Art has the power to transport us to places we will never go. California-based photographer Cheryl Walsh creates dreamlike portraits using submerged models as her subjects, and the results are breathtaking. Geek & Sundry took a few moments of her time to discuss the process behind these unique works of art.
“I don’t shoot underwater to get an underwater photograph. I shoot underwater because it’s where I feel safe,” Walsh says. “My work comes from a place of weakness, not strength. There is a certain loveliness to that, I think, making something beautiful out of a limitation.”
“At the bottom of my pool it’s quite and solitary, everything moves in slow motion, the colors are more intense, the light is less so, and no one can bother me. The set of a photoshoot can be a horrible place to feel creative: too many people and lights and gear and talking and moving things around behind you and it’s all just too much. The very first time I took a photo underwater, I knew that was the place for me to be.”
Understandably, quite a lot of work goes into each of Walsh’s photos. Aside from at least an hour of set-up arranging backdrops and other equipment in the pool, Cheryl also takes time to sit down and with her models to make sure that they understand what they’re getting into. “They need to have confidence in what they are doing, be poised and graceful, relaxed and truly invested emotionally in what we are doing,” she says. After the shoot itself, Cheryl goes through her shots with Adobe Lightroom to cull her selects, and then Photoshop to add other finishing touches. Overall, each image takes an average of a full day to finish, and that’s on top of the years of learning and practice to get there.
Since all of her work is done in a very controlled environment with a safety person on site, there’s never the fear of anyone drowning. Cheryl herself wears heavy weights on her body to keep her at the bottom of the pool while shooting, but her models must be able to hold their poses underwater without any outside help. Models also need to take into account things that you don’t normally think of on a shoot, like breathing or even just keeping your eyes open. “This is both a science and an art – you can’t have one without the other,” Cheryl says. “It took me years to figure out the exact science so that I could simply focus on the art. Now that I have it all dialed in it’s just a dream come true…”
And people have definitely taken notice of Cheryl’s art. This past spring, she won the First Place Grand Award in WPPI Print Competition’s Creative Division. “It’s basically the Academy Award for what I do. I still can’t get over it,” she says. “I’m proud that I have set very specific goals, worked hard, attained those goals and even surpassed some. I am naturally artistic but not naturally talented, however I am a very driven hard worker, and I’ll take that over talent any day.”
With the summer months coming to an end here in California, we asked Cheryl what she has lined up for the future. “I’m very excited to have purchased a really good wetsuit recently so I will be able to shoot though the cold water season working with professional underwater models who can tolerate it well,” she said, in addition to noting that she’ll be working on several collaborative projects with intertwining storylines.
While she loves creating art, she’s also looking to get into the business of selling her images. “Creating art and selling art are two very different skill sets and developing a new skill set takes time, something I don’t have an extra abundance of. I’ve got to figure out how to turn that into a strength.”