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Art Feature

Christy Lee Rogers: In search of freedom

Originally from Kailua, Hawaii, Christy Lee Rogers became fascinated by water at a young age. "I love that water has a memory to it, it remembers the past. It's the life force that we need to survive," she says. Among those who call "underwater photography" their speciality, the artist stands apart. Instead of immersing herself in water, she instead follows its movements and that of the models dreamily wading, by shooting from above. "I think what I do differently than most underwater photographers is that I am shooting from above the water as I'm using the refraction of lights."

Rogers has taken more than 15 years to develop her technique, earning multiple accolades along the way. The "otherworldly" quality of her work comes from constant experimentation. Her obsession with water as a medium for breaking the conventions of contemporary photography has led to her work being compared to Baroque painting masters like Caravaggio. With an eye for the chiaroscuro qualities of light, her subjects bend and distort; bathing in darkness, isolated by light, and are brought to life by one’s own imagination. Without the use of post-production manipulation, her works are made in-camera, on the spot, in water and at night. Her unrestrained joy to excite and inflame the senses, while provoking the audience with vivacious movement and purpose, demonstrates her prolific use of the photographic medium to transform reality into a world of her own. Rogers won the prestigious Sony Open World Photographer of the Year in 2019 and was commissioned by Apple for a series of works and a film that they released on New Year’s Eve, 2019. Rogers' works have been exhibited throughout the US and Europe and are held in private collections around the world.

Christy Lee Rogers London

"One of the greatest challenges is controlling elements in the water.  There is no real way to plan for every obstacle that the water will present or to fully visualize the final image...."

Rogers had already shot her latest series when the coronavirus hit in early 2020 and later named it "Human" during the post-production process, to embody strength during the pandemic. One of the images, "Riders of the Light," imagines three angels rising up and "looking down on humanity." Seen in the context of the pandemic, she says, "sometimes we need the darkness to see the light." She plans to donate the work to the Mount Sinai Hospital Intensive Care Unit in New York City. Proceeds from another photo in the series, "Venus Rising," have been donated to charity.

Gravity - Christy Lee Rogers

How did you start shooting underwater? What sparked it?

In some ways, I could say that it began with my love of water. From there it was by accident that I discovered what the camera could capture in that magical environment. For years I photographed everything I could find and everyone that would pose for me.  But on my first water shoot at night in Los Angeles, I saw something in these images that I had never seen before; an ethereal quality that was not expected.  From there I continued to experiment with this new-found love, and to make images that were more about what was in my heart than what was there in reality.


Your work is often compared to 19th-century painters. Who are your main inspirations? 

My current inspirations are Hans Zimmer, Muse and Mozart.  Their music brings this fire to my heart and soul. And Iris Van Herpen’s couture designs are out of this world!  I find inspiration everywhere; it’s almost overwhelming and not possible to calculate who and where it’s from. Although my main source of inspiration is humanity; from my connection and what I feel.  There is simultaneous pain and beauty to us.  It reminds me of the line from the movie Gladiator where Brad Pitt’s character Achilles says “Everything is more beautiful because we are doomed.”  I have to wonder if this is by design or by choice.  If we lived forever would we be able to tolerate it in our current state?


How did you choose to work only with limited/unique pieces?

Limited edition and unique prints allow me to create a special print for collectors.  And it also keeps me on my toes to create more images each year, as they sell out.


You don’t release the pieces right away, but “live with it for a while”. Did you already choose not to release a piece because it failed the test of time?

Yes, there are hundreds of images that didn’t make it into my collections.  Each day I see something new and feel different emotions from them.  I have to work through the images; that is the process; to dive in and see where they take me.  So, having images I don’t love is just part of this creative path.  The trick is to not get stuck on them or think you’re a total failure before the collection can be fully realized.


What’s your process of creation?

My creative process is raw and organic.  It involves a lot of freedom and letting go, and when these criteria are not met it can be rough.  Like in today’s environment with COVID and the shutdowns devastating the world, it’s so difficult to let go and find this peaceful place I need to be in.  But like every artist, we use the world around us to guide our art and creative vision.  


What’s the most challenging aspect of working underwater?

One of the greatest challenges is controlling elements in the water.  There is no real way to plan for every obstacle that the water will present or to fully visualize the final image. That is something I must experiment through and sculpt as we’re there live at the shoot.  That involves patience and trusting my instincts at every moment.  I can’t go into one of my shoots tired or uninspired; everything has to be perfect to allow for the imperfect nature of the shoot.


What’s the main message behind your work?

I’m searching for a freedom that cannot even be described in words, and that’s a path I believe we’re all on in some way or form.  These works are my way of catching a short glimpse of that freedom and what it may feel like.


Words by Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle

Photos provided by artist

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