Liquid Light

by Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler

Mallory Morrison

November 01, 2010 — We’ve all had dreams of floating through a surreal space, moving our limbs slowly through a viscous, resistant material that makes every step a slow motion leap, every movement a prolonged gesture. The masterful underwater photography of Mallory Morrison is reminiscent of those calm, suspended dreams, but the final imagery belies the effort, skill and coordination that each of these surreal images requires.

Morrison is the director of her own fantasy wonderland, working with the environment, lighting, assistants, make-up artists and models in a coordinated effort to craft unique photographs that look and feel effortless. It is her ability to bring all of these elements together that has earned Morrison the respect of being considered a master underwater photographer, and the unique approach of conducting fashion shoots underwater sets her apart from other modern photographers in both underwater photography and fashion.

Morrison is a gifted fashion, beauty and dance photographer in any circumstance, but the element that most distinguishes Morrison from her peers is the fact that she is comfortable and gifted with underwater shooting as well. “I only shoot underwater if the concept makes sense for underwater. If I have an idea, I do go through the process of ‘Would this make sense underwater? Would this enhance it underwater? Or does it really make sense to do something in the studio, or on location on land?’ ”

When she decides a subject or concept lends itself to her niche, working in an indoor pool allows her to craft images that would otherwise be impossible and lets the bizarre and entrancing mood of the fluid medium elevate her subjects beyond normal representation.

She has to use a specialized housing around her DSLR, and be able to frame, anticipate and time each shot perfectly, working seamlessly while holding her breath and sinking with a weight belt. The fact that she is working in a pool doesn’t change the way she approaches her craft—there are just a few more variables to juggle. She understands that working in such a different environment can lead to a loss of methodology if you aren’t careful. “There are so many photographers who lose sight of their technique; they get overwhelmed with the underwater idea,” Morrison explains. But Morrison doesn’t think about the novelty of the medium, but instead concentrates on her image. “I basically think of it not like I’m underwater,” she continues. “It’s more like I shoot in a water studio—in an antigravity studio.”

With that approach, Morrison opens up her underwater photography to all of the craft, skill, technique and control that she would apply in any other shoot—from on-land location fashion to studio dance portraits. Her main concerns can’t change from one arena to the next, so she ensures that she is focusing on the whole picture, and working with her team to get the shots.

As with any photograph, lighting can make or break the image. When shooting underwater, the same is true; it’s just that the light itself needs to be handled a little differently. “Understanding what light is doing underwater is not that much different than land,” she shrugs modestly, but for Morrison, there are no C-stands to hold strobes or booms to balance hair lights. In these images, every light is held by someone, either on-camera by Morrison herself, or off-axis by an assistant. If she wants a three-light setup, she needs two assistants who are not only comfortable getting wet, but that also can understand and interpret Morrison’s concept for the shoot and apply the lighting accordingly.

Understandably, communication underwater is difficult at best, making the connection and trust in her assistants that much more important. Most often, though, she is careful to see what light is present in the situation before she tries to modify it, utilizing natural conditions to the best of her ability. “I’m trying to grab that ambient. I try, even with regular fashion work, to really work with the ambient light, matching ambient light levels with flash.” The resulting balance creates an ideal playground for the subjects to interact with the medium, creating opportunities for these playful, elegant and mesmerizing images.

Yet, no matter how perfect the lighting and how competent the photographer, the subjects have to be confident that they can safely perform in such an unusual setting without compromising the standards Morrison has set for her images. To accomplish this Morrison meets with her models, make-up artists and stylists in her home to prepare them for the day’s shoot. She talks everyone through the process that she has come to know so well. She has picked up her own tricks of the cosmetics trade, which she freely shares with trusted professionals to get the right polished, glamorous look. With oil-based foundation and colors and Morrison’s trusting direction, her gifted make-up artists craft high fashion looks that won’t rinse away when the models dive below the surface. In addition to the make-up, Morrison also has to work with stylists that understand her vision and believe her when she explains that the clothing they bring to the set won’t be destroyed. “Anything that can be washed can be shot underwater,” she tells them, understandably being conscientious not to work with materials that can’t get wet and survive, such as leathers.

Despite the staying power of the look and gaining the trust of talented stylists, the true test of Morrison’s management is in the fluidity, confidence and performance of her models. If a model isn’t comfortable in front of the camera, in the water, while holding their breath and opening their eyes, the shot will fail. Everything comes down to what happens in front of the lens in the blue studio, and Morrison takes the task of finding the right collaborators very seriously. “I have a list of questions that I ask,” she explains. “How comfortable are you underwater? Do you feel like you are a swimmer and not just that yes, you can get wet and not freak out? Can you really feel like you are one with the water, you love being there, that you’re comfortable in that environment? Can you open your eyes? Can you control your expressions? Can you basically act like the water isn’t there?” Each element of the questionnaire is designed to find individuals that can truly bring fashion photography into the water.

Despite the careful selection process with each of her models, though, Morrison must still direct her subjects to get the desired look, pose and expression because these are far more challenging conditions than a normal fashion shoot. Even though she is based in Southern California and surrounded by swimsuit models, it is entirely different to swim in a bikini than it is to be submerged in a zebra dress with a six-foot train. Morrison understands this and uses the meeting in her home before the shoot to comfort her models, teaching them how to breathe above the surface but still allow themselves to sink to the bottom of the pool, describing how important it is to be aware of the flash and to know that, if the flash isn’t firing, they need to move into a different position or try a new expression because Morrison isn’t getting the shot she wants.

Once at the pool, Morrison doesn’t stop giving reassuring guidance, direction and motivation to the models. As she has been a dancer for most of her life, Morrison can demonstrate certain poses or think of new and exciting choreography that helps bring the images one further step away from the traditional or expected. Beyond that she is always thinking about lighting, framing and her photographic experience to get the shot that she needs—everything has to come together in the end. “All those things you can either forget—and then the shoot doesn’t go well—or you over-exaggerate and it doesn’t go well,” she laughs with a shake of her head. “So I need to find a balance with all those things and then also have everybody else that’s part of the shoot come to that point too, to have everybody be able to bring what I need them to bring to it.” In the best-case scenario, Morrison and her team function as a seamless unit, working together to allow the flow of styling, posing, lighting and expression to create images that Morrison captures, everyone emerging for breath and submerging again in near unison until the time is up. In the worst-case scenario, a model who is less comfortable in the water than she either let on or knew, can be comforted, directed and helped into and out of the water until she is confident enough to be able to trust the team and work for the shot.

Morrison’s ability to manage both types of situations, as well as all iterations in between, is a testament to her dedication to her craft as well as her commanding and reliable management skills. She is capable of getting the shot, whether it is a magical day when all elements are clicking in her favor, or a day when she spends half of her rented pool time calming the nerves of a mildly hydrophobic model. But Morrison knows what she’s doing, and her confidence and portfolio speak volumes about her ability to work within the constraints of time, space and the need for oxygen—and the people that work with her trust her to deliver. When she gets those perfect moments, all of her training, experience and instincts pay off. “When it comes to garments and hair and everything—having the hair go a certain way, having the garments go a certain way—in that perfect moment it comes together, and you see it coming together in slow motion, and you wait for it and you get it and it’s gone. And you cannot reproduce it. The water does what it wants.”

At the end of an underwater shoot, Morrison leaves time to pack up, clean up and head home. Once she gets there, she admits to collapsing as soon as the door closes behind her. As invigorating and rewarding as the underwater sessions might be, they are draining for everyone involved and—despite the appearance of the final product—far from effortless. All of the work that Morrison puts into her images allows her clients and viewers to have a sense of that familiar dream state without seeing the collaboration and dedication that go into every detail. And that is a testament to Morrison’s true mastery.


Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler is a freelance writer and photographer living and working in Carlsbad, CA. She is earning a Master of Fine Arts in photography from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.

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