From Art School to Gallery Walls | An Interview with Pillery Teesalu
By Denise Pietsch
Pillery Teesalu is an underwater photographer and lecturer from Estonia. Now she's adding Gallery Artist to her resume. During a period of self-discovery Pillery found herself enmeshed in trepidation for the future, a trepidation she felt entirely free from while she was underwater. Thus was born Serenity - a series of underwater photographs and a short film that capture the tranquility Pillery finds when she dives. Pillery has poured her heart, soul, and many years into Serenity, and now she sees this hard work hanging on the walls of the OKAPI Gallery in Tallinn, Estonia.
We got a chance to chat with Pillery and we’re as amazed by her passion as we are by her photography. She shared her advice on getting work into a gallery, her background, motivations, and what she sees for the future from her underwater photography students.
"Mirror of Duality" from Serenity © 2021 Pillery Teesalu
Tell us a bit about who you are?
I am an underwater photographer and diver based in Estonia. I graduated from the photography department of Pallas University of Applied Sciences and specialized in underwater photography. Since I have studied art, painting and drawing have been part of my life as well. Overall art has been my passion and driving force all my life.
How did you get into underwater photography?
It started in 2013 when I went to the art school's approach day, and there I received information that it is possible to study such a specialty as underwater photography. When I heard that, I was immediately 100% convinced that I would become an underwater photographer. So, a year later, when I was studying, I started doing paid work in underwater photography. In the fourth year, we studied cinematography, and then I also started experimenting with the film underwater. I graduated from school in 2017 and I became a so-called certified photographer.
Do you have an underwater photographer who inspires you?
I have quite a few sources of inspiration. Namely, the first person I started to follow and whose work inspired me to engage in underwater photography was Elena Kalis. In addition, I studied under Alex Kirkbride during my art studies, and he also plays a very important role in my career. I am also inspired by Cheryl Walsh and Christy Lee Rogers. I believe that my works have an impact on all of them.
"Karl Korsar" © 2021 Pillery Teesalu
What does the process of making your artwork look like?
No matter when I take or prepare to take pictures, I always have the end result already finished in my head. So far, the final result has always been ideal or close to the photo that previously existed in my head. When it comes to a customer's order, that image emerges during the conversations and negotiations. However, in personal projects, I start making preparations based on my imagination. Photo sessions involve make-up artists, stylists and, in addition, there are also assistants who help me with setup and lighting. It is all born as a common part of cooperation.
You've said you really enjoy underwater maternity photography, why is that?
I like when they come to a photoshoot and trust me 100%. The same goes for taking pictures of babies. The photo sessions are calm and run in their own rhythm. Pregnant women are so beautiful to look at when they pose underwater in a weightless state. They radiate happiness and shine. And I have also received feedback from the maternity photo sessions that young mothers are happy to take pictures in the water. Many have said that weightlessness is what they want to experience because at the end of the pregnancy they start to feel gravity more and more. And so I like it when women feel comfortable and at the same time shine in beautiful dresses.
"Maternity" © 2021 Pillery Teesalu
Can you tell us a bit about the process of getting your work into a gallery?
It took me quite a long time to find the gallery, not least because I was obsessed with the concept of my exhibition and the look of the gallery. So I interacted with quite a few galleries. But as a woman, I have felt discrimination while doing this project, which is a pressing issue at the moment. For example, I have been told with the surprise "ah, you are a woman!" and also have been asked after presenting my exhibition photos "But what are you really doing [what is your main job]?" In Estonia, the most successful and highly rated photographers are men, and perhaps this is why there is an understanding as if female artists cannot succeed. There were quite a few situations where not my works of art were viewed, but me as a female photographer. However, I finally found the OKAPI gallery, the leader of which Temuri Hvingija conducted my exhibition and looked at me as an artist and not a woman who owns a camera.
What was the gallery experience like? What was the most memorable moment for you?
The collaboration with the OKAPI Gallery was exactly as I had expected - I would even say better. I learned so much from Temuri during this project and I think that is the most important part I will take with me from this project.
What advice would you give a photographer looking to exhibit their work in a gallery?
For all photographers, but mainly to all women – never be discouraged! As long as you do it with your soul, you will achieve your main goal.
"Inner Secret Light" from Serenity © 2021 Pillery Teesalu
Serenity is a years-long project for you and one that symbolizes so much. Can you detail this project a bit and what it means to you?
The Serenity solo exhibition project started in 2017, when I was still studying photography at Pallas University of Applied Sciences. At that period of time, I found myself in self-search. All the emotions took me to a point where I began to feel fear for the future. I discovered that the only place where I had no fear and all the stress seemed to flow out of the body was underwater. I felt that underwater, where time seems to stand still, is my fantasy world. So during the fourth year of photography studies, I made an underwater short film that described all the feelings I experienced and how I found my inner peace. Now, these same feelings took on a new meaning in the form of fantasy photographs and a new short film Serenity. The title Serenity symbolizes the self-reflection on recognition starting from the idea and reaching the final results.
What equipment do you use?
Right now I use Canon 5D Mark III and Ikelite underwater housing + DS strobes. In addition, various cables are in use for lighting, also diffusers etc. For the underwater photo shoot sets, I mainly use fabric backgrounds.
Do you shoot on scuba or snorkel?
Both. Mainly in the pool I take pictures by holding my breath. Currently I can hold my breath for about 2.5 minutes. I am also increasingly trying to engage in freediving in order to take pictures in open water without diving equipment in the future. The dream is to visit the Kingdom of Tonga and swim with humpback whales. So I am training my lung capacity more and more. Right now when shooting in open water, I use diving equipment, and I also teach my students to take photos with both, lung capacity and diving equipment. Both are definitely needed depending on the location.
"Sisterhood" from Serenity © 2021 Pillery Teesalu
In your role as a lecturer in underwater photography what advice and lessons do you focus on with your students?
In underwater photography lectures, I cover topics from the history of underwater photography to the present day. We largely focus on the use of techniques, and, in particular, the use of light, both natural light and artificial light. In addition, all new underwater photographers also take an OWD diving course so I can take them to photograph while diving. Underwater photo camps take place in the most magical diving site in Estonia, Rummu Quarry, on the territory of an underwater prison. In addition, the course concludes with an exhibition project. All underwater photographers receive in-depth training from my course.
What new ideas and innovations do you see coming from this new generation of underwater photography students?
It is not as innovative, but I saw from my students that when they took pictures in the pool for the first time, a huge part of it was Photoshop. And young people already have this skill used in everyday life, considering that photo processing is a big part of social media. Of course I also use photo manipulations and it is a logical part of photography but I could see from my students that the first time they took pictures in the pool, it was possible to make such a photo with post-processing that one of them was chosen as a cover photo for a photo magazine in Estonia. So even if you are taking underwater photos for the first time, manipulation can do everything and actually it is not bad! All your skills need to be realized and if you do it well, then why not.
Album Cover © 2021 Pillery Teesalu
What piece of your artwork would you most like to be remembered for?
In particular, I would like my work to be recognized for its lighting and subject matter. I focus on the human body and silence. Despite the fact that many photos have dynamism, they still have a recognizable peace of mind. Often people have their eyes closed to break the myth that the underwater picture must be with open eyes (this is the basic fact I hear from my clients all the time). As there are no more cultivators of such a fine art style in Estonia, fortunately, my work is recognizable here. But I definitely want my works to be internationally recognized as well. If I had to say a specific work that I want to be remembered for, then I can't say that yet, because I believe I haven't created this work yet. There are many exciting projects ahead and I believe that this unique work of art is still being completed.
What advice would you give to an artist and underwater photographer?
I would say the most common basic truth, and it has to be repeated and repeated - that if you do something you are passionate about, the results will come. And even if one door closes, the other opens. These are the basics and they really work.
Watch the short film Serenity
Pillery Teesalu is an artist, underwater photographer, and lecturer based in Estonia. She holds a bachelor's degree in photography from Pallas University of Applied Sciences and has been active in the underwater photography community for over seven years. In addition to family and maternity underwater photography, Pillery's work is also featured in advertisements, fashion features, and on album covers. Keep up with Pillery via her website and Instagram @pilleryteesalu