This post was written by Michael Stewart

IDI Interviews Mallory Morrison: Profile of an Underwater Photographer

Photography is a challenging medium. Underwater photography presents the practitioner with a heightened level of difficulty and can be frustratingly problematic. Even if you manage to compensate for water refraction, cope with the limited depth of field and allow for the ghostly effect submersion has on human skin, you’ll still have to keep yourself and your subjects down submerged while being aware of the potential for devastating consequences that each and every bubble can have on your composition… and personal composure. On top of this, is the undeniable fact that electronics and water simply don’t mix. Having established all of this, if you persevere and get it right, the results can be, well… breath-taking.

Mallory Morrison’s photography proves my point. Her body of work is simply entitled, “Water” but comprehensively demonstrates how even a largely unsympathetic environment can be used positively; as an integral feature of the shot, one that provides opportunity rather than imposes restrictions. Morrison uses the physical properties of water, literally and metaphorically, as a supporting player, in her inventive, imaginative body of work.

Flattened skin tones and diffused lighting lend her images a translucent quality that is reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite paintings; the filtering properties of water are skilfully employed to lend her models a waiflike, unblemished appearance. Water enables the aesthetic behind Morrison’s series; it provides the agent that enhances the physical appearance of her female subjects while simultaneously distancing them from the viewer, reinforcing the notion of untouchable, unattainable beauty, itself a feature of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Worldly Beauty (Lady Lilith) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Worldly Beauty (Lady Lilith) Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1867)

Mallory MorrisonMallory Morrison

Morrison’s use of reflection, suspension and floatation imbue the photographs with an otherworldly, surreal atmosphere that suggests the work of Dali, Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico. This device also serves to distance the audience from the subject and we are invited to observe Morrison’s work much in the way that a scientist examines a specimen suspended in fluid or a critic views an exhibit contained within a frame; a concept explored by British artist Damien Hirst in his work during the early 1990’s.

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Damien Hirst: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991)

Morrison’s work differs from that of Hirst in that there is no apparent need to shock to grasp her audience’s attention; the viewer is immediately conscious of the high degree of technical and artistic skill that Morrison’s images demonstrate before becoming aware of their aesthetic, emotional and intellectual content. In contrast to the short, sharp shock of Hirst’s pieces, Morrison’s photographs linger in the mind as layers of interpretation become apparent.

Dali Atomicus“Dali Atomicus” by Philippe Halsman 1948

Consequently, Morrison’s audience is left with an impression that reinforces the concept of the photograph capturing a single instant; water suspends both time and action, presenting the viewer with an image that epitomises Cartier Bresson’s “decisive moment”. Any movement will invariably result in some form of displacement among the elements within the photographic frame and a single instant will be lost forever. While we acknowledge, albeit subliminally, that this phenomenon is also true of photographs taken in air, the concept of the fleeting passage of time is brought home to us dramatically by the use of water as a medium. It is precisely because water slows all movement down that the photographer is made aware of the minutest changes to the composition of the image – and how each element has the potential to influence the behaviour of the others. Thus Morrison presents us with photographic studies of her subjects’ relationship with time and space; objective studies rather than subjective, reflexive snaps.

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“Maternity” by Dorothea Tanning

mallory 6Mallory Morrison

Morrison uses water to subvert our traditional perceptions of time, space and movement; her models, props and our conception of how the body relates to the space it occupies are suspended; literally. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mallory Morrison was originally a dance photographer. Knowing this, it is much easier to deconstruct these images, to ascertain the intention behind her underwater photography; she certainly brings an acute sense of kinaesthetic awareness to her current work.

Mallory Morrison

However, none of this should detract from the technical expertise and photographic talent which these photographs demonstrate; Mallory Morrison is to be commended for this fine body of work.

Recently, we spoke to Mallory Morrison about her work and approach to photography.

  • Can you tell us something about your background in photography; did you receive any formal training? 

Yes, 7 years actually!  I went to a liberal arts college, University of California, Santa Cruz, to get my general degree and majored in Art.  I found photography through my required art classes.  I had always been a hobbyist photographer, learning the basics from my dad when I was 13.  Once I got into the dark room and saw my first image appear in the developer, I was hooked for good.

I graduated with a BA in Art and wanted to continue my schooling.  The program focused on developing fine art series to show in galleries, with no business direction of how to go about doing it.  I didn’t feel prepared to be a professional photographer. I found Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California and continued my studies there.  It was another bachelors program, but I had plans to switch over to the masters program after the first year. I ended up staying in the bachelors program until graduation.  It was where I wanted to be- shooting and growing my skills daily.  The masters program was a different focus and was not the right fit for me.  Brooks focused heavily on the commercial and business side of photography which gave me the skills to actually have a career as a professional photographer.  I utilize both my fine art and commercial photography degrees in all of my projects.  I found my underwater focus while at Brooks as well, back in 2007.

  • Why did you decide to specialise in underwater photography?

I was involved in the dance department in Santa Cruz and had access to shoot the dancers.  It was a great pairing of my interests and I loved to be in that world, even if I wasn’t going to pursue a professional dance career.  I continued my focus on dance photography at Brooks but soon got tired of the limited control of shooting performances and the confinement of shooting in a little studio.  I was always bringing a trampoline and gymnast tumbling pads into the studio to get the dancers to up and off the cement floor.  One night, when I was about to fall asleep, I thought, “gravity is my problem.  How do I fix that?”  Water was the solution to my problem.  That is how it started and then once I tried it, I have never looked back.  There are limitless possibilities to shoot something different or create a scenario where something interesting can happen.

  • Can you tell us about the equipment you use to capture your images; do you prefer a specific type of camera, lenses and lighting rig?

I use my regular camera, a Canon 5D mark2, in a dive housing made by Ikelite.  I regularly use my 17-40mm lens and on occasion branch out to a 50mm or an 80mm.  Ikelite also makes strobes.  I have 2 underwater with me.

  • Where do you get your inspiration for your work?

That comes from lots of things, mostly from my dreams and from listening to music.  I also love going to antique stores and flea markets to find intriguing props.  They usually tell their own stories and I just build a scene around it.  For example, I have a shot of a woman holding an old railroad lantern.  Once I saw that in an antique shop, I saw a selkie*- like woman drifting through the water, with her lantern; similar to a ship figurehead. (*Note: these are mythical creatures of Scottish origin that live underwater)

Mallory Morrison

  • Who do you regard as having the greatest influence on your work?

That is a hard one.  I would have to say Joyce Tenneson.  Her portraits transport me.  They are without time and space.  They live in a dream world and I have always loved the effect it has on me.

mallory9“Birdwoman” by Joyce Tenneson

  • Do you work in any other media?

No.  I always wanted to be a painter but I never had the skill. Photography was the medium that I connected with and it felt the most natural for me.

  • Do you have a burning desire to tackle a particular project?

I would really like to try building a big set underwater for a shoot; setting a scene and telling an elaborate story.

You can view examples of Mallory Morrison’s series, “Water” and other work by following this link:


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