It was late in the day, East Coast time, when I finally had a chance to talk with Christina Hope in regard to the magical images she was creating with her underwater nude series. I was not interested in the mechanics of her work. I wanted to know what it was that grasped Hope’s spirit in those initial images and has refused to let go for seventeen years. I wanted to understand the woman and her inventions and what has kept the passion so alive in the marriage between her and her art. I wanted to reveal the essence of this creator, this mother who has birthed such beautiful and telling children.
Not long into our conversation, it seemed my mission would fail. My recorder would not work unless the speaker phone was on (hardly an intimate setting); Hope seemed weary; and my questions were not eliciting the in-depth, heartfelt responses I was seeking. When I probed, she seemed guarded, choosing her words carefully. I asked what she ultimately hoped to accomplish through her images.
She sighed and said, “Can I think about that and get back to you?” The hour was growing late. The interview was okay–safe, usable, but not what I had hoped for. I turned off the recorder to conclude our conversation.
It was then I mentioned some of my thoughts as a model and how figure work had become a spiritual pursuit for me. Suddenly, a lock sprang open. The tired, cautious Hope of moments earlier was gone and an exuberant, open, liberated Hope was telling me she also saw her work with the artistic nude as a form of spiritual outreach. She exclaimed that life with her son-of-a-preacher husband had always been a pursuit of spiritual peace and understanding. Theology had long been a fascination and religion an important part of her growth as an artist. Here lay the artist’s passion.
Hope explained to me how each time she had thought she should give up her art for more humanitarian pursuits, something would happen which insisted she continue on her current path. She would receive a request for new pieces for a show, or a private buyer would come in. Perhaps, interest sparked by a review would heighten, and something would tell her, “You can’t quit now.” Eventually, she realized her art is her life’s work, her calling and her humanitarian pursuit. In a sense, her art is her religion–her images are her divine inspiration and her gift to those of us who choose to receive.
Hope is not seeking to portray a spirituality beyond our grasp. The subjects of her pictures are not, as one might think, ethereal in nature. The term “water angels,” which had been overly used to talk about her images, is not, in her opinion, altogether befitting. She does not want the subjects of her art to appear otherworldly. Their essence is utterly human and unmistakably earth-bound. She would like the viewer to feel a kinship with her subjects and to see themselves in the images. Through her art, she seeks to speak to our inner sense of self and spirit.
As our conversation progressed, Hope’s inspiration became clearer and clearer to me. What she saw in her initial images was more than simple beauty, more than a new and different type of photographic art, much more than something nice to sell to people to hang on their walls. What she saw was that she had created an image which paralleled the human soul. In her colorless world of water, light and figure, Hope had managed to capture a spiritual essence which speaks of beauty–not only to the seeing mind but also to the feeling heart. Her images are a sort of Jungian peephole into our own watery souls. Through her complicated, time-consuming and somewhat archaic means, she has managed to produce portraits of the many stages of our souls–portraits which reflect and suggest our changing human condition. Her figures act within their water frames to recreate the emotions we all recognize not merely on an intellectual level, but on a spiritual level as well.
So what is to be gained by looking at images reflective of our own souls? I inquired about two images in particular. When asked about reactions to her image “First Light 1,” Hope was happy to note that even though the image does show two naked forms facing and intertwined, it had not (as far as she knew) received any negative reactions from viewers. She hopes the image will remind people how important it is to touch. Physical contact is an irreplaceable part of our earth-bound experience and essential to our spiritual and emotional growth. From our very inception, our growth as beings is severely stunted without touch.
Another image which is particularly provocative to me is that labeled “Interior.” It is a beautiful picture in which the subject seems to be engaged in a struggle. When I brought this observation to Hope’s attention, she slowly and thoughtfully explained such was not the intent of the photograph. However, at the time it was taken, she, herself, was embroiled in a very difficult personal trial. She spoke of the pain and frustration, anger and confusion involved in her battle against infertility. She believes there is beauty in these necessary and universal struggles, because it is through our hardships that we grow and through our desperation that we learn to reach inside ourselves and find true strength.
The mortal struggle is essential to Hope’s work–not only as a theme but also as a means of creation. Certainly, easier techniques than those Hope uses will achieve similar results. She immerses herself with the model who is held beneath the water by assistance, no one utilizing the aid of oxygen. In a frenzied state of breath deprivation–usually mixed with exhaustion–trying not to obscure her lens with an escaping air bubble, Hope tries to make peace with the water gods as she asks them to aid her in her pursuit. For brief seconds, which seem like eternities, she searches for the right moment, the perfect marriage of light and movement. Then, she asks the universe to hold its breath while she shoots. The whole thing is indicative of a religious ceremony, and no doubt, for Hope, it is. Anything less would, in her mind, be cheating. This way there is a communion between her and her models–a connection, a bond which adds to the co-creative spirit of the image. For Hope to demand more personal control of the creation process would be counterproductive, for it is unpredictability and reliance on chance that give her the captivating quality which makes her final image so provocative, so telling, so inspired.
There is nothing more essential to our lives than water. It makes up the majority of the Earth’s surface. Without it , our bodies would be reduced to a few handfuls of dust. It is the essence from which we came and that without which we could not live. For Hope, water is thus a befitting stage–an atmosphere, a unique cosmos which creates the conditions necessary for her art. It also acts as an extension of her camera lens. The makeup and natural properties of water play an essential role in emphasizing what is the most important aspect of her images–light. Hope works with only available light. This restriction is vital to the visual intensity of the image and its emotional impact. As Hope expresses the relationship, “The light–yes, the light it is what we are drawn to–what we reach for, what we search for. As soul creatures, it is what inspires us to grow.” In her art, as well as in her life, she demonstrates to us all that the amount of apparent light is not nearly as important as what is produced with that light. Herein lies the truth, the core of this artist’s aspiration. “This is what I hope to achieve with my images,” Hope finally told me. “I hope to create more light for the world”.