Throughout my life I’ve always felt this burning impulse to communicate…something that didn’t completely exist, but in my mind and heart.
– Christy Lee Rogers
by Daniel Tidwell
Christy Lee Rogers creates baroque underwater worlds inhabited by writhing figures grasping at each other and at unknowable forces within these vividly dark images. Her works are evocative of painters such as Caravaggio, Carracci, and Rubens with their ecstatic visions of the flesh rendered through bravura chiaroscuro, boldly evoking a visual world that is rife with the carnality and sensuality of human existence.
Technically stunning and visually lush, Rogers’s photographs aspire to a post-modern version of the sublime—striving to communicate concepts that aren’t visually readable in the work. “I know at the core each of us is good,” says Rogers, “and I want to remind people of this native state, using these images. Maybe they’ll see themselves in the work, like a mirror, reflecting what words could never say.
“Throughout my life I’ve always felt this burning impulse to communicate . . . something that didn’t completely exist but in my mind and heart,” says the artist. Eventually, as she worked her way through various mediums, Rogers stumbled upon water as an artistic tool that finally allowed her to “capture these emotions. Water contained power, beauty, life, vulnerability, danger, and more. Each person I photographed in the water had a unique experience within it. Some were like fish and some were terrified of it; some battled it and some mastered it with delicacy. This was fascinating to me, as if I could examine human nature through these experiments and understand more about myself and others.”
Rogers’s images are born of an intense technical and formal process, informed by overarching concepts that she develops over the course of months. Her drive to push boundaries in new work, experimenting as each shoot progresses, also plays a major role in the work’s development. “The technical process, which I’ve developed over the last eleven years, requires a regular swimming pool, an extraordinary camera, a dark night, magical light, creative and enthusiastic models, and a lot of focus,” says Rogers.
“I love to work with ordinary, creative people for models, who have never been photographed underwater, as they bring something real to the images. At first they’re cautious of the water, and they slowly work out of this into an excited state of achievement, as if overcoming the obstacles of existing underwater lifted one’s spirit.”
These shoots are a physically demanding and intense process for Rogers’s models. “Bodies are clashing against each other without plan; someone’s foot is in another’s chest, and not always by choice. In a way this becomes the exhilaration, this spontaneous creation underwater with the models free yet vulnerable in their movements. I know, because I swam in many of my own tests, and a few of the images are self-portraits.”
Trust and improvisation between Rogers and her models have proven to be key elements of this process. “The poses that you see are actually long, progressive movements that have been worked and sculpted,” says Rogers. “I give the models an idea of the scene and emotions, as if they were actors, and each time they come up for air, I adjust until I see the magic. There’s no way to really predict what kind of interactions will occur . . . so every decision happens fast, by instinct. The shoot becomes a beautiful sort of dance with the unknown.”
Despite striking similarities, Rogers says that classical painting has not been a major influence on her work. “It’s very odd, as so many have thought that I studied classical painters and was influenced by them, but this isn’t the case,” says Rogers. “There may be a misconception that an artist sets out to go on this path and pre-plans it, but for me it’s quite the contrary. There are ideas, feelings, and things I imagine, and this is what takes me on my path. It’s traveled and not pre-planned.”
Rogers does cite the work of Federico Fellini as a major influence. “Fellini films were my first loves. With his opulent imagery . . . his scenes were wild, sexy, witty, and so brilliant, and such a great inspiration.” A self-professed obsessive reader, Rogers also looks to literature, poetry, and music for ideas that illuminate her work. “I find great inspiration in wild stories from old folklore and Greek mythology, the stunning costumes and sets of Baz Luhrmann, U2 lyrics, the old films of Georges Méliès, and the music of Itzhak Perlman. But through all of this,” says Rogers, “my main influence is still the beauty and craziness of the human race.”
Looking for a peaceful place where they could still be surrounded by artists, Rogers and her husband recently relocated to Nashville from Los Angeles. “No plans, no place to live, just up and moved. It was the best decision we ever made.” Rogers’s affinity for her new home is reflected in community work—designating a portion of her sales to cultivate a new generation of artists though grants that fund art supplies and musical instruments for children from lower-income families.
Christy Lee Rogers will speak at the Artlightenment Art and Film Festival on November 13 at 5:30 p.m. For tickets and information, please visit www.artlightenment.com. More information about her young artist program and application instructions are available at www.christyrogers.com/youngartist.html.