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CULTURE CLASH

RIGHT: ELENA KALIS, FROM THE SERIES “OCEAN SONG”

AN ALTOGETHER

DIFFERENT DIMENSION Underwater photographer Elena Kalis takes one plunge after the next BY MAHA MAJZOUB

T

he world is not enough for Elena Kalis. Land is too flat boring for her taste. She prefers the unfathomable possibilities presented by the sea, hence delving into underwater photography some five years ago and finding success by fully giving in to the deep blue. “The underwater environment is dreamlike and lucid and just a different world overall. I feel a fusion of respect, awe, sensuality, and mystery when shooting underwater and in the ocean in particular,” says Kalis. “I like how different things and people look underwater, movements are graceful and free and it has an otherworldly quality that is difficult to achieve on land,” continues the Russian native who with her husband and two children moved to a small island in the Bahamas a dozen years ago. This is where Kalis spends most of her waking hours – and often with her camera – capturing the shifting shapes, lights, and colors down under, where the water defies the laws of gravity and where freedom knows no boundaries.

FLUID FANTASIES

With the help of her trusted companion, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Kalis composes photo essays and photographic series that she romantically describes as “emotional fairytales”. This is clear as day in her “Dreamland” series, where her subjects are reveling in the beauty and mystique of “the other dimension” they find themselves in. This also evident in “Ocean Song”, as her lithe young models follow ballerina silhouettes and dance – at times in trancelike fashion – to the music they 28 | R A G M A G | www.ragmag.co

alone seem able to hear. The fairytale-like quality is all the more vivid in “Alice in Waterland”, Kalis’ very own reading of the Lewis Carroll classic and favorite book of all time “Alice in Wonderland”. It occurred to the artist that being underwater was akin to the place Alice found herself in when she fell in the rabbit hole or when she jumped to the other side of the mirror – both instances were different perceptions of reality. From there, Kalis kept pushing the walls of her imagination, coming up with intriguing possibilities for Alice’s adventures in a parallel universe. Sometimes playful at other times unsettling, the resultant images took two long years to come to fruition. “I can’t say that the series is finished even now. I still have a lot of ideas to try,” Kalis remarks. Like all of her collections, “Alice in Waterland” is an unfinished “work in progress”. This series shares another commonality with her ongoing projects, as Kalis cast a recurring muse for the role of Alice, her daughter. “When we started playing Wonderland underwater, Sacha was 10, which is the same age as Carroll’s Alice,” says Kalis, alluding to her youngling as “a natural THE DIMENSIONS ISSUE


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THE DIMENSIONS ISSUE


CULTURE CLASH

mermaid who could swim before she could walk; a perfect little underwater model.” It also doesn’t hurt that the nimble tweenie is easy to work with. “She understands very well what I want to capture in the image,” the proud mother stresses before adding, “It’s not easy to find models who are graceful and relaxed underwater. It’s a gift only few people possess.”

GOING UNDER

Kalis’ pictures charm not for their appreciation of wildlife in the sea, as the case is with her more famous counterpart David Doubilet. Her images, which have graced the covers of books and

CDs and featured as magazine spreads, are more feminine and carry softer undertones, yet they deviate from the paths of celebrated underwater fashion photographers such as Zena Holloway or Alix Malka. For the most part, Kalis narrates sweet stories with happy endings although she is not afraid to display at times the more somber side of the water. In “Dark Water”, she paints more unnerving images of such things as death and suffering. “Like everything in life, there are opposite forces at play,” Kalis argues, adding, “Water sustains all life but it can also take it away. Tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and the Japan tsunami are reminders of that.”

HEAD ABOVE WATER

Before she takes the plunge, Kalis does some basic prepping and planning of both theme as well as location. “Ideas can take a very long time or they might just pop up out of blue,” she says. The surprise element is also always present. “You never know what you will get at the end of the day. It’s unpredictable and exciting.” Kalis also prefers taking a dip in the ocean to the pool, which she generally resorts to when weather conditions don’t allow or when she has to fix the props for “an image that may not be possible in the ocean”. Shooting mostly on sunny days near surface, Kalis attempts to use natural light as much as possible, sometimes enlisting the help of underwater Sola light. Kalis and her team usually spend no more than one hour underwater for a single shoot, and she explains why: “Underwater photography is very physically demanding for both the model as well as myself, as I capture about 400 frames during each shoot.” Only few images make it to editing. The rest are thrown away. “The underwater studio is much more difficult to control than the normal studio,” concurs the artist, but this total immersion in the sea is both a source of challenge as well as an endless well of creativity to her. “The ocean is vast and multifaceted. One day, it is bright, sunny, and fun. The other, it can be the complete opposite. I can never get tired of it and it is my daily dose of inspiration,” adds Kalis, demonstrating an undyingly deep submission to the big blue. www.elenakalisphoto.com

“THE UNDERWATER STUDIO IS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT TO CONTROL THAN THE NORMAL OPPOSITE PAGE: ELENA KALIS, FROM THE SERIES “DARK WATER” LEFT: ELENA KALIS, FROM THE SERIES “ALICE IN WATERLAND”

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