Growing up in southeast England, Rachael Talibart spent several weeks every summer on her father’s sailboat, exploring the coastlines of France and the Netherlands. These family voyages were meant as a vacation, although Talibart never had much fun—she was a "shockingly bad sailor" who was almost constantly seasick. Because her nausea was worse inside the boat, she spent most of her time alone in the cockpit, looking out over the ocean.
"I spent ages staring at the waves," she remembers. "I used to imagine creatures in the sea."
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Talibart, now a celebrated photographer, remains both frightened and fascinated by the sea, a tension she explores in her new series, Sirens, which was recently shortlisted for a Sony World Photography Award and will go on exhibition at the Sohn Fine Art Gallery in Lenox, Massachusetts in September. The visually sumptuous photographs were all taken on Newhaven Beach in East Sussex, which Talibart began visiting weekly in 2016, arriving at dawn and waiting hours in hopes of catching the perfect light and weather.
One day in February 2016, during Storm Imogen, everything came together. Thanks to an extra high tide, a strong wind, and a sun that kept breaking through the clouds, the waves were large and crashing—and perfectly lit. Lying on her back, her feet to the ocean, Talibart used telescopic lenses and an ultra-fast 1,000 frames/second shutter speed to capture the towers and troughs of foam-flecked seawater. All those hours and days studying the sea had prepared her. "It’s about understanding the sea, knowing when a wave is coming, being able to predict what it’s likely to do so I can get the shot," she explains.
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Thanks to their dramatic lighting, the waves look almost sculptural. "We never see that with our eyes, because the waves’ movement stops us from noticing the incredible shapes," Talibart points out. "By using a fast shutter speed, I can freeze that motion." She began shooting the series in black and white, her preferred palette, but in October 2017, during Storm Brian, she switched over to near-monochromatic, desaturated color to capture the unexpected bursts of green she began noticing in the waves.
Talibart still can’t help thinking of sea creatures when she looks at the photographs. Inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, she titled the series Sirens and gave each image the name of a mythological god or goddess. And although she avoids boats these days—she still gets seasick—Talibart credits her childhood sailing adventures with her ocean obsession.
"A part of me is still half-afraid of the sea," she admits. "There’s a fascination and a love for it, but there’s also fear."
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