Quite often we are quick to draw a dividing line between painters and photographers, separating the two based on an innate misunderstanding of both. Analogies are made and technical know-how analysed, but ultimately when both reach a position of fine art, they share the lucid dream – a moment, infused with meaning, that defines the work they then go on to create.
The photography of Cheryl Kelleher Walsh confidently strides back and forth across any perceived dividing line. Her subjects have seemingly absorbed every Jungian archetype and are presented with the skill of neo-classicism and the confidence of high fashion. But there are no hours of prolonged sitting or edgy studios shoots in Cheryl’s world. And the ethereal confidence of her models is a testament to more than just highly skilled photography, for every image she captures is underwater.
“I know other artists who are working on the same style and we call it neo-romantic digital fine art photography,” says Cheryl, but she is very keen to underline that her work is grounded in a deep sense of reality and, to this end, her images are the result of an incredible amount of learning and technical skill, as well as creating human bonds that cannot be fabricated. “Photography is an art and a science. Underwater photography is an art, a science, and a science. One of buoyancy of light, colour temperature and physical temperature.” Over a period of many years, Cheryl has honed her technical skills to the point where editing is at the bare minimum – the images almost ready ‘in-camera’ – and shooting underwater is second nature to her. But her point of difference is not in her settings, but in the relationships, emotions and stories she tells.
She was introduced to underwater photography during a time when she was running a business taking High School Senior portraits. She saw the opportunity for a nice twist on the traditional prom shoot, but at the same time these girls were photographed in swimwear – more for the gaze of the viewer than to capture their experience of a meaningful moment in their lives. A big part of Cheryl’s power as a photographer is her determination to change the narrative (“Tell me I can do something, and I might doubt myself. But tell me I can’t do something? And get out of my way.”) and so her first underwater shoot was a High School Senior in her prom dress. It was an unconventional ask, but purposeful: “here’s something I can do that not only can make beautiful art but can also make this person feel like they really accomplished something difficult.”
Accomplishment is only a part of what Cheryl achieves. She has subsequently used water as the medium through which she can simultaneously transport herself and those she photographs. Because the actual shoot is conducted in silence, there needs to be a bond between them from the very beginning. “I hear a lot of photographers talk about ‘models’. They’re people. Individuals. I could tell you a story about every single one of the more than 100 people I’ve photographed underwater.” And it is in building this trusted ‘family’ around her that Cheryl can shoot with absolutely authenticity, “All the camera is doing is capturing what’s there because you can’t fake emotion in a photo.”
This authenticity of emotion has a source, and that is Cheryl herself, although this wasn’t always obvious to her. In the beginning, she battled very genuine anxieties and the process of her work both amplified and projected these fears. “A fear of drowning, a fear of deep water, a fear of heights.” Yet the figures in her photographs all float fearlessly and in her early images she would superimpose clouds so that they looked like they were flying, entirely erasing the truth of the scene. As time went on, a big part of the relationships she built with her subjects were the conversations they had on dry land, which developed an important emotional resonance that soon became an awakening. “For years, the things I would tell my models, I didn’t realise were what I wanted to hear myself. It should have been really obvious to me, but it wasn’t of course.”
“Confident, strong, graceful, competent and that she’s where she wants to be, doing what she wants to be doing.” So easy to say, but much harder to express in body language, yet, through their relationship, Cheryl’s subjects understand what is necessary to channel these physically indefinable strengths against the pressure and restrictions of the water. “Shoulders down, long neck, graceful hands, relaxed face – all of those things are difficult to do in the water. So, you’re putting a lot of effort into making something look effortless.” It’s almost a shock to see the unforgiving nature of the shoots in progress – wet towels around the swimming pool, Cheryl in her wetsuit – against an outcome which is unearthly but bold, gentle yet powerful.
When she’s not immersed in water (which has become second nature to her now), Cheryl is immersing herself in art. From the old masters to contemporary works, she looks more to what individual pieces tell her, rather than subscribing to a preferred genre. “Some paintings have more technical excellence than others, others just evoke a feeling, some you just know what the story is. And others make you ask, what is the story?” During her visits to the Getty in LA or the Met in New York, she is inspired by the vastness of the rooms, the scale and size of the artworks and how they are presented. It’s no wonder then, that her mind’s eye envisions her own work at vast scales. “I have the PRO-4100 and everyone says, ‘oh that’s such a big printer’. Really to me it’s not big enough. I should’ve gotten the PRO-6000.”
Cheryl is every bit as passionate about print as she is her art because of the part it plays in achieving her vision, and 2020 is the year she plans to step-up her self-described “mission” to encourage and educate digital photographers to print their own work. “I’ve put a lot of effort and time into studying digital inkjet printing for the last three years and, of course, the more I learn, the more I feel like I know nothing,” she laughs. “But I’m finding that I know a fair amount compared to most people and I would really like to broaden my audience. I just think it’s so important to get that information out there and to educate. I have some really lofty, ambitious goals, but I think I can do it.”
In his 1955 book ‘No Man is an Island’, the theologian Thomas Merton wrote “art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” The sentiment, and the idea of examining the relationship with the self and others could have been conceived for Cheryl and her path of travel as an artist, a photographer and an educator. With every piece she creates, she lends the viewer her eyes and shares sight of personal growth, bravery, inner and physical strength. But her works are also tales of mythology that transport us to a fantastical silent world, where we will never know what falls outside of the frame – but that doesn’t stop us from dreaming.