Dreaming Deep

“Ciara’s Dream,” one of Rhea’s underwater compositions, which are shot in calibrated tanks of water up to 16 feet deep.©Scott Rhea
© Scott Rhea
© Scott Rhea
© Scott Rhea
In “Lessons,” Rhea says, he was contemplating his daughters’ future. “I was having conversations with my wife regarding our girls’ education and the impact of our decisions,” he recalls. “Reaching for things that you try to control and dealing with what falls off the board and is out of your control are the primary messages of the image.”© Scott Rhea
© Scott Rhea
© Scott Rhea
© Scott Rhea
© Scott Rhea
© Scott Rhea
© Scott Rhea
Rhea's photograph "Two Dancers as One," from his underwater series An Inevitable Consequence.© Scott Rhea

We usually think of Hurricane Katrina as a destructive force. But it’s inspired many acts of creation, including Scott Rhea’s stunning photo series An Inevitable Consequence.

A Louisiana native, Rhea says the psychological impact of the disaster took a larger toll on him than he first realized. Though he was not in Louisiana at the time, he was crushed by the catastrophic scenes he saw on the news. “The fact that entire neighborhoods had disappeared, taking so much history with them, was devastating,” Rhea says. “The idea that water can simultaneously sustain and ravage humanity definitely triggered something in my subconscious.”

Soon afterward, Rhea began to dream about water. Those dreams ultimately became the conceptual underpinning of his latest series: composed images of female subjects floating in a mystical 
underwater milieu dressed in garments that complement their aqueous environs. “In some images I replicated the dreams as precisely as I could,” Rhea says. “Other images came from ideas or feelings I carried with me after the dream.”

A resident of Telluride, Colorado, who does his underwater photography and video work in pools and tanks in Los Angeles, Rhea approaches shoots with the care of an auteur. He meticulously draws up treatments and storyboards, making sure his crew is prepared for the demands of working in the water. “For every couple of feet you go down, it’s a different ball game,” Rhea says. But even with all the planning in the world, he still has to improvise at times. “Growing up in Louisiana, you learn there are a number problems that can be solved with duct tape and tin foil if you find yourself in a bind,” he says.

Rhea and his designers build sets that include objects found in classrooms, living rooms or carnival rides; these are then weighted (often with thousands of pounds) and submerged (sometimes with cranes) into the tanks. He collaborates with costume designers to style his subjects. Then there’s training his models—many of whom are working underwater for the first time—with breathing techniques and short bouts of submersion to adjust to the depths. And because Rhea believes water temperature and chemistry are key to the look and feel of each image, the tanks must be precisely calibrated. Shoot days can be long, expensive and exhausting, but Rhea remains dedicated to getting pictures in-camera with minimal post-processing.

Rhea first learned how to free dive as a child, in the lakes and muddy waters of Louisiana. He says that working underwater can evoke reservations and fear in adult subjects, but that “kids reach a level of comfort and peace that comes across on film and can’t be rivaled.” Rhea considers the children he works with (as well as his daughters, ages 5 and 7) his greatest inspirations. “Having kids and seeing through a child’s eyes,” he says, “reawakened a part of my spirit.”

He recounts a recent still shoot with an 11-year-old model. She’d had previous dive training, and that gave Rhea, certified for scuba himself, the rare opportunity to work submerged with his subject for 35 minutes. “She used a regulator and not a mask,” he says. “Signals were set up so that when she was ready for air, she pointed to her lips and the dive tech gave it to her.” They also used an underwater transceiver for communication to eliminate the distraction of resurfacing.

Introduced to photography in eighth grade by his aunt and uncle, who owned a camera store, Rhea is primarily self-taught. In the 1990s he worked as an advertising and editorial photographer in Zurich, Hamburg and Athens, but he became jaded by commercial photography and turned to fine art and personal projects.

Today Rhea is most interested in spiritual and emotional growth as an artist. He often isolates himself from any outside media, including television and print publications, that might influence his creative process. While it's easy to make an aesthetically pleasing image, he explains, "the real magic comes from having a great idea." He is learning not to censor his own thoughts, to allow a pure flow from his subconscious, even if it includes errors. "It's normal for your magic to come out of your mistakes," he says. "Make your mistakes deliberate." Rhea is expanding his underwater projects, now including music videos with underwater scenes, and hopes to carve out a niche in the art world. And while he plans to continue working in his liquid realm, he'll keep his options open. "Underwater is just a location," he says. Here's looking forward to seeing the next one he dreams up. AP

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