Christy Lee Rogers, Photographic Artist
Christy Lee Rogers is an experimental water photographer and filmmaker. She describes her style as contemporary Baroque. Christy was a poet and an artist since even before she picked up her first film camera around the age of 14. She worked in the darkroom, developing her images herself, so she really understands the possibilities of her medium.
Water is a life source. Christy describes it as her collaborator. In concert with the water she is creating something not of this world. Her water world is a dreamy place outside our reality, a realm that she wants to inhabit all the time.
Christy grew up in Kailua, Hawaii, in the water. Her father and she are both surfers. When she was not surfing or swimming in Hawaii she was enjoying the waterfalls and the daily afternoon warm rain. “Water has a memory to it, It remembers the past” Christy explains.
When Christy moved from Hawaii to Los Angeles, she missed being in the water. She started taking long baths every day. She could tell that being in the water was how she soothes her body and spirit. “We need water to survive” says Christy, “and I do especially.”
"I can do things in the water that aren’t possible on land” explains Rogers, “The laws of gravity don’t apply as much there. I can play with reflection, refraction, and light in new ways that are not otherwise available. I’m testing to see how far I can push light, color and movement.”
“Water is powerful and dangerous, but it is also healing and life giving.” That’s how we are also, as humans. In my work I am exploring that balance between being powerful but not destructive, life sustaining, giving and healing, but without losing my sense of who I am.”
About 16 years ago Christy started photographing people in water. For the first five years of this project she would shoot at night and experiment and practice, but she never showed the work to anyone. It was too experimental, too personal and too intimate to share. It was as though she had taken photos of her soul and she was not ready yet to expose that to judgment or criticism. At a certain point the images were so strong, so exquisite, that it felt wrong to hide them from the world. Christy’s message is all about hope, freedom, and persistence. She wants people to see themselves and their struggles and triumphs in her work and to feel empowered and encouraged.
Christy describes herself as extremely sensitive and empathic. Knowing this about herself, she carefully controls the exposure she has to television, news, or social media that would upset her. Creativity can only flow in the absence of fear and stress, so she ensures a protected environment for herself so she can do her work. Now based in Nashville, Tennessee with her young son, she lives in a forest on a beautiful piece of land and maintains a quiet life.
Christy is drawn to the Baroque style of art because, as she explains, it was a time when artists were celebrating mankind and something greater, mankind’s potential. Christy tries to evoke the drama, purpose, movement and inspiration characteristic of the Baroque period in her images. The art works do indeed feel grand and transcendent, as though the figures are flying up to the heavens rather than floating in the water.
Christy’s process is organic. She shoots in spurts and then processes the images for months. Her studio walls are lined with prints. She has to live with the images for a while in order to be sure she likes them before she releases them. She works with them for several hours per day but then needs to put them aside and focus on other things to disconnect and be able to come back to the work fresh and able to see it anew.
The concept for a single photo can take up to a year to build. Christy keeps notebooks throughout the year which she fills with notes, journaling, sketches, ideas and lists. “Most of the process is uncomfortable,” she reports. “With each new collection there is chaos first, and I always feel very vulnerable during that time, like something is wrong, like something is missing. But I have learned that I just have to push through that and persevere, and eventually it starts to click. With each collection there is an exciting moment when it all starts to come together.”
“I start with inspirations, notes, and thinking about problems we are seeing in the world.” Rogers describes. “From there I write and plan and see what I can say about those issues and how to express my ideas through my photographs.” Christy reports that when shooting, she takes thousands of images. Going through all of these takes months. She makes several passes through all of them and then selects the ones she wants to work on. She is drawn to those most complex and intricate, with compositional elements that harken back to Baroque paintings and themes.
“Choosing which images to include in a collection is the hardest part” Christy says. “Feeling the passion in the expression and making sure that communicates is also my challenge” she describes. “Living with them after they are printed and making sure they have enduring power is another phase of the process.” Only those that survive these various tests and still inspire are included in a release. Each collection includes between 10 and 40 images, and she averages one collection per year.
Most of the magic of Rogers’ imagery happens in camera, from the refraction of the light in the water. What she does differently than all other photographers who shoot their subjects underwater is that she stays dry, shooting her subjects from up on the surface. Her medium is the refraction of the light bending around her subjects, as seen through the water.
“Light moves more slowly in water than it does in air” Christy explains, “So when captured from the air through the water, the light refracts and bends. It often doesn’t even work” she explains, “but when it does, it’s so beautiful.” Outside the pool she has her camera either suspended on a crane arm, or handheld on the pool edge.
Christy uses yards and yards of fabrics, weighted down at the edges, to turn the bottom of each pool into the backdrop she requires for each project. A deep pool will give her a dark background, especially if she does not light it too deep. A shallow pool will show the fabric backdrop as an element of the photo. That is where all the colors come from.
Christy’s lights are submerged into the pool, weighted down, and sometimes wrapped in colored gels to set the color mood. Additional lighting is sent down into the pool from above as needed. Christy always only shoots at night so that she can control the lighting.
She uses a Canon 5D Mark III and is also experimenting with some 100 megapixel cameras. She wants the images to be able to be displayed billboard size, without loss of quality. Her moving image films sometimes get projected onto the side of a building, and need to be able to withstand the size demands of public art installations of this size. Her pieces have appeared enlarged to the size of a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, the size of an entire corner of a building at The Standard Vision installation in Los Angeles, and another enormous billboard sized piece advertised her show at the Let there Be Art Gallery in Mexico City.
Subjects swim close to the surface, one to 6 people at a time, attempting to create shapes and movement according to an intended composition. Of course, with all these variables, nothing ever goes as intended. “The interesting thing about shooting in the water” Christy explains, “is that no two images are alike. You can’t recreate what you did last time. Something new is always there. The water has a life of its own, and constantly presents new problems, new challenges. I need to just see what arises each time I am shooting and go with it. Even moment to moment during a shoot, things change constantly. I have learned to embrace this not knowing how or if any of it is going to work out. Many of the images I take are not useable, but I only need a few magic ones to make it all worth the time and effort.”
Oftentimes the uncontrollable aspects of the situation create the most interesting images. Rogers describes how “one day over the Christmas holiday I was shooting in my friends’ pool in Hawaii and the water got so murky I thought that we should probably stop shooting. But we kept going, and just tried it, to see what would happen. The resulting images were so soft and dreamy, much more so than I have ever done before. I liked the effect! It’s not something I would have tried to do on purpose. Another day we were shooting in an outdoor pool and the wind was very strong. It made the top of the water very choppy and created streaks. I thought we would need to call off the shoot, but the streaks looked incredible in the photos. Those were the best ones we did that day, so I’m so glad I just stuck through it and kept shooting.”
“I am always learning from the water not to be too attached, not to try to control, to get comfortable with imperfections and stay in awe of the beauty and power of nature. As soon as I start letting go and just dance with whatever the water brings me that day, if I can just be fully present and trust in the process, it always comes together. I never feel confident that it will work the way I have planned, since the pool and the mode of lighting and the models are different every time, but I have learned to trust the process. I know by now what elements to bring together. I spend weeks planning and shopping and thrifting and sourcing fabrics, clothing, and props. That part is so stressful! Once everything is in place and we start shooting, I can finally have fun and enjoy the process.”
Rogers’ favorite part of shooting is working with her subjects. “I love directing the models and creating scenes and shapes” she explains. “When they arrive on set I give them a position to take, a character to play in a scene to act out. The first hour or two in the pool is mostly practicing. Then the next few hours we spend actually shooting the scene.”
Christy uses actors and dancers who understand choreography. She especially enjoys working with underwater dancers, who can hold their breath easily for up to thirty seconds while maintaining a calm, still face. “Keeping multiple models under water for long enough to compose a shot is always a challenge” Christy discloses, “I try to keep them close to and attempting to be flat on the surface of the pool, but with enough of their clothes and bodies underwater to get the bending effect of the refraction. ”I sculpt with human forms, positioning them, composing with them. Together we make something elegant, timeless and gorgeous.”
Christy finds most of the clothing in her photos by thrifting. Metallic shine and lots of yardage are guiding principles when gathering clothing to use in the pool. Silk is a favorite fabric. She collects props to include such as masks, mermaid tails, and fresh flowers. “Simplicity is the best and the hardest thing to accomplish” says Christy. “Whenever I have too many props or costumes, they tend to overcomplicate the image. All those where the props show distinctly such that they dominate the image usually just get cut.”
“It’s best if the clothing is timeless and not too distinctive also,” she continues, “since I don’t want the viewer trying to place the image in a time period based upon what the subjects are wearing.”
In 2019 Apple commissioned a shoot by Christy to advertise the IPhone. It was Christy’s first time shooting for a client. “It was painfully stressful because I needed everything to go right, but it also kept me on my toes and kept me fresh and alert in a good way” she recalls. For the IPhone shoot Christy used costumes and abstractions, trying to recreate the renaissance, but out in space. She used LED colored lights to light the models.
When the pandemic hit, Christy had a big project about to begin in Italy. She had to put it on hold and just stay home, where she spent time listening to music, creating instrumental scores for her film pieces, home schooling her son, and working on a new collection of images.
“My new collection of images is about humanity, gravity and love” Christy explains. “Love is an attractive force that connects people and keeps them together. It’s like gravity in that it is impossible to resist. If it exists, it cannot be denied. It has you. Like gravity, love keeps you centered and grounded. This set of images explores the similarities of these two forces.”
The year prior to the pandemic Christy had traveled ten times, with major solo and group shows in Paris, Ireland, Shanghai, and a trip to London to receive the Sony World Photography award for Open Photographer of the year. She visits her parents in Hawaii at least once per year and does the majority of her shooting while there.
“People are comfortable being in the water in Hawaii” Christy explains, “So I always find great models to work with there.” She also has a few regular muses who she shoots with in Nashville.
Christy Lee Rogers has several galleries that sell her work around the globe, from Shanghai, China to Johannesburg, South Africa, from Paris, France to Venice, Italy to Sao Paolo, Brazil, in Texas, and California. She does numerous shows at galleries and museums around the world and sells prints through her regular galleries as well as through her website www.christyleerogers.com. Prices range from $1,050 to $90,000 for an archival print, depending on its size and edition. A series of silk scarves are for sale on her website featuring her Muses and Hybrids collections.
Rogers does a great deal of charity work. One of her favorite charities is Save The Children, which feeds hungry kids all over the world. During the Covid-19 lockdown, all proceeds from sales of her recent masterpiece Venus Rising were donated to charities helping victims of the pandemic. “The Covid-19 pandemic was overwhelming me” she describes, “so many people were suffering. I had been inspired by the Birth of Venus imagery for a long time. When people look at Botticelli’s Venus it lifts their spirits up. Venus Rising was intended to bring hope during this time of great loss.”
“I hope that we learn from this pandemic that after all the pain there is rebirth. People are going to be forever changed by these events. Life will never be the same. I’m hoping there will be more love. I’m hoping for a renaissance.”
Christy also sponsors art supply provisions for child artists who are unable to afford the supplies they need to pursue their art. Her Future Masters Art Charity, which she founded in 2013, identifies and provides supplies to talented child applicants in need. Applicants for grants from Future Masters have received violins, keyboards, and electric guitars from Christy, who is always excited to support young talents. Schools without budget for art have received art supply care packages, watercolor sets, and shopping sprees at the art supply store paid for by Christy’s charity.
If you would like to donate to any of the charities Christy supports, there are links to all of them on her website. You can also see all of Christy’s collections on her website:
Stay current on Christy Lee Rogers’ work by following her Instagram: