Underwater Wonders: Lexi Laine
Lexi Laine uses her skill as a freediver to create photographs that focus on women and the beauty of the oceans that are affected by climate change. We talked to her about her work and what inspires her
Photography by Lexi Laine
Lexi Laine is a fine art photographer who lives in Brighton, although she travels a great deal with her work. She has always loved swimming and after she started taking photographs underwater, she joined a freediving club in order to extend the time she could spend under the sea. That passion for the underwater environment lead her to start creating images that celebrate the beauty of the ocean depths and her work often conveys messages about the importance of protecting our oceans. More often than not, her work features women as the focal point, bringing a human element into spaces that can otherwise feel quite otherworldly.
Glorious: How did you get into photography? Did you study it at university?
Lexi Laine: I did a BA course in Fine Art at The University for the Creative Arts. I entered into my degree as a painter and printmaker and quickly became hooked on photography. My background as a painter definitely influences my work.
Glorious: Were you sporty as a child or as a teen?
Lexi Laine: I was a swimmer as a child and so my love for water was with me from a young age. As well as training with my local swimming club I used to spend summer holidays in the sea. Even back then, I loved to dive down to the bottom of the ocean floor and collect shells.
Glorious: How did you get into underwater photography?
Lexi Laine: After I graduated from art school I found myself working as a commercial photographer. I did this for years and whilst I loved it, I felt a need to make photographs for art’s sake. Seven years ago I bought myself a housing for my camera as I had always wanted to combine my passions for photography, art, water and swimming. I started to photograph women in water as a representation of me and how I feel when I’m submerged and exploring those beautiful sub aqua landscapes.
Glorious: I’ve read that you are an experienced freediver. What came first – the diving or the underwater photography?
Lexi Laine: When I started taking photographs underwater I undertook every shoot on breath hold alone – I knew that having scuba gear on would be restrictive. The women that I was photographing couldn’t use scuba gear so I felt like I should be experiencing the same thing as them. Plus I had a fairly good breath hold. I quickly realised that the whole experience would be better if I could extend the amount of time I could stay underwater, so I joined my local freediving club here in Brighton. It’s called NoTanx and they have branches across London and the south east. It’s a brilliant club and I have been training with them for around six years. As a sport, it’s incredibly meditative and relaxing. I recommend to everyone I meet that they give it a try.
Glorious: Who or what inspires your work?
Lexi Laine: I am inspired by so many different things. There is certainly an influence of Baroque and Rococo art that can be seen in some of my pieces. I love the way painters from those eras used light to add drama to the scenes that they depicted and told stories through the use of contemporary, historical and mythological figures. I am inspired by women and the desire to represent them in art from my point of view as a female artist. I’m also inspired by the underwater topography of our natural world and so it’s important to me that my work is carried out in open water environments. Either the sea or inland bodies of water.
Glorious: Your work is other worldly and surreal with, as you’ve pointed out, a Baroque oil painting feel. The flow of dresses adds a really ethereal element and moves away from the typical woman in a bikini underwater shot. How important is this aspect to your work?
Lexi Laine: Very important. At art school I wrote my dissertation about how women and our bodies have been depicted throughout history. I love the idea of bringing classical elements of art history into the contemporary medium of photography and presenting women in a different way than has been depicted in the past – typically they have been from the ‘male gaze’. I love the way fabric behaves in water so mostly my images feature a lot of this. I do also occasionally photograph nudes but these are taken from a position of power and freedom rather than titillation.
Glorious: Do you work with a team?
Lexi Laine: Yes absolutely. Safety is important with what I do and often my shoots involve the use of plastic, nets or fabric that can easily get tangled up with the models. So a safety diver/s, model/s and me usually make up our team.
Glorious: How do you find a location? Where has been your favourite place to shoot?
Lexi Laine: I go to places that I research extensively before embarking on my trips. I like underwater areas where the water is clear and the backdrops are interesting. My favourite places are in the Mediterranean sea or the cenotes of Mexico.
Glorious: We found you through our friend Laura, the St Ives Mermaid, who you’ve featured in your work numerous times. How important is collaboration with the subject when setting out to shoot one of your dreamlike scenes?
Lexi Laine: Collaboration is key to what I do, I certainly couldn’t do it without the talented models who I work with. Over the years I have found only half a dozen women around the world who have the talent and skills it takes to model in challenging conditions. I met Laura through Instagram around four years ago and we finally met up to shoot together three years ago. We met in St Ives harbour and I attempted to photograph her in her mermaid tail. It was challenging because there was a strong current and the visibility (and temperature!) wasn’t quite the same as a lot of places where I shoot. It can often be difficult working with a model for the first time but we got on really well and I could see that we would make good work together. I asked her if she wanted to join me on a trip to Mexico and she came even though she didn’t really know me! There has to be a level of trust with our relationship. The models need to trust that I wouldn’t put them in danger and they need to know that it’s ok to say no. Over time working with the same people, I have built up a level of understanding where they know the kind of things I am trying to convey and we have a lot of fun doing it.
Glorious: I can imagine communication with the subject is pretty difficult underwater! How do you do this?
Lexi Laine: All of the communication happens on the surface in between submersions. We will often spend an entire shoot working on one idea. So I might say, ‘Do you see that rock at the bottom? Can you swim towards it and when you get there can you turn in this direction, then adjust your dress, then your hair, then turn your head in this direction.’ Then we give that a try. Then we do it again and again until everything comes together. It may be my vision but really the true skill comes from the models. It blows me away how relaxed and serene Laura and my other models look underwater. They are superheroes.
Glorious: You capture some beautiful underwater landscapes that look still and serene. I’m guessing most of these are in the sea which isn’t always so calm. How challenging is it shooting in the sea? How deep do you dive to achieve these shots?
Lexi Laine: I spend a huge amount of time looking at weather apps. I have over ten different apps that track the sun, the wind, the swell, the moon and even pollution. Sometimes luck can be on our side and sometimes not. It can be very frustrating when conditions aren’t right. But I’ve learnt to embrace the challenge and adapt to what I’m given to work with. It means that the days when we get the perfect light and clear water, are even sweeter. And depth wise, we work at various depths but I prefer using natural light which is always best just a few metres under the surface.
Glorious: What equipment do you shoot on?
Lexi Laine: I use a Sony A7R III and a Nauticam housing. It’s a mirrorless camera and the focusing system is the best that I’ve ever used.
Glorious: How much retouching goes into your work?
Lexi Laine: I do spend a fair amount of time in Lightroom and Photoshop. The main difficulty with editing underwater photos is that straight out of camera, the images can seem quite blue and flat. It is due to how light behaves in water. Basically, the colours of the light spectrum fade the deeper you go. The first colour that is reduced is red, then orange, then yellow. So I mainly need to correct colour temperature so that I can get skin tones looking natural. Other than this, most of my images are how I compose them underwater. It is important to me to capture the beauty of the underwater world and show it as it is. I do occasionally make more complicated compositions of multiple images in one frame, when I have an idea in mind. I created ‘Single Use Planet’ using multiple frames from one shoot to portray an abstract map of the world. It’s a piece with a message as it demonstrates my sadness about how we as humans are mistreating our oceans with plastic waste.
Glorious: What advice would you give to a young photographer just setting out?
Lexi Laine: I would say find a subject that inspires you and take a whole ton of photos. I once did a 365 project where I photographed a different person, often strangers, every day for a year. This was before I found underwater photography, I was still looking for my passion. But I knew that I was interested in people and so it helped me learn my craft. A lot of the photos weren’t that exciting but it taught me confidence, to look, to make decisions and to work quickly. It’s a steep learning curve when you do something again and again every day.
Glorious: Aside from swimming and diving, do you play or follow any other women’s sports?
Lexi Laine: Before I joined my freediving club I played women’s rugby for around 10 years. I loved being part of a team, it made me show up and train even on days when it was cold and miserable. I also tried roller derby for a couple of years but I wasn’t very good at it! Being part of a team is so rewarding and I formed a lot of my friendships around these sports. Freediving as a sport is different as it isn’t technically a team activity but in the club where I train, everyone is so dedicated to helping each other along that it feels just as community spirited. And another amazing thing is that a lot of the top athletes are a bit older than in many other sports. Natalia Molchanova was a female freediver who pioneered the sport and set such an amazing example to females getting into the sport, as she only began training when she was in her forties. She sadly died in 2015 holding 41 world records, some of which still remain unbeaten.
Glorious: If you could have dinner with five inspirational women, who would you invite and why?
Lexi Laine: Well if we are including dead or alive I would certainly say Natalia Molchanova for the reasons listed above. The second would be Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter from the 16th century. I would find it fascinating to hear what it would have been like to be a woman in such a male-dominated world back then. Tracey Emin because she is a no holds barred confident female who doesn’t take any crap. She has been an inspiration to me throughout my career as an artist. Fourth would be Catherine O’Hara who played Moira in Schitt’s Creek. The character she plays is so uplifting and it’s her who I’d like to model myself on as I age. She is an example of an older woman ageing in whatever way she chooses and I respect that so much. And she’s hilarious. And my final inspirational woman would be my wife Sarah who is great at a party – I love and admire her greatly. We met through playing rugby and she has been and always will be the best example to me of a strong, brilliant woman.
Glorious: What’s next?
Lexi Laine: One of my goals is to write a book, illustrated with my underwater photography. I enjoy writing and I think that it would be a great project. It probably won’t happen for a few years but I think it’s important to have long-term plans. I am currently working on images that I took on a recent trip to Mexico and later in the year I plan to exhibit some of this new work.
Glorious: Where can we find you?
Lexi Laine: My website is www.lexilaine.co.uk and I am fairly active on Instagram @lexilainephoto