Audio interview with Bella Reber about Untitled
Experimental analogue photography
Original Artist Statement
It holds me gently as I lay on my back, weightless and comforted by its light touch. With nothingness below, I am rocked slowly. Time passes but my body doesn’t seem to notice. It quiets my mind; I am left thoughtless. Here, I am at home. The pain dissolves and the euphoria begins to consume me. The blinding light above becomes too much that my hands and feet push away. I twist and trace my skin along the surface and air abandons me. I go under. Eyes shut tight at first, I open them as they adjust to find fragile sparkles above. The blue steals away all that I felt before. I have wedded the melancholy and joy I continuously feel by photographing others above, in-between and below water. Reflections in the surface of the water are disrupted and distorted in an organic violence, creating a sense of ephemeral awe that only water may give.
Stream of Consciousness Writing about Process
For this project I wanted to see what it would feel like to photograph underwater for my senior thesis photography project in the Fall of 2018. I wanted to push myself to do something I’d never done before and I saw water as an interesting variable to alter a model’s normal disposition above water. I had to take a very big chance doing this, none of my professors had done this process before and had to teach myself along this journey. I knew there would be an immense amount of challenges, but my desire to create this project overshadowed my fear and doubt entirely. (i still felt very alone though) Water felt very untouched for me at the time, something I have been very drawn to (still want to live by a large body of water someday) but also hold an irrational fear of being succumbed by it, and fascinated that our bodies are mainly made of water.
The first week of school I immediately went to the gym on campus to see if they would let me use the pool. They granted me permission, I could go one day a week for couple hours and had to have a lifeguard scheduled for safety precautions. I was worried about the time constraint, but I felt very lucky to have an entire pool to myself (the time always went by too fast, every time I thought I was making progress while photographing I would have to leave in 10 minutes).
I went through a strenuous process of finding the right camera. I didn’t want to use a digital camera because I felt it would be too risky. I borrowed a vintage 35mm camera from a girl in my class, she said she had never used it before and that it was a gift/ felt confident it would work. I didn’t test it beforehand and ended up flooding it. I had a melt down, ordered two replacement cameras for her, flooded one and gave the second back to her. I tested the second one in a bucket of water, taped the back shut, and thought it would work. When I took it to the pool, the deeper I went I saw bubbles coming up to the surface and I knew I ruined a second one. Pulling out soaking wet film was the worst feeling. I used disposable cameras from Walmart as back up, the film turned out clear when I first looked at it, but scanned it anyway. The triptych of this project is from one of those cameras.
I was using my Hasselblad for the images above water, and some of the disposable camera shots were turning out, but I wanted more clarity.
Finding the camera that worked was a turning point for this project and gave me the most incredible feeling. My friend Sam let me use his Ikelite – the deal was he would get to use the pool / bring his own models for the first hour, and I would get to use his camera with the remaining time. This camera changed everything. It was a super cheap 35mm point and shoot, in plastic underwater housing, and an arm attached above for the strobe. It was very heavy, but the images turned out crisp and clear. Sam saved this project.
I used all of my own clothes/ dresses for the girls I photographed. (Was thinking about possibly including/hanging one of the dresses in the show?) I bought some suits for the guys to wear but they also brought their own bathing suits and shirts. I didn’t want there to be a sexualization/ focus on the nude for this project. (There is one photo I included with Sam with no shirt but cropped it to where it mainly just shows his arm).
I photographed my closest friends at first. Sofia Panza and Nick Tenney were first. After a couple times at the pool and figuring out equipment troubleshooting, I began to feel more confident with photographing other people. (At this point I also was using two underwater continuous mono lights that I had my friends hold).
Later down the road, when I wanted different people, I put an Instagram post on my story asking for models – a very, very surprising amount of people responded. It was basically a pool party. I had more people there than I could actually photograph. I experimented with including more than one person in my images, but found that conceptually it would detract from the project. (being alone, melancholia) (I also made an Instagram post asking people how water made them feel and it was a question I also asked strangers day to day. Some of the results were “clarity of choice” “less thirsty” “refreshed” “hydrated” “wet” “light, calm, and present” “fluid and free” “ tbh water scares the shit outta me bc it’s so powerful but also i /we need it / sublime” “cleansed”).
I have never been a good swimmer by any means, but I had to learn to at least hold my breath for 15 seconds and build the strength to swim with my camera and would hold the external waterproof light with my legs.
You can’t see through the viewfinder/focus while photographing with any of these cameras, you just have to sort of guess. It almost felt like I was photographing blindly.
I also had to learn how to direct my models, and not push/ask too much of them. We became very tired after swimming for a short amount of time. They would be cold, have water in their eyes, and be swimming fulling clothed. I would ask them to dive into the water, blow bubbles out their nose, hold their breath for long amounts of time, sink with me to the bottom of the pool floor with me, open their eyes underwater, swim away/towards me….Underneath I always was questioning if I was asking too much of them, worried about their wellbeing… but they always were quick and excited to do what I asked. I tried to make them feel safe, never ask them to do something they were uncomfortable, and wanted them to know how deeply I appreciated them.
I also experimented with turning the overhead lights on and off in the pool. I wanted to remove the context of the pool entirely (I struggled with having some of the tile and pool walls in the background. Swimming on the deeper end solved this issue but was much harder for me not being able to have the comfortability of being able to touch the pool floor)
I wore goggles that covered my nose and my swim suit. (I had just dyed my hair pink and each time I was done photographing the chlorine would suck the dye out and return back to blonde)
I didn’t/ don’t have a car. I had to walk all my own gear (cameras, clothes, lights, props), and then bring everything back home soaking wet. I would be very anxious and excited to get my film processed, so I often Ubered to F-11, would wander around the shops for a couple hours, then go back to the school to scan my film. (The school didn’t have C-41 chemistry at the time so I would’ve had to buy my own/mix/process it. I normally do process my own film but it just saved me time having F-11 process it. I did however process about half of the project on my own with chemistry from a friend) I think I shot around 20-25 rolls for this project. When I didn’t have enough money to uber, I clearly remember walking from my house on 11th to F-11 on very cold and windy days, feeling miserable, but was so excited to see whether or not my work had turned out. The waiting game of photographing with film is such a tease sometimes, every time I process my film (even when I follow all the steps perfectly) I still have this completely irrational fear that it wont turn out.
The last session was with my best friend Kate, in the blue floral dress. (Sam let me use the Ikalite on my own this time) I clearly remember swimming with her, I was able to hold my breath for longer, and it was if she didn’t know she was being photographed in some moments. Just us swimming. This last time photographing went the most smoothly and I finally felt that I had enough content to create a full body of work.
The Post-production Process
I felt like I was in a different place while scanning/ editing. Very focused. I was experimenting with pulling as much detail as possible from completely clear film
(with just the smallest bit of information)
I boosted exposure, cropped in very close, played with pixelation.
Critique was always strange. The professors had never done what I was doing, and I truly felt like I was on my own. I remember them saying to just “keep doing what you’re doing.”
I had never printed this big before and was very excited. It became very addicting. (was inspired by Wolfgang Tillmans/ printing different sizes to create further variation/ showing work salon style was something I had never experimented with. Size was important and I felt that the larger images allowed the viewer to become more immersed/ see the detail of the clarity/ pixelation).
The grain/ pixelation allows for the person to dissipate/ identity becomes obscured. Color was important for me to add variation conceptually/emotionally/ wasn’t interested in black and white.
Showing something new and work they’d never seen before/never thought about doing themselves. The work belonged to them at this point. This drove me to want to create and do more. The work connected myself with people in a way I never thought was possible.
Others that struggled with sadness opened up to me and made me feel less alone. (At this point I felt a strength I never had before. I had survived something that had happened in 2015 that made me not want to be alive, taken that pain, and channeled it into a project with the hope of them feeling less alone) One of my professors said that the pixelation in some of the images looked like constellations, that meant so much to me and still does.
I personally am very rarely satisfied with my work, always wanting to push myself to do better, unsure if I am communicating effectively. Much time has passed since I created this project, and I haven’t felt much satisfaction/solace with photographing above water with air to breath comfortably. (a haunting feeling really) I am currently struggling with finding other model altering variables to photograph, flopped to photographing the ultra-banal, and wondering if in the future I continue doing underwater work (possibly in fresh water).
This was the short film I watched the summer before school started that sparked the possibility of this project.
Writer, Director and Performer: Julie Gautier
Choreographer: Ophélie Longuet video was shot in the world’s deepest diving pool, in Padua, Italy.
I wouldn’t have been able to do this project without the love and support of my dad, sister, professors and closest friends. This project belongs to you.