Underwater Visions: Water and the Human Form

Underwater landscapes provide interesting places to explore dreamlike images and archetypes. What range of imagery and emotion are artists creating?

I would like to introduce you to three stunning artists making underwater photographs in the world today. If you see an artist that moves you, please take the time to click on their name and view their website. Buy a print or a book if you are so moved.

Elena Kalis

Born in Moscow, Russia, Elena Kalis trained as a painter, but a move to the Bahamas provided her with an alternative canvas– perfectly clear water. Her first set of photos featured her daughter Sacha, a natural swimmer and excellent model, as Alice in Wonderland, along with a few friends. This wonderland was under the sea instead of down a rabbit hole and was an immediate success with viewers all over the world.

From Alice © Elena Kalis


I often feel like I am in another dimension, just like Alice who found herself in a strange place when she fell into the rabbit hole one warm afternoon. A place where reality subsides and the closeness of water envelops you, where sounds are distant and light plays tricks with your eyes and perception.

–Elena Kalis, Huffpost Books

From Ocean Song © Elena Kalis 

Elena has continued to produce stunning work that grows ever more enchanting and nuanced. As her daughter grows up, her photographic style is also maturing and changing. The Dark Water and My Fair Ladies sets are my personal favorites, picturing the vulnerability and promise of adolescence. There is a part of every woman that trembles to remember that time, when the sense of self was new and the world was wonderful and terrible all at once. Such evocative images, both delicate and emotional.

From Dark Water © Elena Kalis
From My Fair Ladies © Elena Kalis
From My Fair Ladies © Elena Kalis
From Dark Water © Elena Kalis

Howard Schatz

Chicago born Howard Schatz was a successful opthamologist and retina specialist in San Francisco when his wife, Beverly Ornstein, the head of news and current affairs for PBS in San Francisco, encouraged him to pursue his passion for photography. They worked on a project together called Gifted Woman in 1992 and things began to take off. Howard took a sabbatical to further explore what had once been a weekend pastime. He never went back to the high stress medical profession. In photography mistakes are a part of the learning process, which was liberating after years of striving to get everything right. He did miss his patients, though, and the human connection he had with them.

Howard became interested in underwater photography by accident while playing basketball in his indoor pool. After getting water in his eyes he put on a pair of goggles and dove back underwater.

I realised this underwater world was magic. I could see that under the water there was this beautifully weightless environment. So, for the next six months, I began to explore ways of making images underwater. Nobody could help me with the technique either, because all the other underwater photographers I knew went deep underwater with scuba gear and lights – whereas all I wanted to do was shoot human beings.

–Howard Schatz, Canon

Underwater Study #1, Katita Waldo, photographed Fairfax, CA, February 1993 © Schatz/Ornstein 2013

His first shots featured Katita Waldo, a prima ballerina from the San Francisco Ballet. The image above is his very first underwater study of the human form– downright incredible! The textures in these photos read so clearly that you feel as if you could reach out and touch the model.

Underwater Study #132, Karen Carissimo, photographed Fairfax, Ca, February 1994 © Schatz/Ornstein 2013

In 2002, Howard and Beverly bought property in Connecticut and had a special pool made there, rigged as an underwater studio with glass walls and a dome above, as well as the best available lighting equipment. As you can tell, he doesn’t do anything halfway. The pool creates a controlled environment, eliminating anything that might distract from the subject and creating an extremely focused vision.

Cocoon, photographed for Kanebo, Sensai in Sherman, CT, March 2009 © Schatz/Ornstein 2013
Underwater Study #2752, Edward Matthews, photographed Sherman, CT, September 2005 © Schatz/Ornstein 2013
Underwater Study #2923, Alison Clancy, photographed Sherman, CT, 2005 © Schatz/Ornstein 2013

In the photo below, model Amanda Cobb was pulled across the frame using a transparent belt attached to a black cord, making the ribbons float behind her. The use of reflection as a tool to create mystery is spellbinding. Movement and dance have remained paramount in Howard’s work, which is, at its core, a celebration of the body in all its glory, strength, delicacy and beauty.

Underwater Study #3093, Amanda Cobb, photographed Sherman, CT, August 2006 © Schatz/Ornstein 2013
Under Water Study #3238, Inga Ward, photographed Sherman, CT, October 2005 © Schatz/Ornstein 2013

Zena Holloway

At the time of her birth, Zena Holloway’s parents, an airline pilot and hostess, were stationed in Bahrain as employees of Golf Air. She spent most of her formative years in London, a bit of a rebel and wild child, then embarked on an international career as a scuba diver and instructor at the age of eighteen. Her mother bought her a small underwater camera, a humble plastic Motor Marine, for her birthday while she was working as a scuba guide in Egypt.

Three years later, at twenty-one, Zena would begin looking for jobs in the field of underwater photography. She had no background in shooting out of the water, or topside, as she calls it, and was told she would never make a living unless she learned to do more than underwater work. To Zena, work on land is full of noise and distraction; she enjoys the challenges of underwater work, challenges that produce focus and efficiency. Luckily, she managed to snag an underwater project for Fabergé and has been proving the naysayers wrong ever since.

From Waterbabies, © Zena Holloway

Keeping a heavy schedule of editorial and advertising projects, Zena has also illustrated a glorious edition of Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies, a classic written in 1865, and is very much interested in telling stories. Her goal is not the factual and representational, but the surreal and evocative that is contained in those moments when the human mind is half awake.

© Zena Holloway 

I wish that I was less ordered, less literal and more radical, however the upside is that I’m content to let the ideas or the situations to create arrive in their own time. I need to create but not in a way that is destructive.  One of the great things about working solely underwater is that I can pull references from all sorts of sources and once applied to an underwater environment the results take on their own direction. On an editorial shoot where creativity is allowed to evolve and the water plays its part there are lots of opportunities to create something different. The trick is to recognise when the accidental process is going in a good direction and when a different approach is needed. The more references I start with, the more ideas I find to move the work forward.

Zena Holloway, Well, why don’t you

From B.Inspired © Zena Holloway
 How to Spend It © Zena Holloway

Zena’s photography is a source of surprise and inspiration. The best part is that we are included, that she is sharing her dreams with us– her moments of synchronicity. There is nothing more precious an artist can give.

From B.Inspired © Zena Holloway
From B.Inspired © Zena Holloway
All images are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for critical and educational purposes.



Leave a Reply