Mermaids, Dancing in Daylight: Ilse Moore’s Underwater Theatre

Ilse Moore, a South African underwater photographer from Johannesburg, has always been attracted to surreal imagery. She is Earth and Water (A little FYI: Earth absorbs and directs the flow of Water). Above the surface she is in company with love, reveling in the everyday simplicities. Below, she is one of the few who gets to dance with mermaids (some mermen too), capturing and sharing their whimsical rendezvous for eternity. Ilse believes that photography as a medium lends a kind of realism to these ‘fantasies’, allowing it to exist in closer relationship to the viewer.

Before you discover Ilse Moore, and all that takes form in her underwater studio, there are a few short words to share. For those that read my interviews, you’ll notice I have a bit of a penchant for kicking things off with a quote. After speaking with whomever I interview, I often find myself gravitating towards words which perhaps have been in my own dreams for a while. At times these chosen words are relevant to the topic, while at others simply leave you lingering in smile…. They can wash over you in amber nostalgia or simply pass by unoticed. Nonetheless, never underestimate or forget the value of words and the men and women who wrote them. Now, however, it’s time for some dippin’ and divin’. No wetsuits allowed.

“For true love is inexhaustible; the more you give, the more you have. And if you go to draw at the true fountainhead, the more water you draw, the more abundant is its flow.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery



“I like that it suggests the possibility of an indiscernible truth.” (Ilse Moore)

What is your first memory of photography?
I never really thought about photography when I was younger, but I remember the excitement when my dad brought home a newly developed role of film. We would often sit for hours looking through boxes of photos, and I’m sure my folks still wonder what has happened to many of the images because we used to keep the ones we loved the most! I still have all of them.

In South Africa, what do feel could help the photographic industry grow? Is there anything that frustrates you?
Photography is far more accessible to the general public now than what it was a long time ago. So while there may be an abundance of photographers, there is still an uneasiness to share knowledge. We are all a little scared of giving up too much, because we worked hard for it. It’s often about competition and not working together. On the contrary, by openly sharing your knowledge and experience you become the catalyst for empowerment. An example of humility, sharing information – freely and without an agenda attached – can revolutionize a nation that lacks access to information. It’s one thing to keep saying ‘be grateful’ but don’t forget this actually means showing gratitude to others.

Side: Sharing knowledge is a toolkit for individuals trying to find a way into an industry that doesn’t give second chances or offer any easy routes. The knowledge you share is not just facts – it is YOU – and the beautiful, bizarre journey you’re going through still. You are giving someone insight. This is a dialogue of energies – not a competition who come’s out winner. No one ever wins when you have your own style. Because it’s you. And no one is better than any one. We might not understand someone’s art, but if it is truly their own, then it is simply perfect. Every day you shuffle past breathing antennae searching for clusters of information. People are hungry. When you share knowledge your own eyes light up, you speak faster, your arms start moving around… you exude an infectious energy. And all because this ‘knowledge’ is part of your soul – so of course to talk about it, and hell fucking yeah, don’t ever stop! And always share. It never a monologue, rather a brazen dialogue. It is only through sharing, talking and working together – not against one another – that will allow others to find the courage to look at what was once a blank canvas and begin see a blueprint forming. Find direction. Find yourself. To begin to see with your own eyes.

Never stop learning. Never think you are wiser than someone else. Knowledge comes with experience, and those with the stories are those with the knowledge.



How would you define something conceptual?
It is something that acts as a vehicle for an idea; it communicates something beyond form or aesthetics. The viewer essentially becomes an active part of the artwork by engaging with it intellectually, spiritually or emotionally.

Would you consider yourself a conceptual person? I would like to, but it’s a constant battle for me because I also love aesthetics. This means that to the viewer, the latter often becomes the focal point of a lot of my work. However, every series or image that I create has conceptual meaning behind it and I try to integrate it back into my work on a steady basis.

When you look behind a lens underwater, do you see the world differently?
Oh yes, it’s a beautiful and peaceful place! Even for just a moment, everything becomes calm and silent.

It’s nice to shut out the noise of every day life and allow yourself to be swept up by something so naturally foreign to us.

Have you ever shot under water when it is raining? How did this affect the process conceptually first and technically second…?
I probably haven’t done enough shoots in the rain yet to speak on it that broadly… but I do love it. It’s sometimes hard to see the raindrops from below the surface if the light is not right, but it breaks the reflection on the underside of the water’s surface and creates a beautiful textured ceiling. However, with warm overheads, the water sparkles and looks very magical. I’m sure I’ll be chasing after the rain this summer!

The Sea To Tir Na Nog


Is the underwater realm a place you have always been interested in?
The concept of being able to breathe underwater has always fascinated me. As a child I used to spend hours in the pool trying to hold my breath for as long as I could and not-surprisingly, I started getting this semi-recurring dream where I would find myself not being able to rise from the bottom of a deep pool and then gently start to breathe in the water as if it were air. These dreams were very vivid and I was secretly convinced I could actually do it for real. My siblings and I grew up on the Vaal dam and I spent my entire childhood in or on the water, so it’s always been a part of my life. Ironically, it was only much later that I considered it as a potential medium for my work.

The conditions that you work in underwater – in terms of the technical process of photography, what changes/obstacles occur underwater that you find most challenging?
While the fundamentals of photography stay exactly the same, the conditions are vastly different. Besides waterproofing all my equipment, the most difficult obstacle is overcoming the constraints of underwater lighting. Due to the constant movement it is hard to set up the lighting in a way that will give predictable outcomes, so a simple shoot can often take much longer than it would have, had it been on land. Of course, the duration of the shoot brings about a whole new set of problems when shooting in less-than-ideal water temperatures.

What camera do you shoot on and is lighting done above water … as someone completely ignorant to this, what is the basic 1,2,3’s of executing a professional shoot underwater?
I now shoot with a Nikon D4 in a custom built housing and make use of continuous lighting for almost all of my work. It’s one way of gaining more control over something that is so uncontrollable by nature. Knowing your camera, having sufficient knowledge of light and light refraction and good people skills will be three of the main concerns.

The Sea To Tir Na Nog

Are men different to shoot underwater than women? I imagine a woman to feel somewhat like mermaids… not so sure about a man though!
Without graceful movements a female model can easily look awkward in the water. Men tend to get away with a little more. Strong and even aggressive movements underwater seem more in place for a man than for a woman, especially when doing couple shoots or portraiture. However, every shoot is different and in many cases it may even be harder for a male as he will have to show strength as well as grace at the same time.

The subjects of many of your shoots wear dresses that take on a new life underwater, as much as they one with the model; they seem to take on a whole new dialogue and character of their own. What materials do you enjoy working with most underwater?
I’ve experimented with many materials underwater and often make some of the outfits myself if I need something very specific. Fashion designers that deliberately experiment with the flow and movement of their designs, will truly grasp the influence water may have on their work. They have taken the time to understand the way air moves through the fabric and this translates beautifully underwater. That being said, anything responding to a lack of gravity can potentially look beautiful and can be very successful for such a shoot. It’s always a surprise to see the material move in the water for the first time and it’s also one of the reasons I get so swept up in its beauty. In many cases this character, like you mention, may be what influences the direction I take the shoot.




Do find certain tones become enhanced or change in any way when photographed?
Due to the long wavelengths of the colour red, it diminishes quickly underwater, so during editing (and unless a bright light was used from below), these reds have to be replaced. Reds can therefor often seem enhanced on the final image even though it is the first colour to diminish. The other major thing to consider is the intensity and colour of the light outside the pool as well as the colour of the pool itself. The smallest changes may influence the entire colour cast of the set and things like the refraction of light on the waves – dancing daylight – can alter the mood of the shoot and change the way I approach it.

How much post goes into your photo shoots?
This is where a lot of the fun starts. Compared to my regular (above water) photography, there is a lot more time spent that goes into the underwater images. Besides the normal adjustments like colour and lens corrections, there is a lot of cleaning involved. I then get to play with the overall mood and concept of each image and while I prefer a very natural feel in some images, I often like to create something completely new from what I have in front of me.



Do you think the fact that you cannot communicate as you would above water adds to the surrealism of the photos?
Yes, because it forces you to let go of your own ideas and capture what you see happen in front of you. Of course not every shoot allows me to explore the surreal, but the ones that do excite me and I love see it take on a life of it’s own.

Do you think you notice more things because you know you cannot talk aloud? How has your time spent underwater influenced you above water?
I think it’s only natural to be a lot more aware of what’s happening around you when you can’t speak or guide the model in that moment. Everything is in constant motion and I do find myself “wishing” things into place all the time! I’m not sure I’ve spent enough time underwater for it to have had a significant influence on my above water work (laughs) but it has changed the way I approach my general photography. As a wedding photographer I want to show the joy of every moment and have learnt to let go and allow things to happened naturally.

This is, after all, where the beauty is.

Photo shoots can be highly stressful, is taking things under water an added stress or do you find a sense of peace and tranquillity under there? Oh no, I love taking anything underwater! It’s often an energetic environment with a lot of laughter.



Have you been on the other side of the lens and discovered what this experience is like for the subject?
I have tried to do what my models do, but I’m afraid I do not have the grace that they have. I think it’s important to at least try to understand some of what they experience during a shoot – the cold, water filled sinuses, burning eyes, uncomfortable poses and burning lungs. There is nothing easy about successfully posing underwater, but it is the most magical experience.

What makes someone a photographer these days?
This is quite a hard question to answer for any professional photographer and comes with a bag of very mixed emotions. A photograph is simply an image created using light, therefor a photographer is someone that has the tool that can do just that. What makes a good photographer however, is a skilled craftsman who understands and uses their equipment to successfully communicate their ideas and vision.

The tools no longer matter, the motives and the outcomes do.



The Sea To Tir Na Nog

…And then, what makes a great photograph?
There is certainly a lot of compositional and technical skill involved in creating a good photograph, but the one that will stand out as a truly great image is the one that evokes something in you.

The one that makes you stop and look. The one that engages, inspires and moves you.

Are you humbled by natural elements? Is being around water something that will always be important for you, even if you stop photographing?
We all have something that feeds our spirits, drives our motives and keeps us going. I get most of my energy from people and their stories, but it can get emotionally overwhelming and this is when nothing sooths like the water. I’ve always had a great love for water. My siblings and I grew up on a yacht club and we could sail before we could ride a bike. Spending my time in or around water has always been second nature to me, so if I ever had to stop photographing I’m hoping that I will find myself back on the water.

What would we find in the underwater studio…?
Our setup allows us to shoot in any pool, so our portable rigs are built on set. As soon as the backdrops are placed and the model is ready, we start the shoot. Every pool is different and while we often make use of the same pools, it’s interesting and exciting to see how the time of day and weather allows us to get unique looks for each series. I make use of above- as well as underwater lights and my assistant moves these around based on my instruction. There are always a lot of props and weights around the pool where we shoot, but it’s a lot of fun and there’s always room to play.



And then the behind-the-scenes… Can you share some of the best underwater stories you’ve experienced?
When I first started shooting underwater, much of what I was doing was experimental. I had the minimal amount of gear, little experience and no studio. One of my models, Elsa Bleda, and I agreed to do a shoot for a designer friend and set aside a weekend to do so. Our first attempt at the shoot happened at a friend’s house and we had to abandon the shoot as the water was far too murky for clear images, but only after an entire day was spent at the pool! Our next attempt was to try and find a clean and clear public pool. The first pool was completely green and nowhere near suitable and the second pool was closed for cleaning. We managed to find a way into the grounds and convinced the manager to let us use the diving pool for a couple of hours to which he luckily agreed. With no lighting equipment, no make up artist and only one assistant, the three of us set out to create a simple editorial with four different sets in record time; a photo shoot that changed everything. The shoot was Wonderland Couture for Feline Blush, our first successful editorial.

Let’s talk a bit about that question – working in a team dynamic versus on your own… Can you give a few examples / stories on how the creative process is influenced, and what do you prefer?
There’s a certain accountability when working with a larger team and it drives me to do better, whereas with smaller shoots I sometimes move with the natural flow of the shoot and change my concepts based on what I see happening underwater. The sets are simpler with private shoots and while we can come up with new ideas and concepts on the fly, the visual impact of a shoot is often so much more aggressive and successful when working with a larger team.

I am energized by the people around me, while the excitement and enthusiasm of with working as a team is unparalleled. I recently did an underwater styled wedding shoot with an amazing team of wedding vendors and it was one of the best photographic experiences I’ve had. Every aspect of the shoot came together perfectly and due to the efforts of my team, the editing process was a breeze. The two sides are so different from each other that it will be hard to pick a favourite, the key is to be able to make it work either way and to love every minute of it.

Who is Ilse

1)on land?
I’m a very practical, easily adaptable and enthusiastic person in general and I love to get out of the studio with my husband, who is also my lighting assistant with underwater work and my second shooter for weddings. We live in a small town in the Free State, just south of Johannesburg. Our best times are spent with our dog out by the Vaal Dam where I grew up – about 30 minutes from where we live now. I have learnt to make time for things outside of the art and photography world and it makes what I do so much more fulfilling.

And 2)underwater?
Underwater is simply a place where I get to explore new ideas and get creative. I don’t do it because it is different or unique, but because I actually really enjoy it. I’m a very visual person and I’m constantly inspired by what I see around me. I’m hoping that my underwater photography will keep giving me a way to express the way I experience certain things and while I’m still far from achieving my goals in this way, I like the possibilities it offers as I go along.

I’ve decided, this time, to also end of with something pretty damn true. Also a quote (of course).

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.-Isak Dinesen

Underwater Photography

Underwater Photography

Credits: (in order of appearance)

All photography by Ilse Moore

01: Wonderland Couture
Model: Elsa Bleda
Fashion Design: FELINE BLUSH

02: Times are hard for Dreamers
Model: Elsa Bleda

03: The Performance
Model: Johan Baird

04: Keep Your Eyes On Me
Model: Elsa Bleda

05: The Sea To Tir Na Nog
Model: Natalie Moore
Fashion Design: Joel Janse van Vuuren
MUA: Maureen Grobler

06: The Immortal
Model: Elsa Bleda

07: The Sea To Tir Na Nog
Model: Elsa Beda
Fashion Design: Joel Janse van Vuuren
MUA: Maureen Grobler

08: Letters to my Love
Models: Courtneigh Sinead and Elsa Bleda
MUA: Maureen Grobler
Styling, Flowers and Décor: Absolute Perfection
Stationary: Chrystalace Stationary
Fashion Designs: Silver Swallow
Jewellery: House of Auri

09: Letters to my Love
Models: Courtneigh Sinead and Elsa Bleda
MUA: Maureen Grobler
Fashion Designs: Silver Swallow
Jewellery: House of Auri

10: Letters to my Love
Models: Courtneigh Sinead and Elsa Bleda
MUA: Maureen Grobler
Fashion Designs: Silver Swallow
Jewellery: House of Auri

11: Wanderlust
Model: Laura van Schoor
MUA: Maureen Grobler

12: What The Water Gave Me
Model: Jacki Bruniquel
MUA: Maureen Grobler

13: Keep Your Eyes On Me
Model: Elsa Bleda

14: The Curtain Call
Model: Johan Baird

15: Bella Cover Story
Model: Leandie Du Randt
MUA: Maureen Grobler
Jewellery: Arthur Kaplan

16: Bella Cover Story
Model: Leandie Du Randt
MUA: Maureen Grobler
Jewellery: Arthur Kaplan

17: The Sea To Tir Na Nog
Model: Elsa Beda
Fashion Design: Joel Janse van Vuuren
MUA: Maureen Grobler

18: What The Water Gave Me
Model: Jacki Bruniquel
MUA: Maureen Grobler

19: Dancers and Warriors
Model: Elsa Bleda

20: Home is where my heart is
Model: Little Harlequin

21: Home is where my heart is
Model: Little Harlequin


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