Bringing Mermaids to Life

By Zach Rosen   |   November 22, 2021
The exhibit opening featured photo opportunities with live mermaids

The wild and mysterious ocean has inspired stories of mythical creatures for millennia, but the image of the mermaid remains one of the most popular and iconic throughout time. From the Assyrian goddess Atargatis to the explorers of the new world, mermaids make up the dreams, tales, and deities of many cultures. These fantasies have come to life at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum’s newest exhibit, “Mermaids: Visualizing the Myths and Legends.” This exhibit features 16 mermaid photographs from Ralph A. Clevenger and his past students and now friends: John Kelsey, Eryn M. Brydon, Beatriz Moino, Liz Grady,and Chiara Salomoni

Clevenger is an acclaimed nature photographer and was a senior faculty member at Brooks Institute for 33 years. Ralph would take his students on a variety of underwater shoots during his tenure teaching courses in Natural History and Underwater Photography. Over the summers, Ralph and the students would stay on a boat off of the Channel Islands where he would invite mermaid models to pose for the students. 

Each of the mermaid models made their own outfits, constructing the tails from silicon or cloth. The costumes are very hard to get on and they have limited mobility after they are dressed. The mermaids must be helped in and out of the water. Once fitted and in the water, the model has to be able to pose and move with the long tail, including knowing how to do the iconic tail flip of a restless mermaid. The long tail gives the model enough power to swim about two to three times faster than a normal human. This speed adds to the complexity of the shot. Not to mention the water currents and conditions that had to be compensated for. With the costumes not providing much warmth, the models could only be in the water for about 30 minutes. Fortunately, hot showers and toasty drinks were on board the ship nearby.

It was great white sharks that drove mermaids into the museum. Some years back, Ralph hosted another exhibit at the museum on everyone’s favorite apex predator, the great white shark. Ralph was going to give a museum talk on great whites and his work, but it happened to land on Valentine’s Day. Although fascinating subject matter, it seemed a little sharp for such a soft day and he asked Greg Gorga if he could include some mermaid photos to lighten up the mood. Of course, Greg agreed and despite the presence of great whites, the exotic mermaid images gripped the audience. During the Q&A, most of the questions were all about the mermaid photos. The staff stayed quiet, listening on in fascination at the excitement of the audience. Before the talk was over, a mermaid-centric exhibit had already been requested by the audience.

“Mermaid on Moss” by Ralph Clevenger

The exhibit photographs are mostly from Anacapa Island or Catalina since the water is a little warmer there. Ralph would have the students first find the site they’d like to photograph. Then they would produce a small storyboard of the idea before meeting with the model to discuss the poses and shots. Because once they were both in the water, things would get more complicated. The photographer was on air supply, but the mermaids were not. Each pose had to be done in one breath. Before the photo is taken, the model would blow out all the air in their lungs, so their cheeks weren’t bulging out. After all, they are trying to emulate a mermaid, not a pufferfish.

For one image, Ralph wanted to capture what it would look like to come upon a sleeping mermaid. He had to swim over and model the pose himself. The resulting shot is one of the standout photographs from the show. A serene mermaid sleeps gently caressing a bed of kelp with her tail resting behind her.

Each of the 16 featured photographs inspire the imagination. In one shot, the mermaid darts across the frame as if abruptly captured on camera in the wild, akin to a bigfoot sighting, albeit in better focus and color. In another, the mermaid pokes her head above water, smiling and greeting the viewer with a wisp of tail behind her. Others have the mermaid models more traditionally posed, almost like they were spotted by an underwater influencer. Several shots capture the sun rays moving through the water that is distinctive to the style of Ernie Brooks. 

Ralph Clevenger discussing the complexity of photographing mermaids

The images did go through some light post-production to clean up lingering bubbles on the body and other details, but ultimately it was about capturing the shot in that one breath. Each photo is printed on stretched canvas. This brings a distinct texture to the deep colors and exotic lighting of the images, imparting an almost painting-like quality to some. The museum now owns the photos, and these images will be able to travel to other museums after the exhibit leaves the museum in March 2022. Of course, visitors can purchase their own copies directly from the photographers, whose contacts are listed at the exhibit.

After being closed for 370 straight days, the museum is thrilled to be able to host the community again. And the community is happy to be able to visit again. The exhibit opening saw around 300 guests who took in the dreamy images while posing for their own photographs with live mermaids. Greg jokes that it was his first time he had to hire mermaid handlers at the museum. 

Come to the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and get lost in the mythos of mermaids. 


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