Knowing that light travels slower in water than air is the first step toward understanding the magic behind the luminous photography of Christy Lee Rogers. Rogers is a photographer and filmmaker from the island of Oahu, Hawaii. In her hands the play of light, water, color, movement and optics combine in elegant underwater photographs. Her new series, Odyssey, explores the quiet battle between spirit and flesh, depicting inner adventures and couplings of mythological figures drenched in color and frozen in time. Rogers’ methods have long been as mysterious as her photography, but for the first time she is willing to share them here.
Rogers has been experimenting and pursuing this process for over seven years. All of her images are created in camera and not by the use of post-production manipulation. Instead she relies on the elegant physics of water and light to aid in the creation of her other- worldly images, employing the light deviation between a body of water and the air above it. With refraction as the foundation for her work, Rogers has succeeded in crafting unique and mysterious images. This mechanism, which she has explored tirelessly, is deceptively simple: light moves more quickly through air than water.
Light bends when it passes from a substance of one density into a substance of a different density—this is called refraction. Rainbows are caused by refraction and reflection of the sun’s rays in drops of rain. Have you ever tried swimming down to the bottom of a pool to retrieve something and realized that it was not where it appeared to be from above? What you’re experiencing is refraction.
Rogers utilizes this phenomenon of light as it passes from the air, which has a lower optical density, into the water, with a higher optical density. In air light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, but in water light travels only about 140,000 miles per second. She then causes subtle motions in the layers of the water or with her subject to create her effect. There is a fine line between disaster and perfection. If used correctly these effects can produce fantastic optical illusions: intensification of colors, blurring, blending and a painting-like final image. “I feel like a magician, except I’m not trying to trick or fool people but to open their minds to something that’s not always visible to the eye.” The combination of body and wind movement increases the volatility of an already fragile environment. Rogers accounts for this chaos and captures it in these moving, striking images.
As light changes medium, its angle changes and its velocity decreases or increases with fascinating consequences. Rogers’ mastery of this phenomenon allows her to create sun-dappled figures af loat in dim waters, and figures whose clothes take on a Baroque complexity and vibrancy. Through this very sensitive process, she has found a myriad of ways to create images, manipulating only water depth, light and movement. Despite the highly technical source of the effect, Rogers is only interested in the science insofar as it allows her to express herself through her art. “It’s a means to an end. I’m interested in whatever allows me to produce my vision, and I had to search for and perfect a method that would allow me to deliver the images I had already conceived. But it had to be a way that wouldn’t dilute them or concede to the limitations of reality.”
With two major bodies of work completed, Rogers describes her initial intentions for the work: the ideas which set her on this path. She wanted to express a sense of wonder and tranquility, to provide some solace for people from their occasionally hectic and relentless lives. These motifs appear throughout her oeuvre. Her latest series has yet to be shown in its entirety. It’s quite possible that Odyssey is it, the body of work that will complete her own personal Odyssey.
In an art world seemingly saturated with post-modern, self-aware, or process-based work, it is refreshing to meet an artist who believes in art’s power to penetrate reality and inspire us, a Classical idea, which is at the core of the work. Rogers firmly and wonderfully believes that beauty can change man.
In order to achieve a sort of photographic mise-en- scène, she had to find a new way to create her images. They couldn’t be fictitious, as that would undermine her intent to demonstrate that there are still mysterious, impossibly beautiful things on Earth—not solely in our imaginations. The work of a true artist lies in manifesting their inner world externally. To accomplish this she turned to water. “It became an obsession of mine to communicate through my art that there was more to man than a body controlled by the peculiar nature of the physical universe; that he or she was more capable than ever imagined. I dedicated most of my time to conceptualizing and planning how to communicate that message.”
To accurately execute her latest body of work Odyssey, Rogers started by keeping notes of her ideas and inspirations in notebooks that travelled with her wherever she went. During this period she scoured the streets, beaches, forests and thrift shops for props that would help animate her vision. She also began to search for subjects. She met with many artists, musicians, dancers and selected a group for their authenticity, their willingness to improvise and experiment and for the way they inspired her to do the same.
Months of planning and sketching would pass before she felt prepared for her first Odyssey experiment. For this series Rogers used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, depending on the shoot. Working alone, she employed halogen spotlights and any available light sources from the pool and above.
“I need to work alone with my subject, in peace and quiet with no restraints or distractions. The water is distracting enough and the process requires total focus.” Rogers typically spends three to five hours with her subjects, starting by preparing them for the technical difficulties of performing underwater, lightly discussing her process beforehand since there is very little time for her subjects to talk once the shoot has begun, and most importantly, ensuring that her subjects are relaxed and ready to open up. “I don’t give too much instruction because I don’t want to overwhelm them. I want them to experience the beautiful weightlessness of the water and to react naturally.”
Each novel moment that her subject encounters during their exploration of the new environment is an opportunity for Rogers to capture the portrait that she’s been seeking. With a carload of props and fabrics, Rogers experiments with every possible object she can find, including tree branches, vines, costumes, masks, flags, knives, body paints, ropes, yarn, Christmas tinsel, hula hoops and even toy sharks. “Each color and prop, as simple as it may be, is an integral part of my character’s story.”
Only a visionary such as Rogers could take refraction as a point of departure and from it create such evocative work. The unique environment, trusting models and ancient mythology coalesce into these tremendously powerful photographs. Her endless ingenuity has produced images which are distinctly her own and a style which accentuates the potency of her work.
Product Resources: Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III; Computer: Apple MacBook Pro; Software: Adobe Photoshop CS3, Canon Digital Photo Professional Software.