Editor’s Pick: Rebecca Handler’s "Dead in the Water"

January 15, 2014

By Laura Brauer

I met Brooklyn-based conceptual and editorial photographer Rebecca Handler this past summer when her series “The Tourists” was featured in “The Fence” exhibit at Brooklyn’s Photoville. This personal editorial project, “Dead in the Water,” pretty accurately recreates the likeness of five cultural icons—Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Edie Sedgwick, Amy Winehouse and James Dean—who reached their peaks at a young age and died tragically.

“Marilyn Monroe” © Rebecca Handler

“‘Dead in the Water’ is a symbolic term for their situation,” writes Handler in her explanation of the concept. “I didn’t portray them as tragic figures. I honored them by showing them as glamorous as they were at the peak of their careers.”

The single-day shoot took place at Handler’s friend’s pool in Warwick, New York, in July 2013. Each model was outfitted with a wig, waterproof makeup and clothing procured by a stylist from thrift stores—all of which had to be thrown away after the shoot.

“James Dean” © Rebecca Handler

This isn’t Handler’s first foray with underwater photography—previous personal projects had her purchasing Ikelite underwater casing for her Canon 5D Mark II, plus learning breathing apnea techniques to prepare. “This is my third year [photographing underwater],” says the photographer, who got so into the process that she also became certified in scuba diving. But because scuba gear is heavy and cumbersome, for this shoot, Handler favored holding her breath (she averages two minutes) and wearing goggles. “The models have to come up to breathe anyway, so I breathe then,” she explains.

Breathing techniques aside, the photography aspect presented different challenges for Handler. “I had to almost relearn photography because there were so many variables you don’t have to deal with above the water—like light and color fall-off. Underwater, the further you get from the subject, and the deeper you dive into the water, the more color and light you lose,” she says. “It’s a whole different world down there.”

“Amy Winehouse” © Rebecca Handler

Handler shot from the bottom of the pool, while each character skimmed the surface. “I shoot wide and get closer to the models so that the images are crisper,” Handler says. That meant using a 17-35mm Canon f/4L lens and photographing each model in two parts, then assembling the parts in post to get a full body shot. “These models are six feet tall, so I would’ve had to have been 15 feet away otherwise, and would have lost too much light!”

In the pool, Handler used two underwater strobes. “I light them on an angle coming in from the side, so the shot doesn’t pick up all the particles and bubbles in the water,” she says. “Water absorbs red and yellow first in the color spectrum, and those are the colors of skin tone, so often everything looks green and blue underwater.”

View a behind-the-scenes video here.

Another obstacle was not being able to talk to the models while submerged. “I have 15 pounds of weight on my waist holding me down, then the camera that weighs another 15 pounds, so it’s a bit exhausting and limits my interactions,” Handler says. “I had reference pictures [for poses] in little baggies that we kept on the side of the pool.”

While Handler says the huge camera casing and all of its buttons added another level of difficulty to the shoot, “It’s amazing once you know how to do it. It’s a challenge, but I love it.”