Hold your breath for Photographer Lucas Murnaghan
Do we ever really see a powerful image for what it is? Lets hope not. Lets hope that the images we remember are the ones that evoke the desires nestled deep within the unexplainable parts of our mind. We often can’t translate why we love an image, we just know that it has unlocked something within us, so do we really see an image for what it is or does the image see us for what we are?
That’s the feeling I get when I dive beneath the surface of work by photographer Lucas Murnaghan. Like an all-ears psychiatrist presenting an ink blot to a curious mind, his imagery provides an open stage for our interpretations to bubble. This was very obvious in the early moments when looking at his current body of work.
There is an immaculate calmness to his imagery. You are submerged into his world and not only must you hold your breath, you must accept that time slows down to a very liquid, baptised stop.
This stillness is a far cry from Lucas’ photographic beginnings, passion born amongst the crushing waves of the surfing community where mother earth is more likely to brake bones than provide a moment to stage a pose.
“I really became a photographer through surf photography, as it turns out I’m not a very good surfer. My partner is Brazilian and a very good surfer. I had some serious catching up to do if I wanted to be able to surf the kind of stuff he enjoyed. One day I just picked up a waterproof case we had for our iPhone, swam out into the line up and started taking photos.
I felt happier there, doing that, as opposed to actually surfing. And then when I saw the photos – I was even more excited. I loved how psyched people were to see themselves from a perspective they hadn’t seen before. I got a kick out of connecting with them in the line up and trying to capture their personality and essence in an image. At first it was natural to try shooting from land with a zoom but never found it as fun or rewarding. I’ve always been a strong swimmer (swim team, water polo, lifeguard, triathlete) so I loved pushing myself to try more challenging conditions. I always liked being in the mix and also loved the physical challenge of it. Surf conditions can be tough – scary in fact. But that’s what made it all the more rewarding to get the shot.
I’ve been very lucky, a few bumps and bruises – but nothing major. I try to shoot within my limits – I’ve learned that philosophy around water – it cuts both ways for sure”
“The move from the ocean to the pool was a practical decision. I wanted to shoot more, and I happened to live in Toronto, Canada. The winters can get pretty iced over – so I was looking for another medium to explore my water photography. ‘Necessity is the Mother of Invention’ – I guess that’s what they mean…
I went from action sports photography – where it was a ‘catch as catch can’ kind of thing to trying to recreate this sense of action in the pool… swimmers swimming, water polo players playing… After a few practices, I wanted to try some other styles of shots. It wasn’t until I just had one of the swimmers stand on the bottom of the pool, totally calm, totally in control – and we connected for the shot. That’s when a little switch went off in my head and I knew I wanted to explore this further.”
“Dave Hurwitz (above) – the subject in this image… I’ve known him for years. We connected and I asked him to come shoot with me. We managed to scavenge the deep end of an Olympic pool at The University of Toronto. We had been getting warmed up in the shallower area, and we were starting to get into a rhythm. It was clear that Dave wasn’t as comfortable as some of my other subjects, but what he was missing in underwater comfort – he made up for in his desire and commitment to ‘get the shot’. It’s an uncanny trait that I have come to understand and appreciate when working with performers, dancers, actors etc.”
“There is always a moment in a shoot where things just start to click and we had just hit that a few seconds before this shot. I wanted to pull back and capture the sheer enormity of this pool and how insignificant we both were when compared to it. I don’t recall what my direction was on this particular image – it may have been just sink slowly. I hoped to capture a combination of his serenity and fear – a peaceful resignation, and uncertainty but willingness to proceed. We probably only shot for another five minutes after this image – but when I saw it – I felt that we captured the emotion perfectly. And that’s what I hoped to convey.”
This transition from shooting in the ocean to shooting in pools was a significant driver for the development of Lucas’ artistry, where the photographer shift roles from capturer to creator. He was able to direct the composition of his subjects which creates an extreme contrast to the split-second impact of crashing waves that to some degree dictate the results in his surf imagery.
With this new stage that promoted the time to think more creatively, he could start to visualise compositions where the only limiting factor was how long his subject/s could hold their breath.
“I remember seeing this shot before we composed it. For me, I think it’s ‘grappling with reality’” Lucas states when referencing the image of two men wrestling. “This was shot in a hotel pool here in Toronto that was one of my first closed sets – which was quite an accomplishment for me at that early stage. This pool has an interesting indoor/outdoor component. When shooting from the darker indoor pool into the early morning light of the outdoor pool – it created this ethereal backlighting. This was entirely natural and in camera. The pose was of course thanks to these two incredible men –Mitch and Mark, who were two of the first swimmers to work with me on some more editorial shots. I don’t think I’ve ever imagined something that they haven’t been able to pull off physically – this was just another example.”
I mention to Lucas that his work might be split into four energies or categories… 1: ACTION, 2: CONNECTION, 3: SILENCE and 4: DRAMA. And of the four, what would be the sweet-spot?
“I’d have to say CONNECTION. The ACTION stuff is a fun technical challenge – and that satisfies the geek in me that wants to ‘nail the shot’ – it’s more of a throwback to my surf work I guess. The SILENCE and the DRAMA are inherent in the medium – it’s fun to bring my audience down there with me to share what it feels like to me underwater. I realise not everyone feels that way underwater – so maybe it’s a window into a world that they don’t understand.
But for me the most important is the connection with my subject. I don’t like to use the term model – it seems too diminutive to their role in the image that we capture. I spend more and more time trying to get to know my subjects before we shoot – I like to know where they are from, what their childhoods were like – I like to try to get a sense of where they might be coming from. That allows me to try to design a shot, location, look that will convey that through the image. I guess I’m a bit more extroverted than most photographers – and instead of shying away from that character trait – I choose to embrace it. I want my audience to connect with the image on a personal level – so it’s that connection that I strive for.”
I describe to Lucas that one of my favourite images (aside from the David Hurwitz image in this post) is of the guy trapped beneath a bubble of air. In true doctor/patient format I spill my emotional gut by suggesting what I see, bless Lucas, he allows me to elaborate as my mind falls down the rabbit hole. I describe an idea of a man trapped between two worlds (admittedly a fight that is active in me), one conscious and the other, not. Check out the eyes in the refection, they appear closed. You only need to submerge yourself in the state of the world right now or the commentary on mental health issues to play with the idea that we are all sleep-walking in this modern existence and true enlightenment is rare, fragile and distant. This is what the pocket of air represented for me. A mirror/gateway to our spiritual self yet life requires us to breath and as we consume that pocket of air, our gateway will close and inevitably vanish. It speaks directly to my fear that we will no longer be able to connect to our spiritual-selves and that thought is suffocating. There are whole schools of spiritualists that could echo my view far more eloquently than I dare to communicate, but in the instance of opening up my mind and spitting it out, I realised that 1: I should maybe keep thoughts like that in my own head and 2: there are probably 100 other ways this picture will mean something else to someone else. The important part is that it unlocked a piece of me and provided a visual dialogue for the thoughts and emotions that were already circling in my mind like sharks.
“Wow – that’s an incredibly powerful interpretation” Lucas smiles, before diving into the details behind the image.
“Will (pictured above) is an incredible artist and photographer from North Carolina. He was living in Los Angeles at the time. We had been following each other for a while on Instagram and finally had the chance to work together a couple months ago. Will has always done amazing stuff with mirrors – and I wanted to bring that in to the shoot. We worked on a few creative images with a collection of mirrors we brought into the pool – but nothing felt quite powerful enough. There was this unique architectural component of the pool that created this overhang and some air had gotten trapped underneath it. I swam under and noticed the reflection – when the angle was just right. Will and I had to place ourselves under this ledge and play around with angles and light to get the shot just right. I’m proud to say that once again this is 100% in camera, single exposure. The appearance of the closed eyes is just the angle of the reflection of his upper eyelids – but I loved the duality of his looks. Both had a melancholy to them that was palpable. This was a chance meeting of spontaneous emotion and serendipitous technique.”
Like any photographer knows, you can only plan so much. The true magic of an image happens when preparation meets chance. In this world of digital photography where 1000 frames are at your fingertips and large monitors often reveal the shoot as it’s happening for all and everyone to see, especially the client or other creatives on the shoot who are ready with their apron, chefs hat and opinions that can undermine the direction of the photographer. I joke that there are no monitors underwater and hit on the significant dynamic this creates. Like Bruce Weber who notoriously shoots only on film, the image is created through the spy hole of the camera and committed to the just camera so how does he know that he got the shot?
I never feel I have the shot until I get home. I hope I have the shot through the lens, but I’ve been burned before – so until I see it on my computer screen, it hasn’t happened yet! That being said, I definitely know when things are vibing in the shoot. I have a sense where the emotional connection is happening because we feel it as subject and photographer. Underwater photography requires the two of us to get into a rhythm – physically, mentally, emotionally. . . Perhaps it’s the breathing, the wordless communication, the absurdity of the experience – but it forges a bond. When that happens – that’s typically where the shot comes from. Now it’s still possible to blow the focus, or crop off a hand, or mess up the exposure – so until I see it on the monitor – I don’t ‘have the shot’ yet.
It does remind me of that feeling as a kid. The world could use a little more analogue these days.
There is also a unique energy to some of Lucas’ work, where the pool is used just like a room, a stage that is flooded with water. This separates his work from many artists that have got their foot wet in underwater photography and seem only to want the fluid properties of the water to create suspended environments where any remanence of the container is either in darkness or illegible to the shot. With Lucas’ work we see poses that defy underwater conduct mixed with aquatic variations of what we are used to seeing on the surface, all the while making an active decision to show the environment around his subjects. The corners of the pool, the surfaces and edges that ground his subjects in a very real and relatable space.
“As a swimmer – I see the pool as second subject in my shots. The environment being as important as the human subject. Many underwater photographers try to hide the pool, I like to embrace it and find a way for it to elevate the image. Collin (pictured above) was an incredible individual to work with – this was just one of dozens of images we captured that weekend in rural Michigan. This was shot mid-afternoon in the hotel pool. Collin has this incredible duality to his energy and look. He is as smart as he is beautiful, as edgy as he is innocent. The white briefs and his tattoo were playing so well off each other. I just thought the shot needed something with a little gravity to it. We both spotted the cinder block in a construction site across the parking lot. I’m pretty sure I ran out the emergency exit of the pool in the middle of winter in my speedo to grab it and bring it in for the shot. It was an instinctual move – but I certainly don’t regret it!”
“David as the baseball player – I met David through his role on the water polo club that I had worked with. He does underwater gravity like no-one else. It’s a rare skill and he is one of the best. He was a varsity baseball player back in University – so we had been brainstorming about how to bring that in to a shot. We played around with a few ideas – and after a day of shooting – we still weren’t happy with what we had. I was shooting the next day and invited him to come back to give it another shot. This image was the result of that.”
So do we really see an image or does the image see us?
“One of my photographer friends, asked me early on about the autobiographical nature of my work. I laughed and said that I was just taking photos – how could that be about me? He smiled and brought me around to the idea that I was directing the subjects to portray a memory, and emotion, a feeling that I had inside me. Perhaps it was something that I had never been able to convey through words – and only through this medium – was I able to let it out to the world.
Understanding what my images communicate to people and how it makes them feel – that’s the biggest reward for doing this kind of work” – Lucas Murnaghan
Interview by Daniel Jaems.
Max Emerson (Above)