For a 14-page special section in Vogue Italia, highlighting the stylish sunglasses marketed by retailer Marchon Eyewear, photographer Douglas Friedman had to come up with a fashion story that would encompass models wearing 13 brands of sunglasses—from fashion designers like Salvatore Ferragamo, Valentino, Jil Sander and Chloé. It was the third year in a row Friedman had shot for Marchon, and the challenge, he says, has remained the same: “How do you show eyewear and make it look interesting?” He wanted to use the long lead time and generous budget to do something ambitious. His suggestion: To shoot all the models, dressed in designer attire and sunglasses, underwater. He had never shot in a water tank before, but he explained to the marketing people at Marchon, “There will be a lot of movement in the hair and clothes.”
Once his proposal was approved by Marchon, Vogue Italia and all the individual eyewear brands, the photographer had to figure out several logistical and technical challenges. “I knew the lighting would be super tricky,” he explains. “What’s the water going to do to the light?”
Logistics: Friedman rented a 4,000-gallon water tank with glass sides, typically used by movie productions. It was delivered on an 18-wheel flatbed truck to a warehouse Friedman scouted in East Los Angeles. The gritty interior of the warehouse is visible through the glass walls of the tank. “I liked the simplicity of this warehouse and its industrial texture,” contrasting with the elegant and colorful clothing. The owners of the tank provided a customized heater as well as purifiers to clean the water and keep it crystal clear throughout the daylong shoot. Filling the tank took most of the prelight day, Friedman says.
Four models—one man and three women—posed for 13 layouts, wearing runway samples of clothes, bags and shoes that stylist Michael Philouze had matched with each pair of eyeglasses. Friedman carefully storyboarded all the layouts, and determined in which order they would be photographed. “You have to find a story that works with all clothes,” he says, “and you’re thinking about the relationship between the pages before and after each photo.”
Lighting: Friedman says, “We had four gelled lights with grid spots on the floor outside the tank on the concrete,” just behind the tank, and pointing through the glass walls, towards the surface of the water. These Profoto lights were gelled red to warm up skin, which can look pale in water, and also to provide a tone that was consistent throughout the layouts. Three Profoto strobes in front of the tank acted as key lights.
Friedman notes, “The reflective qualities of the water inside the tank just bounced the light everywhere; you had all this incredibly soft, glowing light without a lot of shadows.” A large Chimera softbox was also suspended from crossbars above the tank, “just for fill,” the photographer adds. “That gave a nice highlight to the hair and top of the head.” Though makeup artist Jo Baker had used cosmetics that didn’t come off in the water, Friedman explains, “The clients wanted to make sure that it didn’t look like a bunch of cold, dead bodies in the water.”
To eliminate any reflections in the glass in the front of the tank, Friedman’s crew used a 20 x 20-foot duvetyne on rails to block reflections of the wall behind the camera. They also wrapped all the C-stands in black duct tape.
Camera: Friedman used a Mamiya 645DF with an 80-megapixel Leaf Credo digital back and a Mamiya 120mm f/4 macro lens.
As Friedman began shooting the tank, “We realized that the water was so crystal clear, when you don’t see the surface or an air bubble [in a photo] you’re not quite sure what’s going on. You don’t realize its water at first, until you see that something’s going on with the hair.” To add variety to his images, he would sometimes shoot upwards to catch a glimpse of surface or photograph bubbles and other “little hints” that revealed the models were underwater. In what Friedman calls “the big reveal,” the concrete floor of the warehouse can be seen behind the models.
Directing: Once in the water, the models could hear Friedman’s voice on a speaker. He would see how the hair and clothing was moving, and then give directions for subtle movements and gestures.
The rental house that delivered the tank also provided the services of a former Navy SEAL who was near the tank at all times to look out for the models’ safety and comfort. “He teaches them a breathing exercise,” Friedman explains. Once they went under water, they could hold their breaths for 30 seconds while modeling.
Watching the models struggle to stay underwater however, looked awkward, so light weights were attached to their bodies to help counter their natural buoyancy. Rather than making the models feel stuck or heavy, Friedman says, the weights helped them relax. “They didn’t have to resist floating to the surface.”
Once an outfit had been submerged, there was no chance for a reshoot. “You shoot and you shoot, and you’re hoping that in one of the shots you got—before this girl is tired and pruning—her hair isn’t in front of the eyewear.”
Post-Production: “I want to be a practical photographer,” Friedman says. “I want to get as much as I can get done in camera. There’s pleasure in solving that problem.” The retouching done by Violaine Bernard, owner and senior retoucher at Baby Doll Studio in New York City, was minimal. “There were a couple of shots where you would have to retouch an air bubble in the nose.”
The finished piece, titled “Hold Your Breath, Open Your Eyes,” appeared in the March issue of Vogue Italia. To announce its publication, Vogue threw a party in Milan. At the festivities, the images were displayed on eight-foot high lightboxes. A “making of” video was shown on Taxi TV, on screens in taxicabs around New York City during Fashion Week in March.
Watch the behind-the-scenes video below: