Willard R. Culver, 87, a pioneer in color photography for the National Geographic magazine who in 1953 made the first underwater color photographs of the Chesapeake Bay from a submersible compartment called an "aquascope," died Feb. 8 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after a heart attack.
Mr. Culver, a resident of Washington, was on the National Geographic staff for 25 years before his retirement in 1958 and he was generally recognized as a expert in the early process of making color prints. The November 1938 issue of the magazine published 25 of his color prints of cats, taken with a synchronized photoflash, the first such series ever published.
His underwater photographs of the Chesapeake Bay appeared in the National Geographic in May 1955, more than a year after Mr. Culver had completed an underwater diving expedition in the aquascope off Gwynn's Island near the Virginia Capes that lasted intermittently for six months.
He worked mostly at night to escape the reflection of the sun's rays on the plethora of marine life and underwater debris in the bay, and he made his pictures with the assistance of high-powered photographic lights attached to the aquascope, a 2,700-pound, horizontal tank that he and a colleague designed specifically for their project.
Mr. Culver's photographs were among the first successful pictures to be made of marine life in a northern body of water where, unlike in the tropics, the lack of clarity tends to impede vision and makes photography difficult.
His career with National Geographic took him to Paris and Switzerland and to every state in the union but the state of Washington, and his subjects ranged from steel mills to cotton fields. Typically, he spent summers on assignment with his wife and sons, sometimes in the mountains of Wyoming and sometimes in the desert Southwest. In 1949 he won the White House News Photographers Association's first prize for color photography.
Mr. Culver took his family to Florida's Everglades one year and spent an entire summer photographing a Seminole Indian as he carved a dugout canoe from a log.
He turned 60 in 1968 and tried retirement. He did not like it and almost immediately went back to work as an assistant clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals here. In 1970 he retired again.
Born in Ellendale, Del., Mr. Culver was a newspaper photographer in Baltimore before joining National Geographic.
His voyage to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay originated with Gilbert Klingel of Randallstown, Md., who wrote a book contrasting the murkiness of the water at the bottom of the bay to the light and clarity one finds at similar depths in the tropics. The book caught the attention of officials at National Geographic and Mr. Culver and Klingel were commissioned to design a device that would permit a submarine photographic expedition of the bay.
In time they produced the aquascope, a seven-foot-long, five-foot-wide, 17 1/2 inches high compartment that allowed Mr. Culver to lie on his stomach and photograph marine life through a plexiglass window. It was carried along the water between two rafts. When it was lowered to the bottom, it received its oxygen through a garden hose. National Geographic staffers sometimes called it "Culver's Coffin."
But beginning in March 1953, Mr. Culver and Klingel began their work at the bottom of the bay. Mr. Culver often said he was one of the few, if not the only man, to photograph the bottom side of a flounder.
Their location, off Gwynn's Island, placed them near the migratory routes of a rich variety of marine life, and Mr. Culver made pictures of the larval worms, crustaceans, oysters, crabs and the marine vegetables that sustain them. He also photographed rare creatures such as the horned blenny, an odd little creature only a few inches long that lives within an empty oyster shell.
"I have photographed babies and butterflies and battleships," observed Mr. Culver at the time. "But never a blenny."
Survivors include his wife, Mary Libbey Culver of Washington; two sons, Willard A., of Gaithersburg and Victor R., of Richardson, Tex., and four grandchildren.