Beyond the Lens with Underwater Surrealist Conor Culver
Batfish Take Flight © 2021 Conor Culver
By Denise Pietsch
Conor Culver’s 12th birthday present was a scuba diving certification. This present would inform a significant portion of who he’d become. Today, Conor is an artist – a photographer, both underwater and topside, and a digital designer. The bulk of his artwork is an amalgam of underwater photos and digital design; existing somewhere in the space between a dream and the ocean floor. A space of his own creation, and one that pushes the boundaries of both underwater photography and the imagination.
The Shower © 2021 Conor Culver
It all began in Dominica, during the film days, when chance circumstances would afford Conor the opportunity to get his hands on an underwater camera. While film is how Conor got started, now he notes the opportunities digital photography provides, "When I’m down there I try to get as many angles and different positions of the animal as I possibly can. But back in the film days I had 32 or 36 exposures and that was it. The pain with that, I remember, was you see the cool stuff at the end of the dive and miss it.”
From here, Conor developed a passion and keen eye for photography, one that would blossom into photography beyond the lens, using Photoshop for his digital images as film photographers use the dark room to edit, enhance, or otherwise alter their images. Through his double major in college, he was introduced to world renowned artists and ideas in surrealism, "I went to college at The University of Colorado Denver. I went for photography and digital design and I was introduced to the first photographer that kind of changed everything for me, Jerry Uelsmann. He’s in every major museum around the world. He does all dark room manipulations.” With a breadth of art history classes, Conor would also be introduced to the work of other surrealists like Maggie Taylor, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy. These artists and philosophies would leave a lasting impression and help Conor develop his own unique sense of the surreal.
“So many people think that photography can only be what’s taken in the camera and as I remember, Jerry Uelsmann, his writings were always about ‘Why does it have to stop? The dark room is just an extension of the camera . . . The whole photographic process doesn’t have to stop at the click of a shutter.’ And for me that’s how it’s always been, Photoshop is just an extension of my camera.” - Conor Culver
Fastest Show In the Sky © 2021 Conor Culver
All of the underwater images used in Conor’s artwork are photographs of his own. From Bonaire to Indonesia (two of his favorite places to dive) and myriad places in between, Conor has an extensive and impressive catalog of underwater photos to source from. While he may have an idea what animals he’ll see on a dive, in true surrealist spirit, he seldom has a preconceived notion of the final product he’ll create.
“It’s very rarely that I’ll have the idea before I get the shots because you never know what you’re going to get when you’re underwater. You can’t make the animals pose how you want; you never know what you’re going to really see a lot of the times. Unless it’s a place that’s very specific that I know I’m going to see stuff. Like when I went to Bimini getting the shots of the hammerheads, I knew exactly that I wanted to do the stingray hiding underneath the snow with the hammerhead above . . . So sometimes they’re planned ahead but for the most part, no. I take the picture and then usually I do research on something unique about the animal or their function in the habitat, what they look like, or other references to art history.” - Conor Culver
Hide and Seek © 2021 Conor Culver
Underwater Surrealism is Conor’s pièce de résistance: a love letter to the ocean and to dreams. It’s his most calculated body of surrealist work. One that aims to make a statement about conservation, with subtle nods to art history and animal habits. While this body of work is temporarily sidelined due to COVID-19 – Conor says he hasn’t been diving since his last trip to Maldives a couple years ago – he says it will always continue. Underwater Surrealism is a dreamscape of juxtapositions: fish in trees, manta rays in a bell jar. It’s also the body of work that features Conor’s favorite image: The Ambassador, which he says is, in a way, a representation of what we are as divers.
“Underwater Surrealism is a photographic exploration that combines animals beneath the surface with scenes above the surface. I often find the oceans creatures discarded, forgotten, or deemed as not important. When tragedy strikes animals on land, the stories make national headlines, but in most cases the ocean disasters are not even being told. This body of work is to bring these animals above the surface in an attempt to make them just as important and to tell their story of their role in this world and bring awareness to them.” – Conor Culver via conorculver.com
The Ambassador © 2021 Conor Culver
While COVID-19 may have sidelined Conor’s dive trips, it certainly hasn’t stifled his creativity. In his newest body of work, These Dreams of Mine, Conor explores the surrealist philosophy of psychic automatism - a method of releasing control and allowing one’s work to flow entirely uninhibited. This method has allowed Conor to explore new depths in Photoshop, harness new skills, and try entirely new things. While this may be uncharted territory, being out of his element is a positive for Conor, it’s a place of growth and a means to discover what his unconscious mind has to offer.
“The surrealists back in the day believed in psychic automatism, which was André Breton’s word for just letting things happen in the artwork. For him it was poetry, and this is my attempt at that. I start with an idea and then just let things happen in Photoshop, just trying new things, putting new elements in, and just kind of really trying to push myself.” - Conor Culver
Inside Storm © 2021 Conor Culver
So, down to brass tacks. What equipment does Conor utilize to capture the underwater images he uses to illustrate his dreams? Conor shoots with a Nikon D800E. And his lenses? "Usually if it’s just a normal dive I shoot with a 60mm Nikkor lens. That lens usually allows me to get the entire animal in focus and if I need to get close, I can get close and get that shot. If it’s wide angle, I have a 16-35 Wide Angle Nikkor. And then, for really small stuff, like when I was in Indonesia shooting the Pygmy Seahorses, I used a 105mm.”
Out From the Darkness © 2021 Conor Culver
For every ounce of imagination and creativity Conor has, he’s got equal parts gratitude. Gratitude for his parents, whom he credits for inspiring, supporting, and motivating him. Gratitude for his college professors, his girlfriend, and all his fellow artistic peers. He's also not lacking in sage advice, “Just don’t be afraid to try new things. So, what I encourage to other people is try what you want, your work is what you want it to be, and it’s what you want to convey to the world.”
Perhaps Conor's surrealist artwork is quite like scuba diving: a portal to an entirely new world, something foreign yet familiar all at once. An adventure made of dreams and fantastic colors, of otherworldly beauty, just waiting to be explored.
Conor Culver holds a B.F.A. from The University of Colorado Denver in Photography and Digital Design. He currently resides in Golden, Colorado. Follow more of his work on his website, Instagram, or Facebook.