Gisèle Lubsen’s underwater photography is an ode to the power of love, women and mythology

By Christina Campodonico

Liquid and dreamy, Lubsen’s images bend the contours of time and reality

Gisèle Lubsen captures floating representations of Greek goddesses, intertwined lovers and women on the verge of motherhood through her camera lens,
all while submerged under gallons and gallons of water.

A conceptual underwater photographer originally from Holland but now living in Santa Monica, Lubsen has made a name for herself since her days as a student at Otis College of Art and Design. It was there that she started creating whimsical images of men and women swirling in swimming pools, her subjects often enveloped by voluminous fabrics or handling sensuous props such as a tempting white chocolate-covered strawberry or a bunch of grapes fit for Bacchus.

“There’s something surreal about these,” observes Lubsen about the models in her work. “Some of them have a bubble in their nose and their skin is a little more white. … It’s almost like they’re otherworldly, like they’re from a different planet.”

Such dreamlike photoshoots are a novel way for newly-engaged couples to announce their forthcoming nuptials (or tell the world that they’re dating, as podcaster Kaitlyn Bristowe did on her season of “The Bachelorette”), Lubsen notes, but she also observes that underwater photography offers even more ways to reveal the depths of the human soul and spirit.

“The water is such an incredible filter. It renders everything beautiful and it slows time down, but it also makes us really brave,” says the 39-year-old who free dives with her subjects — that means no scuba equipment or breathing aids. “In a way, we really have to perform at the highest level because we cannot breathe, so we have to pretend that we’re normal and we’re fine and this is ‘me.’ But by doing so, by being an actor, our true nature really comes out. We really have
to be heroic and strong.”

Female empowerment is an especially strong theme throughout Lubsen’s work, which has featured survivors of domestic abuse, free-floating women with babies in-utero (“Pregnant women love it because they feel weightless!” she says) and superstar women from Greek mythology. Powerful figures such as Aphrodite or Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, inspire her work, but water nymphs — such as Daphne, the courageous naiad who spurned Apollo — also come to mind while looking at Lubsen’s images, which blur the line between traditional painting and photography.

“I feel like the water is a really great filter to show female empowerment and transformation,” says Lubsen, who spent much of her childhood on the Greek islands and still summers there. “My mom is an archeologist who specializes in fertility goddesses … While she was excavating in Greece and in Cyprus, I would go with her as a little girl and she would tell me all those beautiful stories of strength and victory and passion. … So I guess, instead of being an archeologist, I’m more the modern re-interpreter of these myths with modern women and men.”

For “Manifest,” her upcoming gallery show at L.A. Art Exchange, Lubsen hopes to show the evolution and fortitude of her subjects, who range from models, actors and dancers to kids and even lawyers.

“I just really felt like all the women and men that are in those art pieces … they are really manifesting their true nature … almost like a metamorphosis into a better version of themselves,” she says. “They’re kind of testimonies of strength.”

Lubsen discusses her work at 4 p.m. Saturday (April 27) during an opening reception for “Manifest” from 2 to 6 p.m. at L.A. Art Exchange (922 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica). The show remains on view through May 11. Visit laartexchange.com or giselelubsen.com to learn more.

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