This month, we sat down with fine art photographer Alyssa Fortin. Based in Massachusetts, Fortin's body of work captures women - primarily dancers - as they pose, float, sink, and dance through water. Her limited edition photography, which is dramatic, powerful, and ethereal, offers a completely unique view of the human form. We sat down with Alyssa to learn more about her process - of identifying her medium and subject, overcoming various challenges associated with underwater photography, where she looks for inspiration, and more. Read on to learn all about Alyssa's creative process, or skip to the bottom to watch our live discussion, which took place on June 7th, 2023.
Our Discussion with Alyssa
Where are you from originally and where are you located now?
I am originally from Florida and I’m now located in Hingham, MA, where I moved with my family in 2001. I’ve spent the last 22 years in Hingham developing myself as an artist, first by building my portrait photography business and more recently transitioning into fine art.
How did you get started as an artist, and with your current style and medium? What prompted you to begin to explore the underwater theme?
I have always loved art; growing up I remember my favorite present was the latest Crayola art kit. This passion developed throughout my life leading me to get a BFA from the University of Florida, and a master’s degree in Art Education from the University of Georgia. For several years after that, I taught photography and fine art in high school. I was in charge of teaching multiple photography courses, and by developing that curriculum I mastered the technical skill set of photography. After the birth of my first child and our move to Massachusetts, I began my career as a black-and-white film, children’s portrait photographer. I brought a more artistic approach to traditional portraits and my work was often described as authentic, honest, and soulful. However, I was looking to create art for a larger audience. I was ready for a new challenge that enabled me to fully express and execute my artistic vision.
The pandemic had a big impact on me, as it did on everyone. The normal individual and family rituals that people want to document with a photo shoot were canceled or postponed. It was in that slower, quieter time I had the chance to think about doing something new. I had been wanting to explore underwater photography for several years so I purchased an underwater housing unit for my camera and I was eager to test it out.
During this time, I decided to get together with a few of my artistic friends at a pool and explore our creative ideas. That day we experimented with underwater yoga, tennis, and running. We captured images for a friend’s swimwear brand and I discovered the magic of ballet underwater. When I uploaded the images onto my computer those ballerina shots full of grace and dreamlike beauty stood out to me, and I realized I was onto something. After posting my favorite image on social media, I had people texting and calling me all day and I knew this was the start of my career as a fine artist. From this point forward, ballet dancers became the essential subjects and muses for my fine art career.
The process by which you capture your photographs is incredibly unique. Can you walk us through your creative process (how do you prepare for a shoot, and create a series from start to finish)?
I start by studying nature: how a beta fish’s fin flows, the shape of a jellyfish as it moves through the water, how kelp sways with the current. Then I make props that will emulate those shapes and movements. I also study Greek mythology to find the stories I would like to retell. The final prep is reaching out to ballet dancers to find the models for my vision and arranging pools to borrow.
During the shoot, a lot of freedom is given to the dancers. We are all creatives working together and everyone comes with their own ideas to explore. I also want the atmosphere to be lighthearted and fun to encourage the dancers to take risks and explore new poses in a challenging setting.
The ballet dancers take turns doing their poses and dance underwater while I photograph them. As soon as a good idea develops, the dancers will repeat movements around this idea in several iterations. This work is exhausting and my models rotate out to rest while others work to perfect a pose. To make sure I record the perfect moment of grace, movement, reflection, and abstraction there is A LOT of overshooting! One session can last four hours with 1,500 images recorded. From there, I upload the photos to my computer and begin the editing.
What do you find most rewarding and most challenging as a fine art photographer?
What I find most rewarding is getting to know and learn from all of the creative women I work with; from the ballet dancers to the other artists in my community. I also find fulfillment in the new creativity and challenge of this journey. After working mainly with portraits for a long time, it was easy to stick with what I knew would be successful and that my clients would buy, but this new work allowed me to creatively explore a concept. I’m enjoying the new frontier of developing the most abstract visual possible, where the viewer can get lost in the final image.
As a fine art photographer, I find the process of managing the business side of my work the most challenging. I’ve always been a creative person and was able to grow my portrait business within my community by word of mouth, but now I am working to grow my business knowledge and market myself on a larger scale. I truly appreciate all that Sorelle Gallery has done to help promote me and I am working daily to improve this skill set.
Was there a learning curve with capturing your subjects underwater? What was something you had to learn or overcome during the process of establishing your current body of work?
One of the things I love the most about this new endeavor is the learning curve. I can’t plan every pose or shot as closely as I was able to with portraits, which has challenged me to problem-solve and think outside the box during shoots.
The nature of these shoots is much more complex than the work I had done previously. The underwater housing unit for my camera does not allow for perfect visibility, the pools are often murky or cold, and some ballet dancers are not the strongest swimmers. All of these difficulties have presented me with different solutions to explore and adapt.
I learned to be flexible around a vision and to adjust my process to fit the nature of underwater photography. There is much more left to chance in getting that exact moment when there are so many factors that have to come together: the fabric or the flow of the dancer’s hair perfectly abstracts the face, bubbles create jewel-like shapes, a reflection on the surface and the position of the model's body is in a perfect alignment. This is completely opposite of my work as a film photographer; film and processing are expensive, so each image is carefully planned and I only click the button when I think it’s a winner. On the ground, you can wait for the ideal moment before you click the shutter release, whereas underwater there is a lot less control and thus more editing of images is done in post-production. I had to adjust my planning, execution, and post-production expectations from before and learn what worked best for capturing images in this very different setting.
You mentioned that you have a background in film and worked as a commercial portrait photographer for many years. How did that background inform your current underwater series of fine art photographs?
I have always been interested in capturing the true essence of people, whether that be by showing the genuine emotions of children, the perfectly imperfect lives of families or a lifestyle shoot developed around a person's interests or career. In all of these types of photography, I carefully choose a setting and set up the shot, but then allow my subjects to relax to create a more authentic portrait at the moment when my subject gives me a glimpse into their soul. This is true with the underwater ballet work also. I work to curate an environment but always allow the subject room to experiment with new poses or ideas throughout the shoot. This approach allows me to capture truer, not-so-stiff, yet visually compelling moments.
You said that you often read Greek and Roman mythology and determine which stories you want to retell, and the titles of your photographs typically reference this subject as well. What is the reasoning and significance of that decision?
I have always worked to uplift the women in my life and see these characters as deserving of similar treatment. The general ideas of Greek mythology inspire me during idea development and costume creation for a shoot, and post-shoot, I work with a writer to fit images to specific stories. I see it as an opportunity to change these Greek goddesses' stories for the better. We take well-known narratives of disorder and disruption and rewrite them. We transform tragedies into survival stories in which women unite against all odds. In this rebirth, these women, the once condemned and lost women of history, legend, and literature, celebrate as they escape, rebel, and rise again.
Your subject is always women in water. From where does your interest in this relationship between the two stem? Is there a reason you choose to capture women over men?
This stems from a lifetime of strong women's friendships; I went to an all-girls Catholic school, I am the leader of a women’s running group, and I collaborate with a network of artistic women in my community. It has always been important to me that we support and uplift each other. I love friendships where we push each other to be the best versions of ourselves and have worked to inspire similar confidence in each of my female clients over the years.
Throughout my career of being a photographer, I find it very rewarding to show my subjects all of their inner beauty. In portrait photography, I have been told many times how I have boosted a teen's confidence. In my shoots, I try to create an environment where people feel comfortable, so they can open up to show me their true selves. I see beauty in all people and I am able to capture that with my camera.
I am also a runner and have always admired the balance of strength and elegance that female athletes embody. This admiration, and my passion for capturing beautiful images with a uniting message, drew me to ballet dancers as the medium for works of art that celebrate women.
Going back to the challenge of asking ballet dancers to swim: It must be difficult to even attempt to model underwater. How do you find or select the people you’re photographing?
When I first started this work, I reached out to ballet studios around MA and posted a call for models on social media about my project. I then had women from all over the country, including Boston, Florida, Maine, and NYC reaching out to me wanting to model.
Since then I have realized that the best models for my work are women who are also good swimmers. I did not necessarily know this the first time I worked with them, but the models who are more successful and who I continue to work with were often once swimmers. These women are able to hold their breath for a long time while also dancing and physically exerting themselves underwater. They must be so comfortable in the water that the swimming and breath-holding are easy and they can put all of their energy into dancing.
Where do you look for, or tend to find inspiration?
I look for sources of inspiration everywhere, whether I’m out to lunch somewhere with unique decorations or scrolling on Instagram. There’s something to be learned from everything, and I try to embrace that and search for ideas in even the most unlikely places.
Beyond what I come across in the day-to-day, I have been studying Greek mythology, underwater sea life, and the old masters of sculpture as well as painting and ballet since shifting to fine art. I find inspiration in sea life (coral, fish, turtles, and jellyfish), fashion and nature (in the folds of a plant or the way a fabric flows), and from ballet itself. I often attend ballet performances and am fascinated by how two dancers interconnect with each other as well as the positive and negative space created by a dance
Are there any particular artists who have inspired you or to whom you feel connected in some way?
In portrait photography I am inspired by several artists, especially Cheryl Jacobs and Nikki Boon, both of whom take an approach to capture the chaos of real life. For the fine art work I study the way other artists have used dance as a subject in their work such as Henri Matisse’s Dance 1 and William Blake’s rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I also study images of modern dance as well as artists who use Greek goddesses as a subject, for example, Botticelli’s Primavera and Raphael’s images of “ideal beauty.” These images might give me an idea for a composition, a connection of two figures, a color pallet or a way to drape a fabric on a model.
From your first shoot to now, has your work overall changed? If so, in what way(s)?
My work has changed a lot in the last three years. At the beginning of this journey, my images were composed more clearly of ballet dancers underwater. Since then, I have tried to reach beyond the portrait and move my images into more abstraction. I want the final image to be a feminine form and the suggestion of dance and movement without identifying a particular person. This season, I am collaborating with an impressive group of artistic women across several disciplines, and I am aiming for my work to become even more conceptual and abstract.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self as an artist, what would it be?
My advice to my younger self as an artist would be to figure out who you are as a person. Identify what is important to you and what characteristics and attributes define you, then use art as an extension of that. Be authentic to yourself and create art that is a true reflection of you.
In 5 words or less, what is your goal as an artist?
To inspire and uplift women.
Now for something different: Are you a morning person or a night person?
I am a morning person. I am known for sending out texts at 6 AM and have an ongoing joke with my running friends about how much work we accomplish during our one hour run together each morning.
Cats or dogs?
Dogs. My best friend is Otis, my 11-year-old Weimaraner.
Hot or cold?
Hot. I am a Florida girl and only work in heated pools. You'll never see me in the ocean in New England.
True Crime or Rom-Com?
Probably romantic comedies but I am more into documentaries and historical fiction.
If you could be any animal, what would you be?
A dog, but specifically a Weimaraner. They say people have the same traits as their pets and Otis and I are both: social, high energy, like to run, lighthearted, honest, direct, and a good friend.
What’s your favorite place on earth?
My favorite place on earth is probably Anna Maria Island in Florida. We have had a family beach house there since 1987 and I have countless memories of family reunions and vacations on the island that make it very special to me.