One of my favorite aspects of this job is the bazaar opportunities that arise. When a Houdini water tank was loaned to my studio I knew I had to fill it with water and induct a brave human to take the plunge.
When Harry Houdini (who was was barely 5′ 6″) performed the “Chinese Water Torture Cell” escape he was lowered in headfirst with his feet locked in stocks in the tank’s lid. His feet extended out of the top so a deep tank was unnecessary. The tank is more shallow than one would expect and that would dictate whom I could comfortably photograph within it.
I was warned that having one’s head submerged upside down was a very unnatural sensation and that even seasoned magicians that had tried the stunt had panicked just as their heads were submerged. I wasn’t about to drop someone in by their ankles, besides I wanted to use the tank to speak to the notion of isolation rather than danger. In order to totally submerge a model in the tank and not look out of scale I knew we were looking for someone petite, comfortable in the water and with a specific disposition. Even with safety precautions in place it would be disorienting with strobes firing, the bubble system we installed to give the water dimension, the limited vision and ability to hear and the claustrophobic nature of the tank (the heavy lid of the apparatus actually slides over a thick wooden sleeve providing a very narrow opening). It didn’t help matters that once submerged talent couldn’t be given any useful direction.
My initial concept was to have a model in an etherial dress looking through the glass at a deer in the forest, I liked the surreal implications. The day of the shoot, Teri(make-up artist) introduced me to Nikki Leigh. I knew immediately we were in good shape. Nikki is stunning and didn’t bat an eye when she saw the tank, at one point we tested her nerve as she was tightly cinched into a straight jacket within the tank.
After Teri applied waterproof make-up we put Nikki in the tank so she could acclimate to the water as it was filled (during this period we did all of our final lighting tests, tested the bubble and safety systems and played with alternate concepts – straight jacket, etc.). Once the tank was full and Nikki was comfortable we extracted her to have Julia (wardrobe) dress her in a wedding dress in which she had sewn a heavy chain into the hem to keep it from floating to the surface.
From our tests I knew we would have only a very brief window to get our shot before Nikki would have to be extracted from the tank. Each time she would submerge we could get about 4 shots before she would have to surface, I would review the images and give her direction. I was going to pull her out of the tank as soon as we got our shot. After her fifth dive I knew we had our image.
I originally dropped the tank into a forest clearing I had shot just a couple of weeks before in Texas but it didn’t evoke the feel I wanted. I felt that the deer should be out of it’s element as well so I used a location scout image I shot at a deserted train depot just outside of Medellin, Columbia on a job for XIX.
Everyone involved was happy with the image and it turned out just as I had hoped. I did feel that perhaps there was another approach, something more organic where the concept was “no concept.” Just a tank and a human. I mentioned this to a friend of mine over lunch and he suggested a model he had just photographed. We called and she was interested but her schedule wasn’t going to work before I had to return the tank.
The day we were prepping the tank to move it out of the studio I got a call from my friend asking how long it took to fill it up. As it turned out he was in route to my studio with the model. We rolled the tank into the middle of the studio, threw in a hose and hung a single light. I wanted to keep it really simple. I made the decision not to fill the water to the top, there’s something precarious seeing the water level. I was introduced to our model Raylin and warned her that we didn’t have time to warm the water and it might live up to it’s name as a “torture cell.”
We went over the safety briefing and Rayin took to the water like a navy seal and managed to dive under six times each time staying longer than I thought possible at that temperature. Unencumbered by a large dress with a heavy chain she was able to do some amazingly graceful poses before we pulled her from the tank and wrapped her in a robe in the sun to warm up. I immediately gravitated to the simplest pose, no performance, no underwater balletic shapes, grounded, effortless.