The fairies we see in today’s pop-culture representations are only a small shadow of the rich world of Faerie lore. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, therefore, that mermaids also have a rich mythic history that extends far beyond the superficial, albeit charming, iridescent scale pillows and coffee-selling sirens so often seen in daily life. Artist and photographer Cheryl Kelleher Walsh took a rather circuitous route to the murky realms of mer-maidens and men, first falling in love with the enigmatic challenge of underwater photography and, through that medium, discovering her own way of representing the world of mer beyond what is typically seen.
“The first time I worked with a mermaid tail by Finfolk, I fell in love with the magical quality of mermaids. There really is an otherworldly quality to their tails that brings me and my models to a different place. By now I’ve done a ton of research on the origins of mermaid stories from around the world, and I’m completely enthralled.”
“Honestly I wasn’t too sure about the mermaid movement at first,” she admits. “It was too predictable to have a mermaid in an underwater image. I want my images to have an air of mystery, an uncertainty if they really are underwater or not.” Her opinion was changed when she started working with the tails created by Finfolk Productions. “The first time I worked with a mermaid tail by Finfolk, I fell in love with the magical quality of mermaids. There really is an otherworldly quality to their tails that brings me and my models to a different place. By now I’ve done a ton of research on the origins of mermaid stories from around the world, and I’m completely enthralled.”
Kelleher Walsh’s photography is stunning in part because of its entirely unique and painterly style. “I always wanted to create images that look like old paintings but are 100 percent photographic,” she says. To achieve this look successfully, she tries to control as much of the shoot as possible, from lighting, color harmony, and composition to design, posing, and expression. And all this in a very challenging and unforgiving underwater environment. Despite making a strong effort to control the elements and repeating poses many times, there is no guarantee. “There is no possible way to get the same outcome no matter what we do,” she says. “Sometimes the stars line up and everything is perfect but more often than not there is one thing that is off.” This is where the post-processing work comes in—an art in and of itself, and one she has spent years perfecting. “I do a fair amount of practicing, just like a musician still practices even after they’ve performed a piece hundreds of times.”
Practice is also key for the models. Underwater shoots are some of the most difficult and stressful challenges for a model, and Kelleher Walsh has a few tips for someone trying to get started. “Underwater photography is a science and an art. Once you understand the science, then you can dial in the variables and focus on the art. Models should study the poses in images they like and copy those poses in the water. Practice until you can do it while making it look effortless. Hard work and determination are what make dreams come true.” She also adds an important reminder for would-be underwater photographers as well. “Always, always, always use extreme caution! This can be far more dangerous than people think. Electronics and water are not friends. Don’t use flashes near a pool unless you fully understand the consequences and really know what you are doing. Always have a safety person whose sole responsibility it is to keep an eye on your model.”
Kelleher Walsh’s work is inarguably beautiful, but she still encounters dissent from those who cannot see past the subject matter or appreciate its magic. “My work is not for everyone and I find that people either get it or they don’t,” she says. “I have no room in my life for people who look down their noses at mermaids and fairies. If they have no place in their heart for some magic and fantasy, then I wouldn’t want them to have my work. People need art and magic and fantasy and the beauty that they want to see. It improves the quality of life and we all deserve that.”
Although Kelleher Walsh has come to admire the world of mermaid lore, she still strives for a unique perspective in her photographic narratives. “I love old paintings of mermaids but really look for inspiration in non-mermaid paintings for my work,” she says. “I’m not looking for traditional images but something else. I have a fairly new piece that is a retelling of the Syrian story of Atargatis, the first mermaid. Most tales and legends, like those of the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, were passed down by men, like Homer. My perspective is that there might be another side to the story, perhaps the women’s version of the story, that is quite different from the version we’ve heard. For every broken heart there are usually two versions of the story. I’m looking to tell that other version of the story. That’s far more interesting to me.”
Kelleher Walsh’s art carries forward the rich history of mermaid legends, and she has many more stories to tell and retell in her own unique style and voice.
“I’ve developed an understanding and respect for the spirit of a mermaid’s heart,” she says. “It’s not a fad to me but a way of life, something that lives in your soul.”
Photography: Cheryl Walsh Fine Art Photography
Models: Rachel Day, Jessica Dru, Arlondriah Lenyéa, Ophelia Overdose, David Shepherd, Vanessa Walton, Hudson White
Wardrobe: Creature of Habit, Deborah Lindquist, Epic Cosplay Wigs, Fiori Couture, Jessica Dru Johnson, Los tesoros de la Ayalga, Miss G Designs, Pendragon Costumes Reilena, Sew Trendy Accessories
Tails: Finfolk Productions