THE SURREAL WORLD OF CONOR CULVER
For artist Conor Culver underwater photography is the perfect means by which to challenge our sense of reality. Paul Critcher finds out more about the work of diving’s leading, and possibly only, surrealist
Tell us about where you’ve dived and which places have been notable?
I began my diving career 18 years ago when I was 12 years old and have been to islands all over the Caribbean, including Bonaire, Curaçao (in the Netherland Antilles where I learned to dive), Dominica, The Bahamas, Belize, Turks & Caicos, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Dry Tortugas, Útila, and Isla Mujeres (Mexico). I’m now a PADI Divemaster, a qualification I achieved 12 years ago.
I’ve also enjoyed plenty of diving in the Pacific. I’ve been to Fiji, Hawai’i, Palau, and most recently to Indonesia. My favourite places in the Caribbean are Bonaire, the Cayman Islands, and Belize. Indonesia is my favourite Pacific destination to date. I was on a liveaboard that started in Ambon and ended in Alor, diving throughout the Ring of Fire. I was amazed by the sea life there.
When did you take up underwater photography?
I started taking underwater photos when I was 16 on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Back then I was shooting film on a small Sea & Sea MX-10 and the one shot I remember getting was of a green moray eel going up a wall. After that, I was hooked on underwater photography.
Which photographers do you particularly admire?
My biggest influences in photography come from the fine art world: Jerry Uelsmann, Man Ray, Maggie Taylor, Kerry Skarbakka, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, Ben Goossens, and Tom Chambers. I’ve always loved all styles of photography but particularly enjoy artists that challenge your sense of reality. Even the early surrealists such as René Magritte, Salvador DalÍ, Max Ernst and Marc Chagall have all had an impact on me.
When did you come up with the idea of producing the surreal images that are feature here?
I attended the University of Colorado Denver and at first I was only creating manipulated images in Photoshop or the darkroom of any subject matter. When I left for a dive trip to Bermuda, I started manipulating the underwater images I shot there, but I didn’t have any deep understanding or a thought through idea about meaning about what I was doing at that point. I put the animals in random settings; I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a photographer. It wasn’t until my senior year and for my thesis that I started Underwater Surrealism. My very first image was Birth of a Seahorse and the work has since blossomed into more challenging photographs with different species that I have found throughout my travels.
What do you feel you are trying to communicate in your art?
As a diver, I’ve always noticed how disasters on land are heavily publicised but disasters in the oceans are not met with the same response in the media (the only exception being oil spills). I have yet to see front-page articles about the lionfish invasion in the Atlantic or the dredging near the Great Barrier Reef. I remember that when I was growing up, everyone always talked about saving the rainforest from clearcut logging, but no one talks about the dynamite fishing that is destroying the reefs around the world. Both are equally horrible to the environment, but only the atrocities that happen on land get the attention.
Through my work I am bringing these creatures to the surface. With each individual image I try to bring awareness of what this animal or fish is, and tell something about them. I’ll usually reference something about their name, what they look like with regard to an animal on land, their habitat underwater, or something unique about that creature. It is the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards the oceans that I am trying to break down with my work, and show people these incredible animals in the reefs, brought into scenes everyone can relate to.
Are all the underwater photographs taken by you and what type of equipment do you use?
I take all of the photos and none are ever taken in aquariums. These are all shots of the creatures I’ve found during my travels while diving, and I also shoot the backgrounds and everything featured in the images. I shoot with a Nikon D800E inside an Ikelite housing with two DS160 Substrobes. I use three different Nikkor lenses for underwater: 60mm Macro, 105mm Macro, and a 16-35mm wide-angle. I use the 60mm the most because I can usually get the entire animal in the frame and control the depth of field better than the 105mm. I use the 105mm for really small animals and the wide- angle for sharks and larger animals.
What about once you’re out of the water – is it all done in Photoshop?
I use both Photoshop CC and Lightroom CC for all of my editing. I do all the basic edits in Lightroom and export them and bring them into Photoshop to manipulate them. I cut them out by using the pen tool or masking, depending on the animal. Masking works best for fish (because of their fins and tails they do not have hard edges) or transparent creatures, because you can adjust the opacity with the brush. Then I place them into the desired scene on land, match the lighting by dodging and burning, and then create the shadows. After that, I experiment with different tools and plugins. When I am close to being finished, I just let things happen in Photoshop and try different filters or edits. I can always go back if I don’t like the results and do it again another way. The last step is placing a texture over the entire image. This helps bring the image together and tricks the eye into believing the image is real. Your mind knows it is not real, but your eye believes it.
Do you have a plan for a completed piece of art before you go in the water – or do you simply shoot what you find and take it from there?
Some of my ideas are envisioned beforehand. One example of an image that was thought of beforehand was Clownfish Circus, where I placed clownfish swimming around circus tents. I prepared months before leaving for Indonesia for the image and took the background image of the tents knowing that I would put the clownfish in that scene. However, most of my image ideas come afterwards because I do not always know what I am going to see and how the creature will be positioned. After I get the shot, I typically start dreaming up the idea and the backgrounds, props, and tools I will need to create the image. Then some ideas come in the spur of a moment, when I am walking around with my camera. For example, I came across a Venus flytrap at the botanical gardens and immediately knew I wanted to put a frogfish with flies buzzing around at the top of the photo. This led to the image Prey Stalking. I always have my camera on me and shoot all the time. I have a collection of images I might use, eventually, saved on my computer.
Where do you think your work will lead - what plans for the future?
I am not sure where it will lead, but I do try to get better and better every year. I always try to take on more difficult ideas that require more Photoshop skills and new tricks. I’m trying to put my work in front of as many people as I can and plan to continue with underwater surrealism. I have a list of fish, creatures, and animals in the oceans that I’ve always wanted to see and photograph. It began about six years ago and the list was around 200 species long. It is now around 80 and the majority of the remainder require specific trips to encounter them. The number one animal I have always wanted to see is a hammerhead shark. This year I am planning on going to Bimini, Bahamas to see the great hammerheads and I’ll also be going to Socorro to see scalloped hammerheads.
Find out more about Conor Culver and his work at www.conorculver.com