Photographs double as underwater paintings in new exhibit at Miller Gallery

Posted at 11:19 AM, Sep 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-15 11:19:12-04

Miller Gallery in Hyde Park will launch October’s FotoFocus Biennial two weeks early, opening “A Quarter of a Million Miles,” by photographer Christy Lee Rogers, on Thursday.

FotoFocus, which occurs every other year, features numerous photography events around Cincinnati and the region. While FotoFocus doesn’t officially begin until Oct. 1, Miller decided to bolster the fall arts season with Rogers’ Impressionistic underwater photos.

“Traditionally, these first few weeks after Labor Day — based on my experience working in a gallery in New York — really gets its legs and opens the fall season right around this time,” said David C. Smith, Miller’s executive director. This way, it builds momentum into October and gives Rogers six weeks to showcase her new collection.

The Nashville-based shutterbug has been photographing and filming underwater images since 2003. However, Rogers didn’t feel confident enough to start exhibiting her solo works until 2009, when “Siren,” a collection featuring nude female forms submerged in water, debuted in Los Angeles.

“I went through six years of experimentation until I really found a style that I liked,” she said. “It was like a science project — OK, we’ll take this out and add this in — and finally [I] just found this perfect combination of elements.”

Since then, she has exhibited her photos in Brazil, London, Texas and, for the first time ever, Cincinnati. Rogers was already one of the 60 artists on Miller’s roster when Smith started his job a year ago. The theme of this year’s FotoFocus is “Undocumented,” and Smith thought her work dovetailed well with it.

“It was nothing like I’d seen before, at least in terms of photography,” Smith said. “There’s a mystery that people are really intrigued by. Even the title itself, ‘A Quarter of a Million Miles’ — this idea of distance and time and space and mystery come together for this body of work in a really significant way.”

To convey the images’ light and dark interplay, Smith crafted “very dramatic lighting to illuminate the photographs.” The gallery installed a couple of the images on the exterior windows of the space, creating bold imagery that can be viewed from across Hyde Park Square.

Although her photos look like watercolor paintings, Rogers hires models — sometimes draped fully in fabrics, other times wearing almost nothing at all — and photographs them from above (she does not use an underwater camera) as they undulate beneath the surface in a swimming pool.

“Under the water, your mind shuts off,” Rogers said. “You have to let go. I think that’s part of message: There is this magic to us when we truly let go and stop thinking so much.”

A typical shoot — she works at night and only employs a few lights — can last up to four hours, with the subjects holding their breath for 30-second increments, coming up for air and then diving under again. What she’s capturing in her camera is refraction, or the bending of the light. Having grown up on the Pacific Ocean, in Hawaii, Rogers felt an immediate connection to water.

“I have this profound need for water,” she said. “I love shooting in the water. I think I get bored shooting up reality.”

For “Quarter,” she staged a pool in her native Hawaii earlier this year. Unlike many photographers working today, she eschews post-production techniques such as Photoshop.

“Everything you see is created in-camera,” she said. “I want people to know what they’re seeing is real. It’s not fantasy. It’s actually there. Also, sometimes your eyes can be deceiving. You have to use your heart to feel the images.”

Her process in wading through all of her photos and plucking the ones used in her collections involves a pattern. "If they’re constantly my favorites I know they have lasting power," she said. "I need to sit on them for a while and live with them."

FotoFocus will be Rogers’ final solo show for the year, but her next collection is already in the can. She and her husband will soon release a three-song EP with their band, Bayonesse.

Basically, Rogers will continue to diffuse her abstract thoughts through different mediums.

“I’m really fascinated by mankind and humanity," she said, "and I feel like that’s what my work is really about."

'A Quarter of a Million Miles' 

FotoFocus Opening Reception with artist Christy Lee Rogers
6-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15. The show runs through Oct. 22.
Miller Gallery, 2715 Erie Ave., Hyde Park.