater for him, living in tents on tropical beaches for months at a time. They visited 12 countries, collecting specimens, taking pictures and seeing the world.

Take Me Home

In the late 1990s, they decided they wanted a solid four walls for shelter, and so they returned to Tackett’s hometown of Paden City.

But the hills of West Virginia couldn’t hold them. From their home base, they formed Above and Below Photography and led groups of people from all over the world on one- and two-week dive tours mainly in Indonesia, Thailand and southern Australia. The eastern half of Indonesia, Tackett said, is his favorite spot. There is a triangular area of ocean that boasts “the greatest marine species diversity of any place on Earth,” he said.

In the 2000s, they wrote articles and sold their photographs to books, magazines and calendars. They co-authored a book, “Reef Life, Natural History and Behaviors of Marine Fishes and Invertebrates,” published in 2002. Tackett’s second book, “Underwater Photography, A Guide to Creative Techniques and Essential Equipment,” was published in 2005. Their work has been featured in many magazines and in BBC and National Geographic television specials.

Asked if they ever encountered dangerous situations above or below the water, Tackett said “not really.” In their more than 6,500 dives, their adventures came in the form of meeting new people and enjoying the natural beauty of their quarry; there were no shark scares or life-threatening typhoons, Tackett said. The sharks, he said, avoid humans unless baited; and, devastating storms strike farther north or south of their destinations, which are within 1,000 miles of the equator.

Tackett said his close-up shots are the result of experimenting with a macro lens and SLR accessories on slow dive days. If a dive wasn’t particularly fruitful, he didn’t want to waste the slide film, so he shot little sections of this and that. Some of the bits he photographed are no bigger than a postage stamp.

“We liked them. They’re fun to look at. They’re fun to put in front of people and say, ‘What is it?'” he said.

Hippocampus Denise

The Stifel exhibit also includes a short video the couple produced, titled “The Littlest Seahorse.” Denise Tackett discovered a new species of pygmy sea horse in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. The seahorse is the smallest in the world and is named for her, Hippocampus Denise. The video documents the creatures and shows a male pygmy seahorse giving birth.

About 10 years ago, Denise Tackett was diagnosed with lung cancer, bringing their traveling to a halt. Just prior to that, Larry Tackett had taken a job as campus dean with West Virginia Northern Community College. Sick for more than two years, Denise spent five years in remission before the cancer returned. She died in February 2015.

Tackett has returned to Indonesia twice since then, once to visit friends, dive and sprinkle his wife’s ashes at a favorite dive spot. He went back last year to do more underwater photography. In December, he joined the WVNCC Wheeling campus as vice president of economic and workforce development. The college supported the “Mouth of Anenome” enlargement and the slide show.

Pettit, by the way, has found some medical uses for components of the creatures he collected, some of which are used for cancer treatment. He is in his 80s and still director of the institute, Tackett said.

Exhibit Details

“Colors From the Sea” is on display through April 14. Stifel hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. The Stifel Center is located at 1330 National Road. The exhibit is sponsored by United Bank.

In conjunction with the exhibit, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Tackett will present a free program, open to the public, on the photography and printing processes he used.

Tackett also is teaching a fine art photo printing class from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on four Saturdays beginning this Saturday. A six-week class, Intro to PhotoShop, will begin March 30 and meet from 6-9 p.m. Thursdays. For information or to register, visit or call 304-242-7700.