With just one painting, the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte made everyone reconsider everything they know about mermaids. Collective Invention literally flipped the entire concept on its head, with a creature whose top half was a fish and whose bottom half was a lady. A new photo series similarly, yet less disturbingly, embodies this spirit of reconfiguring mermaid myth, while also adhering much closer to fairy tale-endorsed anatomy.
London-based photographer Hana Vojakova’s Milk & Sea photos depict mermaids as they might appear in real life, in various countries around the world. The way each mermaid looks physically, and the clothes each wears on their top halves, are all reflective of the cultures of Portugal or Germany or Italy. The way these beings interact with their settings changes too, depending on whether that setting is a snowy dock in the Czech Republic or a languid beach in England. The photographer has not just brought mermaids into the real world, she’s using them to reflect the real world.
“I have been working for a while with themes originated as myths, fairy tales, or classic children’s films,” Vojakova says. “I was thinking about the place of a myth in contemporary world. You’re not supposed to question a myth, but rather, you’re just supposed to accept it as it is, which is what makes a myth a myth. I decided to go against that.”
Settling on mermaids as a subject, Vojakova embarked upon a mission to bring these creatures of myth out of the realm of lore and into society. In depicting the modern-day mermaid, the photographer dwells little on the magic of a fictional creature rubbing shoulders with reality, opting instead for a matter-of-fact approach. The images seem to suggest a world where of course mermaids are real, and everybody is just used to it. The Milk & Sea images occur in countries that are relatively close to each other geographically, but with different cultures. In order to get a feel for how to depict the mermaids of each region, the photographer had to travel and integrate with the natives.
“Some of the countries I knew ahead, and some were totally new to me,” Vojakova says. “After spending some time in a place, I started to develop ideas inspired by various locations I found and by stories of the girls I met there. First I built up a story, and then I started to create the scene, and finally I figured out the mermaids themselves.”
In addition to bearing cultural legitimacy, though, these mermaids do in fact look like mermaids. Vojakova took a lot of care to make the fishy lower halves of her models look as realistic is possible. Her process involved photographing the girls in leggings, and then creating the long, smooth tail-shape digitally and in 3-D. Next, she photographed various fish skin and scales to create the textures. It was a long and difficult postproduction process, taking the artist more than six months of intensive work to complete. The resulting images, though, seem natural enough to allow the viewer to imagine the rich inner lives of their subjects.
Have a look at more of the Milk & Sea series in the slides above.