PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEVE PARKE
The idea for this shoot sprang forth when Shannon Dawn Rauch invited me to the secret archives of the legendary Morris Costumes in Charlotte, North Carolina—a cavernous attic space full of endless racks of vintage costumes and paraphernalia, much of it wild and bright and from the circus (and to be featured, to spectacular effect, in a later issue of this very magazine). But in the midst of those chaotic carnival reds and golds was one gleaming rack of shimmering sea-foam-colored mermaid raiment. I was entranced, which is what happens when mortals confront the otherworldly and, in this case, the world under the sea.
An idea for a story came together: Rauch and fellow mermaid Danielle Houston in these foamy vintage costumes, against a suitably vintage backdrop. As it turns out, the Morris costumes are from a 1990s-era live stage show from Paramount, one that involved life-size clam shells and possibly singing, but I immediately imagined them as much older and more fragile, perhaps from Georges Méliès’s 1904 French silent film, The Mermaid, in which a magician conjures a mermaid (and some rabbits and fish), then builds her an elaborate oceanic bower upon which she gorgeously poses.
Around the same time, I met Ross Sandberg, proprietor of the web shop Obscuriosity (and a close friend of our photo editor, Steve Parke). Sandberg sells an astonishing array of intricate, gleaming reproductions of ancient and medieval scientific instruments—like the astrolabe, the navigational device you see on our cover and at left. These instruments seemed, among other things, impossibly glamorous—perhaps even suited to mermaids trying to find their way at sea?
I had never seen a mermaid with a nautical instrument before, but who better to use one? I loved the idea of our two mermaids emerging from the deep sea, faces together, the astrolabe shining brilliantly between them as they point it to the starry sky.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s famous mermaid tale, the titular girl longs for an immortal soul; this is what motivates her to join the human world (and, of course, try to marry a human prince). Maybe these mermaids explore the heavens without needing a prince—or any man.
What makes the astrolabe so fascinating, Sandberg says, is the way it “shows how intelligent and creative people were, to develop and use a tool to navigate long distances as well as learn about the cosmos and what lies beyond our earthly realm.” How might a mermaid have used one? “Well much like a sailor at sea, a mermaid would have no landmarks with which to navigate, so she would need to chart her course by the stars. But since mermaids spend a lot of time underwater, where it is darker, perhaps they have much better vision at night than we two-legged land dwellers.” This is undoubtedly true. “Maybe mermaids can see stars much better than we can, ones that are too dim for us to make out. Maybe a mermaid astrolabe has more and different stars on it than ours does. Maybe mermaids even have their own constellations that we can’t see!”
When it comes to mermaids, the possibilities are endless.
To bring our story to life, Maryland artist Nichole Leavy set about creating a Méliès-inspired backdrop. Or, as she puts it, a “fantasy of a Georges Méliès scene in real life.” Besides referencing Méliès’s films, she looked at movies that paid homage to his work, like Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. “Méliès paid workers—women—to color some of his films by hand,” Leavy says, “frame by frame, using tiny brushes sometimes as small as a single camel hair.” The effect was surreal, fantastic, not of this world. Almost like the effect of being in the ocean, where, surrounded by sea plants and glowing fish, you sometimes can’t believe you’re in the same world that houses shopping malls and apartment complexes. Leavy’s own homage is what you see on these pages.
On the day of the shoot, Rauch showed up to our rented studio with piles of treasures from Morris Costumes and her own closet. Houston brought her own stash. Both are professional mermaids, of course, as well as stargazers, and not lacking in shell bras and crowns. We hung Leavy’s backdrop, Parke set up the lights, and our star-loving mermaids came to life like two Venuses on the half shell.
We hope you find some inspiration in these celestial mermaids and in those that appear throughout the rest of this issue. There are, after all, as the narrator of my own novel Mermaid notes, people all over the world who carry the mermaid—maybe one of these mermaids?— inside them … “that otherworldly beauty and longing and desire that made her reach for heaven when she lived in the darkness of the sea.”
Photography: Steve Parke
Mermaids: Shannon Dawn Rauch and Danielle Houston
Set: Nichole Leavy Art
Costumes: loaned by Morris Costumes and mermaids’ private collections
Danielle’s shell top: Siren Allure
Props: Astrolabe loaned by Ross Sandberg of Obscuriosity
Crowns/headpieces: Wunderland Arts, Ambur Rose, and Tricia Saroya
Makeup: Magie McGee/Pixibomb Beauty
Location: Charlotte Vibe Photography Studio