This is a guest blog by photographer Elena Hernandez from Dallas, Texas. As a professional photographer for the past 30 years, Elena has been through various evolutions in fine tuning her craft. In the beginning, her passion was in the purity of photojournalism and worked as a freelance photographer for several local newspapers for a few years. Evolving into commercial work then transitioning into school and wedding photography. Her journey has led her into seeking out the new ways to stay creative and bring her clients into the evolution of her vision and art. Elena has won various awards such as the Fuji Masterpiece Awards to Kodak Gallery Awards. She earned her Masters of Photography degree, Craftsmen and Certification degrees from Professional Photographers of America. She is one of only a a handful of Latin women to have those degrees. I am extremely honored to have her pen some thoughts about underwater photography.
“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera” – Yousuf Karsh
What causes a person to be inspired to go beyond what is normal into the extraordinary? For some, it is Love. For some, it is Boredom. Others might find it is because they are in a situation that demands change. I found myself one day needing a change. I needed to go beyond my comfort zone and do something totally foreign to me. I needed to take a leap into my art and do a ”free fall” of sorts. I know it is scary to venture out into the unknown. Yet, it is also exciting …
“What if I tried to shoot an underwater portrait session? What would I do to go about making that happen?”
One night, in 1999, I was having a drink with a friend named Rex, and we were discussing “what if’s”… What is the one thing in photography that I have not done that I would like to? I mentioned that I attended a PPA convention one year, and met Gigi Clark and she had done some lovely underwater images of brides that reminded me of a book I had called “Pool Light”. By an incredible photographer by the name of Howard Schatz. It was fine art fashion portraiture underwater. I mentioned I would love to be able to do that someday. Then the thought occurred to me …”What if I tried to shoot an underwater portrait session? What would I do to go about making that happen?”
So began my quest to do something different and unique that was challenging and very VERY out of my comfort zone. Just so you know, there is nothing new in photography that has not been done before when photography was in it’s infancy. Before Howard Schatz tried to photograph models underwater, there was a woman photographer by the name of Toni Frissell who was a society/fashion photographer in the 1920’s who shot for Vogue and the New yorker. Her images were very glamorous and one in particular that really excited me was shot in Florida, underwater of a model for a fashion shoot. If you get a chance, look up Toni Frissell. Here is the image below:
Keep in mind, this is before they invented cool underwater housings and cameras. She probably shot this inside of a float-able fish tank and probably shot this with herself being underwater and the camera inside that fish tank contraption just barely below the surface. There is no real data about how or with what this is done with, but just looking at this image made me try to figure out those questions.
As luck would have it, I had a woman ask me to photograph her nude indoors then outdoors. She just got some new ‘upgrades’ if you know what I mean. I then asked her if it would be possible to do an experimental underwater session at the end of the session and that if she did not like those images she did not have to purchase them. She agreed.
Now I was committed to a project I knew nothing about. Zilch. Nada. Zero.
I figured that I would ask a fellow photographer friend, if I could borrow his underwater Nikonos camera to play around with. He said “Sure, but it has not been used in years and I think the O ring is leaking”… I said to myself: “Hmm what is an O ring?” I later found out that it is a rubber piece that keeps the camera from flooding with water …(we’ll get to how I found that out later.)
I wanted to test the camera out so I bought some 35 mm film and went to a pool and immersed the camera underwater and shot in broad daylight.
Four things I noticed:
1) The camera underwater magnifies things.
2) I do not like the squiggly lines that happen in broad daylight.
3) Everything is off color blue.
4) This is a fixed focal length lens so there is no room to move around.
I decided to shoot at night.
I then also decided to immerse my $300 dollar black muslin into the pool to create a dynamic contrast that I felt this type of photography needed. (the chlorine bleached my lovely background. don’t ruin a perfectly lovely background like I did.)
One thing I make clear is safety. We get in and out on one side and the electronics are on the other side.
Once I got the film back, I was really excited about this upcoming session because the images, even though they were kinda blue, looked really magical. The day came. We photographed indoors and then outdoors. I had to have two assistants with me as a “look out” for the outdoor session, because all of a sudden men were tromping in the woods where I was photographing this nude woman. I photographed those images very quickly. By the time we got back to the studio it was dark. It was great that I had a private pool to work in and so the nudes were not observed by anyone but my assistants and myself.
I lit it with 2 Photogenic lights with strip soft-boxes on the one side of the pool. I slaved the lights. I wanted a direction for the lighting and so all the electronics are on one side of the pool. One thing I make clear is safety. We get in and out on one side and the electronics are on the other side. I was halfway through the session when all of a sudden the lights were not firing. There was a short in the camera’s flash system. So I went to plan B. I shot Bulb open and lifted my hand out of the water so that I could have the assistant trigger the lights manually. The problem was…when I lifted my hand out of the water it made me unbalanced and as a big girl … my butt kept floating up to the surface … (I know laugh all you want it was funny.)
My second assistant then got into the water to hold me under the surface … (lesson number two was to get a weight belt). Once I was finished with the session she went home. I tried to get the film out of the Nikonos and realized the camera was flooded slightly. (sigh … remember the O ring issue?) I immediately took the underwater roll to the lab and they processed it that night. I only lost about five images but the rest were fine. One image in particular was exceptional. I titled it “Free Fall.” It hung at PPA and was published into the showcase collection book.
This was a very difficult session with all of Murphy’s Laws coming into play but I am so glad I tried. I would rather try and fail than go through life saying “would have, could have, should have.”
From this one session, I started to get more people requesting underwater imagery. Then my clients started to get more creative with me in the final Art Pieces. I raised my prices for those sessions because they were so labor intensive.
I also learned something important about myself and that is I am tenacious … I want to thank those pioneers who inspired me to want to be different … I hope that what ever idea or dream you might have that you do not give it up no matter what the challenges.
Elena is on Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to connect with her. And you should know that she and I would greatly value your comments below. Hit her up questions about what she did and why? She may be able to give you more pointers on how to get started on photographing underwater.
What a great art form and opportunity to see people as they could be. Gravity changes everything about us and there is something very peaceful about someone who isn't enslaved to it. Love your work Elena.
Juan L. Gonzalez says
I just looked at the images and I can't stop. I know I need to read abou the whole concept. This is so amazing and one of my dreams to be able to do. Thank you for sharing this priceless experience with us all. Elena, thank you for being there for all of us all.
Elena Hernandez says
Thank you Peter & Juan…This is only my second time writing as a guest blogger (the first was MEI500.com for Skip Cohen) and it was an honor that Seshu asked me to write about my passion- ‘underwater fine art’. I totally agree that lack of Gravity changes everything about us … there is a sensuousness that happens under the water that can’t really be explained in the words i have written here but suffice it to say that I feel it is magical
Elena, you are just fantastic!! LMAO at the comments about being held down by the assistant lol love anyone who can laugh at themselves like you do!!! Your images are exceptional and while I know a lot about you I've never heard you explain how you do your underwater work before, VERY COOL!!
Thank you for being who you are. I just stumbled across your photography and am so touch and inspired by its beauty. Thank you Thank you Thank you again
Jen Turner says
Elena, wonderful, insightful article. Thanks for sharing the beauty of your images and your inspirations, can't wait to hear more from you!
Esther Chan says
Elena, what a beautiful collection of images! You are tenacious and gifted, and by sharing with us your creative process I am encouraged and empowered to move forward following my own ideas & dreams. Thank you and I can't wait to see more of your work.
Derryl Barnes says
Hey E, my friend of forever I have always admired your Photographic talent, you were born to be a photographer. I remember when you started the underwater portraits, as one of the pioneers I think you brought it to the forefront along with the digital technology and now more photographers have ventured and your first images are still timeless and breathtaking! And it dosn't stop there your Weddings and Portraits are exceptional as well. I hope you get to share more with the world.
Wow, those images are amazing! Your story is so inspiring, thanks for sharing it!
Thank you for your wonderful comments. I may be doing a seminar in CT in July will keep you posted through Seshu.
Scott Webb says
Underwater photography is really beautiful and elegant – becoming super artistic. I don’t even want to think about the cost of gear and prep for the shoot. I definitely appreciate how great it looks though! While this isn’t my dream to do, it’s great to browse and It may grow on my to want to try sometime.