BENEATH THE SURFACE

 babies underwater

Looking at Annette Priceunderwater portraits of babies and children I am struck by how calm and content they look suspended in an environment that most adults regard as a potential hazard. Their expressions of wonder and obvious ease with the water are reflected in the face of their photographer, Annette Price. She has seen these images countless times and photographed babies underwater since 2008, but as we look at her portfolio, the glowing smile breaks out as though shelooking at her own impish toddler reaching towards the camera for the first time. "Itamazing but they always look so calm and relaxed," she says.

Relaxation is a theme that runs through the course of our dialogue as she describes her own career as a photographer and diving enthusiast. A fully qualified commercial diver, Annette has also practised free diving and harbours desires to return to that sport by trying out a mermaid-like monofin. "I would love to do that. Basically, free diving is the art of total relaxation. You have to be totally relaxed so you can completely lower your breathing." Her affinity with water evolved from an ambition to try something adventurous to complement her photography, so she took up kayaking and spent much of her spare time paddling on the Thames, photographing central London from the riverbanks with her Nikon F90X.

SAFETY AT WORK

As with all public swimming pools, qualified lifeguards are on site wherever Annette works, but when photographing babies underwater she also has an assistant with her, as well as the babies’parents. When photographing adults underwater, the need for an assistant or lifeguard depends on the number of subjects. "If itjust one person Iphotographing Ifine," she says. "If theremore than that and theybehind me I wouldnknow about it because Iso focused on what Idoing. So if theynot in front of my camera, I want someone extra to keep an eye on the others in case they get into trouble, especially if theywearing clothes. If younot used to wearing clothes in water, you could lose your balance and fall over. Getting back up to the surface can be quite hard."

"I took up kayaking in 1995. I just looked in the Yellow Pages for the nearest club," she recalls. "Because of the kayaking, my interest in the water just grew and all my photography became focused on water and surrounding environments. In 2004, I learnt to scuba dive, so taking a camera underwater was an obvious extension."

ART AND ADVENTURE

Annette hails from Worcester and has lived in London since 1985, where she completed a foundation course in art and design and studied graphics and illustration at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University, London), just a stonethrow from the Thames. "When I went to Kingston I wanted to be an illustrator," she says. "I had been into drawing ever since I could remember, but when I was there they had a very good photography department and thatwhen I got really interested in photography."

When Annette left Kingston, she worked as an assistant to the west-end photographer John Suett. "We did mostly advertising stuff, some catalogue work, all studio based. It was all on film and we were using 5x4in, 10x8in and Hasselblad cameras. I also learnt a bit about the business side too. While I was there I got interested in Operation Raleigh (Raleigh International as it is now known), and I worked for them for quite a while photographing their selection weekends all over the country. I did that for about a year and a half and then went on one of their expeditions, as a photographer, to South America. I spent three months living in the jungle sleeping in a hammock. It was an amazing experience."

Raleigh had a profound effect on the type of photography she wished to pursue as a freelance professional, so she combined adventure travel and photography with several more trips after her return from South America. This need for adventure while living in London led her to kayaking, and then to scuba diving. But photographing babies underwater is a relatively recent undertaking: "I had a client, Fiona Munt-Whittle of Aquatots in Cheltenham, who wanted topside pictures of the children at her baby swim school to use for promotion in brochures and on her website.

She wanted pictures of the mothers and babies teaching them to swim. She said, "By the way, can you do some underwater ones?" And I said yes, of course!" This wasnfalse bravado —Annette had already been experimenting with underwater portraits of friends at her local pool in Hammersmith, using a 5m wide backdrop for this exact purpose. "So I did some underwater portraits for her and she loved them." A new service was born.

DUNKING BABIES

Annette has worked closely with Aquatots for the past four years and her work has proven popular with mums willing to have their babies submersed for a series of portraits. Being dunked for the camera doesncome as a complete surprise to the infant swimmers because Aquatots insists that the babies have completed at least one term of swimming lessons, including submersion.

Annette explains how she and Fiona conduct a typical session: "Five parents will enter the water at the same time, each with a baby. The baby swim teacher stands in front of me, to one side and the parent then hands the baby to the swim teacher." She asks for the childmum to stand behind her so the baby will hopefully be looking towards her while Annette drops down to pre-focus the camera. Fiona will then drop the baby down into the water and let go. "Igot two or three seconds to get some photos before the baby is lifted out again," she says. "Itquite interesting to watch how the babies react to this because some of them do get a little bit upset by it. Therethis big backdrop, they donknow me and Igot this big mask on, Igot this huge camera in this housing, therebig lights on stands and they get handed to a baby swimming teacher they may not know and some of them start to cry. But the moment they get dropped into the water most of them totally relax and start smiling. Itamazing!"

Like all studio portrait photography sessions, setting up takes a large part of Annettetime, but a studio in a swimming pool has some important differences. For instance, there is a choice of coloured backdrops, but they are not made of paper. "The backdrop is made of parachute silk and is supported by two tripods with this metal bar that goes across the top. Itfive metres wide and goes down the side of the pool for two metres then spreads along the floor. Whatever is on the floor of the pool is reflected on the other side of the water, so if I didnput the backdrop along the floor you would get all the lines on the bottom of the pool reflecting on the surface."

LIGHTING TECHNIQUE

Annette uses two Ikelite strobes, each attached to a battery pack to ensure she can shoot rapidly. "I have two of them hard wired to the camera on five metre leads," she says. "One goes onto a light stand which I use to light the background, and thatusually some distance away from me out of water so it produces that nice speckled effect on the surface. The light I use for the babies is underwater. Itquite direct but to one side and I use a diffuser as well, but the water softens it a lot too. Water just gobbles light like thereno tomorrow."

For this reason Annette needs to be quite close to babies with the camera and flash, but she is also careful to keep some distance away from the backdrop: "If I get too close, the backdrop will look like fabric, and I don

 

want it to, I want to be able to light the backdrop and the baby separately."

Her camera and lens combination is a Nikon D80 and Sigma 10-20mm lens within an Ikelite housing with a large dome port.

"I bought the Ikelite housing, dome port and first strobe for my D80 in 2007 and havenshot a frame of film since." Although, the lens is usually set at the 20mm end with a 1.6x conversion factor, that focal length may seem a little wide for portraits, until you remember that water magnifies focal length by a further 25 per cent.

I ask Annette if there is much postproduction work to be done. "There is a bit, mostly colour adjustment and removing limbs," she laughs. "Bits of swim teacher! Ionly got two or three seconds when the baby is let go, so often therea stray hand!"

SCUBA QUALIFICATIONS

Before she started taking underwater portraits, Annette Price undertook a commercial scuba diving course in 2004 through a scholarship from Quest. (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust). "I was banned from taking my camera (a Nikonos V) on the first dive by Dave, my instructor, as he thought the camera might be too much of a distraction from learning to dive," she recalls. "But he gave in on the second dive and decided my camera could come!"

In the UK, commercial work underwater is not permissible without a HSE (Health and Safety Executive) Commercial Scuba Diver Certificate, unless youworking for the recreational diving press, then you can use a recreational diving qualification. Annette explains: "If I get a commission from a diving magazine to photograph a fish off Swanage Pier, thatfine, but if I get that commission from anyone else I have to get a HSE certificate to do it." For her underwater portraits the qualification required really does depend on the depth of the swimming pool. "Iusually working in water thatfour to five feet deep, so I can stand there, but if I was in the four metre end of the pool, or did some of these portraits outdoors and I need to scuba, then I need my HSE qualification for that."

THE ART OF BREATHING

There are no such problems when photographing grown-ups. Although babies make up around two thirds of her underwater portraits, the more adventurous images are born from her adult sitters —or should that be swimmers? These sessions take place in west London and examples of her submerged creativity include a friend in his karate clothes making a flying kick, a man playing the saxophone and several synchronised swimmers effortlessly cutting a variety of impressive shapes. "They were great to photograph because they were so used to posing and putting themselves into lovely shapes."

Several portraits show mirror reflections of the personprofile, one of which appears to be dripping like melting wax. To explain this technique, Annette simply turns the image 90° clockwise —the dripping face is a reflection from the surface of the water above. She explains: "Itactually quite difficult for them because they have to go underwater very slowly and come back up very slowly and tilt their head back just under the water, which then goes up their nose! So if Igoing to do this then itthe very last thing I do because after this they wonwant to do anything else," she laughs.

Even though these portraits are nearly always carried out in depths that the subject can stand in, some people still struggle to sink beneath the surface. "Theyonly sinking a few inches but sometimes they will breathe out when theysinking so youget a lot of bubbles across the face. What they should do is breathe out when they hold their head above the water and then theysink." Annette doesnface many problems herself. She wears a 6kg weight belt around her wetsuit that makes her sink like a stone. Another important piece of kit is a low volume free diving mask. "It keeps the mask closer to the eyes so my eyes are then closer to the back of the camera. If youtoo far away you cansee the whole of the viewfinder."

CHARITY SHOPS AND KNOTS

Annette encourages her subjects to come up with a number of ideas and also recommends a visit to the charity shop. "Before the shoot I have a chat with them and find out what they might want to wear. I tell them if theygoing to turn up in a suit, to get one from a charity shop. Some suits are fine, but if yougot a really expensive one I wouldnput it into a chlorinated swimming pool!"

Deciding the backdrop colour is also critical to what clothes are worn. "If I do the black backdrop, sometimes I will suggest that they wear something black because if you sidelight it quite gently you just get hints of the clothes and it can look quite dramatic."

This is perfectly illustrated in the photographs Annette has made of Matt, a young man with a fascination for tying himself in knots. Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and black tie, the resulting images of him tied up underwater are unquestionably dramatic and darkly humorous, as well as slightly sinister. What was he thinking?

"I donknow," chuckles Annette. "Thatjust what he wanted. He wanted to be different. I said just bring something that says a little bit about you. So he turns up with this rope and ties himself up! It wasnjust his hands, either, he tied himself up from his feet all the way up."

From innocent babies to dark suited young men tied up hand and foot, the underwater portraits of Annette Price seemingly cover a whole spectrum of possibilities. I think shein for some more surprises in future...

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