The title says it all. Mallory Morrison is indeed an underwater fashion photographer www.mallorymorrison.com. Her work is so inventive and cutting edge and she seamlessly combines artistry and commercialism. In short, she pleases both herself and clients. What’s she about? Check out our chat and find out ...
MICHAEL: Hi Mallory, Your work is astounding. First of all, How on earth do you photograph people (women) underwater? Are you underwater too? How does that work? I would think the lighting alone would be a nightmare, not to mention getting your subjects to hold their breath long enough. Is this Photoshop?
MALLORY: Thanks Michael. It is a challenge shooting people underwater, but that is what makes it so rewarding. I am underwater while shooting, as are my assistants. I count down, 3, 2, 1 and then we all go under. We take a few moments to all get situated and I shoot away for about 15-20 seconds and we come back up. I review the images, talk to the model and tell her what I would like her to do differently, tell her what she is doing right, and we go again. I explain very thoroughly at the beginning of each different look/setup what I would like her to do. Some things naturally need to change or evolve, and sometimes she forgets a few things, so each time we come up, I replay the ‘rules’ if you will - the list of “to dos.”
MICHAEL: And the lighting?
MALLORY: The lighting is controlled by my assistants. Each light is hand held. I have two lights and two assistants. One assistant is on the front light and one is on the rim/backlight. I love back lighting in the water; it gives it such energy and spark. They have a range of power, like a monoblock studio strobe. I modify the light, but make a softbox out of reflector for the front light. These lights are designed to shoot fish, not people, so I have to modify a few things to make it look like studio lighting. Photoshop plays a big role in my work, but not as a ‘fix-it’ tool, rather a tool to push what I captured to the next level. I shoot in an 8 foot deep pool, but you wouldn’t know it from my images. I like the control I have with a smaller pool, but I like the visual effect of seeing depth in the pool in the finished image.
MICHAEL: When and how did you get inspired to do this? Also, in some of the pieces, the water seems like a metaphor.
MALLORY: I found underwater when I was in photo school at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. They had a pool that students could use. My friend was into surf photography. I was shooting dancers in the studio and getting very frustrated with the limits of the cold, concrete space. All of these elements came together in my head one day and I thought about putting dancers in the pool and using my friend’s gear. After I tried it once, I was hooked. I often use the surface of the water as a metaphor. A metaphor for what? It’s not always the same. It represents a struggle, a wall, a pass through point, a point of reference or a point of confusion. It doesn’t represent the ‘glass ceiling’. I don’t mean to shoot only women to show our struggle in a man’s world. It is more portraits of me and what I am feeling. Sometimes it seems like achieving something should be so straight forward, ‘just come up to the surface’, but often it won’t let me through or it only leads to another surface to reach towards. I often put a double of the surface on the bottom of my images. I like using the surface as walls to build a space or a room. I also shoot images in a certain way so that I can flip them upside down or on their side without our minds thinking something is wrong. At least, not right away. This creates a completely new space.
MICHAEL: I love the beach and the ocean and for me, water always means God and infinity. Does water have any other meaning for you outside of your work? Other than sustenance, of course.
MALLORY: Well, there are different types of water for me. There is the pool and there is the ocean. The pool has always been a calm and freeing place to be for me. I have never been a very strong swimmer, but I still feel comfortable in a pool. As a dancer, I feel like I can move in a totally new way and it just feels so wonderful to be weightless. The ocean on the other hand, is a fear of mine. I don’t scuba dive for a few reasons: 1. I have a hard time not freaking out about air supply and 2. Sharks, giant squid, and the general infinite deep of the ocean freaks me out! I know I’m the biggest contradiction, but there it is. I love boats and the aquarium, but I also like the separation both have from actually being in the water. I have a fear of infinite space and not knowing where the ground is. I think it comes from my fear of heights. It’s not a vertigo issue, it’s more about being far from the ground. When you don’t know where the ground is, the mind can only imagine. So, my work with water in the pool is both a place where I feel safe and I am pushing myself to face some fears. I now use air supply when I’m working on video jobs, but only in the pool. I might build up the courage to get certified soon. We shall see.
MICHAEL: The atmosphere of the water seems to heighten the beauty of the models. What model is going to turn down being photographed in such an intriguing way? Only if they can't swim!
MALLORY: Well, actually, faces look pretty different underwater. Without the ‘effect’ that gravity has, faces tend to fill up and out. So, I have to be careful with how I pick my models. They need to have the right face shape that will translate well underwater. My most challenging shoots are where the model is the client. I shot a singer and her image is her face. Pictures of her need to look like her. It was just one more element to think about and make work! It ended up working, but I was limited to much fewer image possibilities. Most models are very excited to do underwater shoots. I am usually the one that says no between us. Since it is such a fun, different idea, models are excited to have something new in their book. I am able to test with more experienced models because it is underwater. The challenge is finding the models that work for all of my specifications.
MICHAEL: Apart from pleasing the client, what are the differences between your own art work and your commercial work? Or is there a difference?
MALLORY: There is a difference. It comes down to intention. With the commercial work, the intention is selling a product. My commercial work is more straightforward. It is more posed and clean with my models using ‘fashion faces’ or smiling. I use the water environment as a tool for posing and to create dynamic looking imagery. When I’m shooting fine art work, that’s when the surface as a metaphor comes in. My personal work has more room for interpretation; it takes more time to figure out what is going on. It is meant to be looked at for a while. There is usually more of a serious emotional tone with my fine art work and the image design is looser and sometimes messy. I hope to create a strong emotional response with my fine art work.
MICHAEL: Many, if not most artists abhor the notion of combining art and commerce or art and commercialism, which may partly explain why only a few like Warhol, Koons, Hirst, etc., achieved "commercial success." What do you think about this?
MALLORY: I think it makes logical sense, as a business minded person, to work in both worlds. On the other hand, I understand that many artists see their ideas separate from the commercial world. I’m on the fence between both mindsets and I am still figuring things out. I believe that fine artists can make the leap into the commercial world. I think it is harder to successfully transition from being a commercial shooter to a fine artist. That being said, once the intention is there, I think it’s just a matter of that individual artist being creatively successful at working in both arenas. Artists have been working in both arenas for ages. Many renowned artists throughout history like Botticelli, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Sargent, all created their most famous work as commissions which are now viewed in museums. It was a way to support themselves and in some cases, a way to express themselves. It is nothing new that artists may work for someone else in order to make a living. I know commissions and commercial work can be different, but the artist’s intention is similar - they wouldn’t have done that work on their own. They needed the financial incentive or backing to do the work. From my personal experience, I like both worlds and find them both challenging and rewarding. I started as a fine artist and added the commercial element. I am often hired commercially because of my fine art work in my portfolio. Advertisers and magazines want to know that you are thinking and that you have something to say. Something to bring to the table besides a technical skill set. My commercial work has in turn allowed me financially to pursue my personal work. It’s really a yin-yang relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t work commercially for the paycheck alone. I like the exposure of my work to ‘the masses’, and ability to collaborate with advertising creatives. The finished work is something I wouldn’t or even couldn’t have created on my own. The way I see it, if I am creatively fulfilled and can support myself, I am successful as a photographic artist.
MICHAEL: How did you become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family? I mean, when you were growing up, did you imagine yourself doing what you're doing now?
MALLORY: I have always been artistically inclined. My mom is a wonderful writer and generally a very creative person. My dad is a hobbyist photographer. He taught me the basics of exposure/composition and was my first photography teacher. I always knew I was going to be doing something creative, but I never thought I would be shooting underwater. As explained earlier about my issues with the ocean and water, it comes as a surprise still to this day that I do this for a living. It was an evolution for me. I was into sculpting in high school. It wasn’t until college that I really pursued photography as something more than a hobby. I took my first class and I was hooked. I loved the dark room, the magic of images coming up in the developer, the smells, which I know are terrible for you! Even now that the process has changed to digital, I still feel that there is something magical about it.
MICHAEL: Isn't amazing how the art world has embraced photography now? Some of the larger art fairs have absorbed the smaller photography fairs. I see so much cool photography out there now.
MALLORY: Yes, I remember in college, when digital photography was just starting to get popular. It was not 'real' art. Now that the quality level can compete with film and it is more widely used by artists, it has been absorbed as 'real'. There is so much you can do with the digital medium now. It is only natural that creative minds are finding ways to push the limits to create amazing work.
MICHAEL: Finally Mallory, Will you continue to do underwater photography indefinitely? Is there some other concept you're planning? Also, what message do you want people to get from your body of work?
MALLORY: I will shoot underwater for as long as it interests me. So far, I don’t believe I am anywhere close to being bored and it has been five years. I am starting to work on an ‘Air’ portfolio to round out my portfolio. I have been getting requests for studio shots that resemble the movement that I have in my underwater images. As I work on that, I am sure I will get lots of ideas for underwater. It is creatively helpful for me to work on a few projects at once. It keeps the mind fresh. I am also starting to work with underwater video and that is a whole other world to explore, so I see myself working in this field for some time. I want to transport the viewer to another place. It is unreal, yet you can picture yourself there. You can almost feel it. This goes for both my conceptual and commercial work. I like to think of it like a good book- you can escape there and it can bring a sense of mystery, playfulness, childlike curiosity, and release from your reality. I invite viewers to find themselves in my imagination.
MICHAEL: Well, thank you very much Mallory. This has really been fun.
MALLORY: Great! Thanks for doing the interview. You asked me some tough questions and I had to think about them for a bit. A lot of your questions were new ones for me. You got me thinking. Thank you.
Check out Mallory’s cool, cutting edge work at www.mallorymorrison.com.