Studio Visit - Paola Talbert
We visited Paola Talbert in her Erskineville studio to talk ocean mythology, the environment and underwater photography.
Paola began photographing the ocean 13 years ago and continues work with water as her main focus.
From below the water’s surface, the body is set in motion with gauzy mesh and chiffon swirls. Paola's photographs capture the figure and ocean rhythmically, in a suspended state, creating light abstractions in a timeless union with the crystalline texture of film and salt water.
The luminous surface of the photographic prints is created by digital metallic photographic printing paper. Ink jet on canvas is also used to enhance the painterly grainy effect of film and the salt texture.
Detail from PELAGOS (open sea) series
P72: Let's talk about the works that will feature in your latest body of work PELAGOS (open sea) and the concepts behind this recent series.
Paola Talbert: I wanted to do a series that celebrates the diversity of colour in the Great Barrier Reef. So for that I’m going to draw inspiration from the corals. I'm also concerned about the environmental damage that will occur from the coal dredging soil that is planned to be dumped in the reef.
There’s a lot of attention on these plans now, community run organisations like Greenpeace and Get Up are creating public awareness about what’s going on. I want to talk about that in my own way by honouring the Reef in terms of colour, and the celebration of ecological diversity in this natural wonder. I wanted to use yellow, not only because I love the colour, but also because I’ve never really used it as a colour in my work before.
Paola's found plastics garment
I’m also currently creating a new garment to be worn by my subject as part of the shoot I’m doing for this series. All the plastic on this piece [see image] has come from my studio, I want it to be on my model tomorrow [for the shoot]. This is going to be the first outfit for my model before she gets into the colour reflecting the splendour of the reef, we’re gonna do plastic! It does continue some work I did in 2012 for my Gyre series, so this is in continuation from Gyre.
P72: Have environmental concerns always been a key issue expressed through your work?
PT: No. Initially when creating my technique I was actually more interested in celebrating the body and how we as humans have evolved through and from the ocean environment, to the terrestrial. I worked with men and women [earlier] to celebrate the body. So that’s how I started.
In terms of the last ten years I have been working with the idea of not just the body, but the body with other objects like fabrics and cloth, and then it’s evolved into plastics because of wrapping and plastic that I saw at the ocean when doing my shoots.
Also when I visited the Mediterranean, in 1993 I was crossing form Spain to Morocco and I saw a huge volume of plastic bags and bottles [in the ocean], which was really shocking. So packaging became a concern, but only recently have I thought to put it in the ocean with the model as part of the work, in a much more studied approach.
So for PELAGOS (open sea) I want to do one more sequence of work with the Gyre series at the moment and this [garment] is just the beginning. I want to to reflect the plastic waste floating through the oceans in the gyres. In a way the body is hidden and then slowly revealed.
Paola's netted dress from her last series
I actually like to make an outfit before I go on shoot. Last year I made a dress out of netting, which had bits of found glass on it. It’s great to start the shoot with a structure, and then I go into free form. I also bring up a bag of assorted colours and fabrics to include. So after wearing this, my model will put something beautiful and sensuous on.
P72: How do you go about selecting your models?
PT: I source them mostly through callouts. Some of the models have been from Alpha [my shared studio space] so they’re other artists who’ve had some experience with dance or theatre. That way they do know how to work with their bodies and work in the water. It’s an advantage if they’ve got a dance background, but I’m not going for ideal body shape, I like every person.
P72: The term "model" is almost inappropriate.
PT: The correct term I guess would be "subject". I just make sure that I make it clear with them that they are being used as an object and that they are embodying objects, fabrics and plastics. That’s the means.
P72: Your work is fairly site specific. Has working in and around Sydney beaches influenced your work?
PT: I think the reason why I chose the ocean as my area [of interest] was because I grew up on the Northern Beaches, I spent some time there and I learnt to swim there. So for me the aquatic environment is something that had become part of my life. Even if I lived away from the ocean, the whole measure of Australia in a sense is that the physical environment is primary, it’s a big part of our life. And the physical beauty of the harbour is something that you can’t miss. So this physical environment is strong for me in my practice as well.
Working with water and laying images that represent water started post art school, but the experimentation started in art school.
P72: The title of this show 'Pelagos' comes from the Greek term which means "deep sea" or "open sea". Is Greek mythology something that inspires your technique?
A Race With Mermaids and Tritons, detail | Collier Twentyman Smithers, 1895
PT: Some Greek story telling and mythology has come into my work. I do cite a reference in my work to 19thcentury pre-Raphaelite imagery of women and water, and the great tableau paintings of that time that used and referenced nature and the physical world.
P72: How do you and your subjects prepare for working underwater?
PT: I use a film camera, which will turn out into a negative. I cross process all of my colours and that’s how I get my skewed colour pallet. Everything is done with film, I have my own dark room.
In terms of preparation I have to look at the tides and find out when high tide is. I like to work with big tides, it means that we don’t have to go out as far and I can keep close to the shore-line so that I can then change film. While the model is in the water I have to run back to shore and change the film, which takes a bit of time. I also like to work with overhead light, because I’m working under water I need good, hard, sharp light. That way I achieve nice drama and contrast, which is a big thing for me.
I also have to be relaxed with my breathing, so tonight I'll be going to a yoga class, which helps me exercise my lungs.
P72: Can we talk about the camera you use?
Paola's 35mm pressurised Nikon camera. Check out the manual focus nobs!
PT: I use a Nikon pressurised, 35mm. You set the focus manually. After each shoot I have to soak it in fresh water to clean it. Because I have to put the camera up to my eye while submerged, I use swimmers goggles, which are the clearest and easiest to work underwater with. Everything I do is minimal and compact. I also use a light meter, particularly when it’s over cast.
P72: How long do you have to hold your breath?
PT: Sometimes around 25 seconds, so as long as possible. Yoga is great for this.
P72: What other props and materials do you use in your work?
PT: I do use wigs. I also work with light boxes as a form of pre-shoot experimentation. I love them as a way to present objects as well, which is fantastic. I also use found materials like shards of glass that I’ve found around the harbour. I think it’s interesting to work with objects as well as the body.
Tomorrow’s shoot will be at little bay, which is good because it’s a smaller space and it’s a lot flatter.
View Paola Talbert's series of inspired by water photographs printed on digital metallic photographic paper at Platform72 Gallery.