Sea the depths an artist goes to

Published in The Age

by Gabriella Coslovich


THE underwater shot, featuring the requisite good-looking woman, hair fanning like a mermaid’s, bubbles shimmering about her submerged body, is a staple of dream-like sequences in film, often used as a device to illustrate psychological states.

So it is a brave photographer who delves into the subaquatic realm in the hope of capturing something new – she runs the risk of cliche. For Samantha Everton, shooting underwater was courageous on more than the purely artistic level. She’s not that great a swimmer.

“I don’t even like the sea. I’m scared of what’s not underneath, what’s underneath. I’m so not a beach person. I grew up in central Queensland – I don’t even think I saw water until I was about 15,” she says, sitting in a Melbourne studio among the freshly printed photographs of her underwater experiment.

In one, a young woman in a red petticoat, as vivid as a tropical fish, floats elusively in a dark-green sea. In another, a young woman drifts languidly near the surface of the water, her bright-blue petticoat swirling around her hips. Her mirror image billows on the surface. She is like a fallen angel in a Renaissance painting.

The photos are sleek, mysterious and masterful, belying the modesty of their creation. The women are wearing petticoats hand-dyed by Everton, and they were shot using an old, £20 ($A39) plastic camera with only two light settings – for shadow and sun. “Which actually goes to show, the camera doesn’t do the work for you,” says Everton. “It took 10 years of education to make that camera work for me.”

The underwater series, Utopia, is a radical departure for Everton, who is best known for her highly staged, surreal photographs. Her previous series, Vintage Dolls, featuring children in dream-like settings, was nearly two years in the making, and involved the creation of elaborate sets in a derelict 1920s house in Coburg. For that series, Everton used a large, medium-format camera, eight to 12 lights, and would take five hours to set up for one shot.

For her underwater series, the quietly determined Everton relinquished control – well, as much as a perfectionist can. She set up test runs at her local pool in Coburg, and at Point Lonsdale, and trialled scores of different film types until settling on Fuji Pro 160C – a fine-grain film with a dynamic range suited to underwater lighting conditions.

It was during the Coburg pool trials that Everton realised she’d need to overcome her fear of the deep. The photos she took in the pool were too commercial, too sterile. Everton wanted murkiness and mud, seaweed and rocks, atmosphere and ambiguity that only the sea could provide.

Everton and her crew of eight created the series in an exhausting eight-hour shoot in the deep rock pools of Point Lonsdale. It was a 26-degree autumn day, but the water was so cold Everton did not allow her two young models more than 15 minutes at a time in the sea – and whenever they emerged, her mother-in-law Pam was at the ready with rugs and flasks of hot chocolate and tea. “There are no tricks – what you see is what I took a photo of. The beauty of these images is that I didn’t know what I had on the day.”

Growing up in Emerald, in central Queensland, Everton never considered becoming an artist – it wasn’t in the realms of possibility. At first, her creativity was funnelled into hairdressing, which was her passport to the world. She was a “barberette” in London, before returning to Australia to groom the faces of Melbourne men.

Her next move was as a cadet photojournalist with The Melbourne Times. Everton later began photography studies at RMIT, graduating in 2003. Five years ago, she quit full-time work with a dream to make it as an artist. The commitment has paid off – Everton has had a solo exhibition almost every year since, won numerous awards and been published in several magazines, including The New Yorker.

Although a meticulous planner when it comes to her photography, Everton takes life a little more loosely.

“I think as an artist you just take it a year at a time. You don’t have any grand plans. I enjoy what I do, and if it all stops today, I’ve gone further than I’ve ever thought possible.”