Next time you come to Surf The Greats for a yoga class or board rental, you may feel like you dove into the mesmerizing abyss. The exhibition Beneath the Surface by Toronto photographer Lucas Murnaghan fills the space with astonishing aquatic portraits. The collection features muscular men dreaming, dancing and fooling around in the inky blue depths.
The artist calls water “a safe space” where he and his models can express very challenging emotions or feelings — shame, loneliness, rejection — without fear of being judged.
“I learned to use water as a transformative medium to access certain emotional vulnerability in my subjects and in some ways in myself,” says Murnaghan. “It takes us back to the childlike place, so we can access childlike emotions a little bit easier.”
Lucas Murnaghan and his underwater photography case © Chee Sim
Murnaghan, whose day job is an orthopaedic surgeon at SickKids and Women’s College hospitals, began photographing about five years ago, with travel, adventure and surfing being his inspirations. He captured some incredible breaks and surf competitions in Canada, Australia, Costa Rica and other parts of the world. In December 2016, Murnaghan started experimenting with underwater photography, while shooting Toronto's LGBT Triggerfish water polo team. Shooting in the physically and emotionally challenging environment helped him explore his artistic side and start creating photographs rather than simply taking them.
“It’s really fun to find something you didn’t know you could do,” Murnaghan said at the opening party last week. “It’s been an incredible journey for me.”
Beneath the Surface opening party at Surf the Greats © Glenn Adams
The party itself was a good mix of art, fun, tasty bites by The Fix + Co, hoppy brews by Eastbound Brewing Co., and funky spins by DJ Phillippe — a classic example of the events organized by Surf the Greats.
“It’s nice to be able to create such a welcoming, warm and colourful exhibit on the darkest, coldest days of the year,” said Murnaghan’s partner Antonio Lennert who founded the local surf hub in spring 2017.
Lucas Murnaghan wraps two years of shooting underwater in his new photo book. © Sveta Soloveva
Lennert also designed Murnaghan’s new photo book Beneath the Surface that was officially released during the party. The mostly-blue edition with 70 curated images and models’ personal responses culminates two years of exploring the world beneath the waves.
Some of Murnaghan’s Instagram followers say, it feels satisfying to sit on the couch and have a quiet look through the images they’ve already seen on social media.
Alex Ferrington and Sydney Wray from Ottawa flip through ‘Beneath The Surface’
© Sveta Soloveva
“When you see them [photos] on Instagram, you don’t realize how big and beautiful they are,” says Sydney Wray who is visiting from Ottawa. “They feel very peaceful.”
Of course, the visually tranquil images have a series of challenges behind them, from scouting locations to gaining a certain level of trust between the photographer and the subject. However, taking on a new challenge is an important part of creating a great shot, says Murnaghan. The artist never uses breathing equipment to gain a deeper connection to his subject.
One Is The Loneliest Number, 2017. Photo by Lucas Murnaghan
One of his favourite photographs One Is The Loneliest Number (2017) was taken in Memphis, Tennessee. Murnaghan went to the city for his medical job and only got time for one photoshoot. He found a light-blue pool with the grid pattern and imagined a single subject in the middle of that big space. The slight movements of water and light breaking through the tiles added dynamics to the translucent setting, creating an artful reflection. The beautiful result required some serious physical labour.
“When we first got there, there were 40 lane ropes in the pool,” says Murnaghan. “Just Ben [Benjamin Livingstone, model] and I removed all of the ropes to get the completely blank canvas. And then it was just a matter of getting the timing, depth and body position right; getting just enough privacy to have him [Livingstone] without his bathing suit in this shot.”
Some of Murnaghan’s subjects admit that the hardest part of their underwater experiments is cold.
Jared Murphy celebrates the exhibit with the photo of him shot in North Vancouver, BC. © Sveta Soloveva
“You are shooting for hours at a time outside, and when you get out, you are shivering,” says Jared Murphy who modelled for Murnaghan in North Vancouver, BC.
“It was ice-chilling,” says George Kopas, who did the shoot in Georgian Bay, near the Bruce Peninsula.
However, looking at the amazing pictures is worth shivering over.
“It looks awesome,” says Kopas. “It’s crazy how deep and clear the water is… How you see the water refracted on your body. And Lucas is just super talented to be able to capture that.”
During the free exhibit that will run until 2 March at Surf the Greats, guests may enjoy additional events including Water Photographer Panel Discussion on February 26 and Mindfulness Workshop on February 27.
—Words by Sveta Soloveva