The depths of Sydney Harbour are not your ordinary fluorescent-lit office, but the ocean makes for a pretty incredible canvas and some pretty unusual workplace stories.
Jayne Cheeseman had a chat to regular ferry commuter, Kerstin Auer about how she began as a photographer, the difficulty of simultaneously taking photographs underwater and trying not to float or drown, and that one time someone jumped into the ocean fully clothed to save her, because they thought she was drowning.
When did you first start taking photos and what drew you to the medium?
I moved to Perth, WA, eight years ago with my now husband. Coming from Europe, I felt very isolated and somewhat lonely in Perth. I had all this time on my hands and needed a creative outlet. I did oil painting before but the effort it took to always clear things away and bring them back out due to lack of space, just sort of killed the creative buzz. Photography not just opened up a new world for me, it filled the void and through it I suddenly found myself welcoming the vastness and isolated scenery that Perth had to offer. I saw beauty in so many things that I could finally share with everyone through my images.
Was photography what you envisioned yourself doing as a career?
Never! The picture of “the starving artist” just never appealed to me, and I never thought that I could make a living out of it. Now, however, I realise that no matter how many hours I spend behind the camera, it doesn’t feel like work to me and I am very fortunate that I have decided to take the plunge.
Your photography is quite cinematic. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I definitely get inspired by nature and my own dreams. Growing up my mother used to tell me off for sitting in fields, day dreaming and for having a “wild imagination”. I suppose that never changed. Photography has become my outlet and my head is full with ideas that I have yet to try and formulate into images. In regards to the “cinematic” style, being a self-taught photographer, to tell you the truth, I didn’t even realise what that was until two years ago when someone pointed out that my style is cinematic. I suppose I like the drama and warmth of cinematic images. I also find it’s a style that can be blended nicely with the ethereal side of my work. It adds a certain mystery to images.
Which photographers do you most admire and why?
That question always begs for some amazing iconic and usually passed away, artist. To be honest the photographer I admire most is Alexander James (based in the UK). I absolutely adore his work. He manages to stay true to his style, produces amazing artwork, is very successful and still has time to answer questions that I frequently fire at him.
I am also known to lust over Tim Walker and Elizabeth Messina’s images. There are so many amazing photographers out there, that it becomes hard to point out just one or two but the aforementioned have definitely shaped my style over the years.
What is your favourite ever photograph or series to date?
Again this would fall into the above category. Too many to be named however I am still very much in love with Alexander James’s “Married to the Sea”.
What is your favourite photograph that you have ever taken?
It would have to be the images of my recent Underwater Exhibition, ‘Submerged‘. The effort that has gone into these pictures was amazing and the result is a mixture of planned and unplanned coincidences that resulted in images that I couldn’t have even dreamed of. It’s hard to pick my favourite but I love “Dawn” (pictured above) as it would have been impossible to stage the pose of her, it just naturally happened and the colour is amazing with the rise of the sun breaking the surface.
What was the idea behind your ‘Submerged’ series?
Ever since I came to Australia, the ocean mesmerized me and I have become a little obsessed with being in it, on it or photographing it. Where I grew up in Austria, there are loads of fields of flowers that expand so far that you can see the horizon just like with the ocean. I miss that part of my hometown and wanted to merge my love for flowers and the ocean and create images that have an otherworldly, old period dramatic feel to it.
Did you have a favourite location during the shoot?
All pictures have been shot in three locations. Balmoral Beach (well, in the ocean), Manly rock pool and North Curl Curl rock pool. I am in love with the North Curl Curl rock pool because of its natural rocks and cliffs forming part of the wall, and its clarity. The Manly rock pool is amazing as it has lots of debris on the floor which when the model swims in it stirred up and created lots of texture which made the pictures feel like old masters paintings rather than photos.
Balmoral – I just love as it is my morning exercise beach and it was a challenge shooting. It being the open ocean rather than in a rock pool, naturally there was no ground to rest on and we had to fight with waves and swells underwater.
All three locations were my favourite ones for different reasons.
Was the ‘Submerged’ series something that grew bigger as it progressed?
Definitely. I was meant to do 5 images for the series and the first shoot almost didn’t happen because none of the elements were in my favour. There was a storm closing in that wasn’t forecasted, the tide was coming in and making it very hard to set up the scene and the original model didn’t show. Turning around wasn’t an option considering I had just spent $200 on flowers. Luckily I have friends that are as crazy as me. One of them lives in Manly and popped by just before her work standing in for the model being my nymph for an hour. The images were very rushed and it was the hardest and most frustrating shoot I had done. I was sure that I wouldn’t have been able to get any good images from it. Well, it turns out the images weren’t just good, they were the kick-starter for this series and by then I was hooked. Instead of letting the elements beat me, I took it as a challenge and the more shoots I done the more ideas I got and the more I wanted to continue. My mother was over from Austria to visit me at the time and needless to say she couldn’t stop shaking her head and questioning my sanity.
Did the models find it difficult posing underwater? Was it prolonged time underwater?
Anyone swimming or diving with a wetsuit on knows that its physically impossible to sink without weight. It was hard enough for me to try and sink with the camera in a bag full of air as it was very buoyant. I had to constantly wear a minimum of 10k additional weight around my waist to be able to stay down. The key to staying underwater is not to hold your breath, but rather to let all your air out. The less air in your lungs, the less buoyant you are. I have learned to work with the residual air in my lungs. That was all good in the rock pools, however in the ocean at Balmoral we realised pretty quickly that the weight was not a good idea, as I just kept sinking and struggled to get back up. It wasn’t uncommon for me to sink down 10 to 15 feet for the angle I needed, while the model would go through a few cycles of diving and posing. The hardest part for me was to not get too cold so that I could still operate the camera without shaking too much.
The models had it even harder as they didn’t have any weight, were wrapped in layers of silks (which makes it very hard to swim or stay down) and in some instances had one hand full with flowers trying to dive down without breaking the flowers. I might just add that the ocean in the morning isn’t warm either so some of them had to battle with the cold and then still look graceful in the process of it. I can tell you it’s the most challenging situation a model can be put in. Luckily they all are water rates and are very comfortable in the ocean. Its also very repetitive as they would be doing the same thing over and over. Every time we would dive down, even though we would be doing the same thing, the water, material and hair always gave me different shapes and pictures and the results were so amazing that both myself and the models got a little addicted to the process and in no time two hours had passed in the water and we had to take a break because of the cold.
The costumes and flower props look incredible in these shots and well thought out. Were these your ideas/creations too?
Yes, everything was designed by myself. I used to get up at 4am to go to the flower market, spend way too much money on flowers and would rock up at the location with a car full of flowers and silks. Then I would drape silks with the right colour to go with the flower themes. In order to make the flowers stay underwater I had to gather big rocks from the ocean and tie fishing hooks and wire around them to make the flowers sink. My fingers ended up bleeding a lot the first time I did it as the fishing hooks were so sharp and seemed to find my fingers more than the flowers. I had visions of the images and what I wanted to create but never really quite knew how it would work out until I was actually putting it together under water.
I’m sure the series yielded some great stories and adventures. What were some of the funniest, scariest or inspiring moments?
Oh dear, I was fearing this question. Every single shoot yielded some pretty special stories. I am completing a rather long blog essay on it at the moment. Besides colouring someone’s (rather expensive) pool black by accident and being rescued by a fully dressed jogger jumping in the water thinking that I am drowning are just two of the crazy things that have happened. You will have to follow my blog to find out all the stories.
What projects do you have coming up?
Well, I actually wanted to solely concentrate on building my wedding photography business, but as always I’ve been side-tracked… once again by the ocean. I am in the process of producing a fine art book for ocean lovers like me. It will contain all that the sea has to offer, beaches and much more of this beautiful country we live in. I am working on a title at the moment, but it could be, “Salt & Sand“, “Tides”, “Ocean Dreaming”, “The Blue Room”. I haven’t decided, as you can tell. It will be a must have coffee book in every living room. ;)
Where can people view your work?
“Submerged” was showing at the Bathers Pavilion Gallery upstairs in May and June this year. I am working on a space that will show them again but for now my work can be seen predominately online and on my website www.lillikad.com
Can people purchase your existing work, or get you to photograph their idea/celebration?
Currently, I have only got limited edition prints of “Submerged” for sale through my website.
My services can be booked for portraits, weddings, events, conceptual shoots, and any creative ideas really. I am always keen to hear about what people come up with.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about ‘Submerged’ or your work?
Just that it is a very unique series that most likely won’t be continued or repeated. These images are so much more than just pretty pictures. They draw you in and I hope that people can get lost in them. I have had a screen play writer from Perth write up poems to them, which can be read on my website.
I am somewhat of a purist, so knowing that there was no Photoshop involved and that every element in the images was actually as it was, for me, is the biggest achievement. I took two months off work to shoot and complete the series. These images are very dear to me, which is why I only run 11 editions of each. So when they are sold, there will be no more.
Visit Kirstin’s website: www.lillikad.com