Real Life Mermaids Project by Andrew Brusso

Photographer Andrew Brusso captures the underwater dancers of Weeki Wachee Springs

Andrew Brusso
Andrew Brusso
Andrew Brusso
Andrew Brusso
Andrew Brusso
Andrew Brusso
Andrew Brusso
Andrew Brusso
Andrew Brusso

In the 1940s, Bruce Mozert began a decades-long stint as a promotional photographer for the town of Silver Springs, Florida. His charming pictures of men and women grilling fish, playing golf, and reading the paper touted the area's stunning natural pools—by capturing them underwater. Over the past decade, Andrew Brusso has continued in Mozert's path, shooting pictures for nearby Weeki Wachee Springs that feature the park's world-famous "mermaids."

Weeki Wachee has showcased real life mermaids in its unique underwater theater since 1947; it’s one of the state’s oldest attractions, surviving both mismanagement and rampant Disney-fication. In 2008, Weeki Wachee became a state park, thanks in part to Brusso’s pictures, which he began shooting pro bono about 10 years ago after reading about the park’s ongoing “Save Our Tails” fundraising campaign.

His primary contribution to Weeki Wachee has been an annual calendar, the first of which he shot in 2008. He initially drew inspiration from Mozert's kitschy scenes, photographing the mermaids with giant shells or holiday-specific props. "At the beginning it was more forced with the props, and I used to do a bit more Photoshop," he says. "Now, it's completely in-camera, natural, just some color correction. I'm more comfortable in the environment to let everything unfold in front of me, instead of feeling the need to control it."

A meticulous lighter on land, Brusso has learned to embrace natural light while beneath Weeki Wachee's waters. He used to use a bevy of strobes, several in the theater and one over the water as a main light. But while he still uses strobes as fills for shoots at Weeki Wachee, he lights the calendar shots by the sun and a Canon Speedite 600EX-RT on an EOS 5D Mark II with an EF 16–35mm f/2.8L II lens, all in Aquatech housing.

He has about 30 minutes to shoot each mermaid before the water gets too cold. Brusso has learned to relish spontaneity since communicating is difficult— though this year he’ll be able to direct them using a wireless sonar microphone connected to the theater’s speaker system. In 2013, for instance, on the first day of the calendar shoot, he was joined by a group of manatees swimming up from the Gulf of Mexico.

“You’re always looking at light, trying to pick a different time of day, a different part of the spring,” Brusso says of keeping the calendar shoots fresh each year. “You let each mermaid bring their own personality. You’re always trying to work with what nature’s giving you, too; let that be the different thing. Like the year the manatees came, we were blessed.”

As he preps for his sixth calendar, he’s eagerly awaiting a new set of silicon tails crafted by Tampa-based Merbella Studios. Given his love of the band Kiss and a childhood spent on Anna Maria Island amid Florida’s classic kitsch, it’s little wonder that Brusso is drawn to the theatrical. The real life mermaids exemplify these qualities, so much so that his portraits no longer need the bells and whistles—he captures these magical creatures simply dancing and playing in Weeki Wachee’s sublime waters.

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