I grew up in America: Catholic, white and middle class. My parents did not express affection with one another. So from the very beginning of this work, I had to face my fears and ignorance about the human body. I had to consider my own body, naked. I had to look at my own sexuality and confront my own emotions..
I approached it as research. I looked at Playboy and Penthouse and they disturbed me because I felt the way they looked at naked bodies was in a narrow way. A way that didn’t include a woman’s perspective. It created in me the desire to show women from a woman’s point of view.
There is a voyeurism to this, but it is not like peeping at an unknown person. It is more like looking into people’s windows at night to look into their lives. I want to capture what is true. I am interested in relationships, especially couples. Because two people in relationship with each other will add dimensions to the work that are impossible to predict or manipulate. It’s like the water gives them permission to be playful, sensual, spiritual, even threatening.
My first exhibition looked like the Sistine Chapel, although my figures were fully clothed. The photo grains were enlarged and the play of light and darkness created chiaroscuro even when I was photographing underwater. When I stripped the figures of their clothes I found my subject.
Over the course of years, my work has changed and matured as I have. The compositions have become more complex, the focus has sharpened and colors have become explosive. When I became pregnant all my sexual issues again rose to the surface. It was amazing. It was bizarre. It was sexual. It was made clear what my body was for, not just to incubate another human being, but to feed, nurture, sustain life. It reinforced the beauty and the reality of women in unexpected shapes and sizes.
I find models and choose them for their willingness to let go and improvise, for their long hair and for a curvaceous body type because these elements assert themselves most strongly to the camera. Asking people to take their clothes off and interact underwater so that I can take pictures of them does not naturally come to me or my models. I use a slow shutter and I never know what I’m going to get. The images keep shifting. The models interact. When I see something that rings true, I guide them in that direction.
What remains fascinating is the liquidity of it. A relationship can flow through so many manifestations. It is possible for lovers to be parent and child, best friends, even adversaries. Roles shift from moment to moment.
Once I put a chair into the pool with the models and the focus turned to power and bondage. I think there’s a natural jump when you add the harness of props and possessions to the softness of naked interaction. That's what I look for. I put people together and wait for something to happen. When it does, I follow it and push it along and photograph it.
Another time, two women came to me at a show. They were best friends and agreed to model for me. When they got into the water and started interacting their smallest gestures began to play out archetype relationships. At one moment they were lovers, in another, mother and child. In the next, they they were friends and it was very chaste. These roles were revealed in simple physicality. How one person reaches out to one another or how a woman touches her own breasts shows all.
I believe the work allows us to look at ourselves in all our roles: the ones that please us and the ones that discomfort us.
— Shelly Corbett