David Jenison spotlights international photographer Kristian Schmidt whose striking images juxtapose wildlife with high fashion in their natural habitats.
Sharks and modeling have always gone together in a figurative sense, but this NYC-born, Paris-raised Swede wanted a literal underwater photo shoot. He already had international acclaim for his wildlife-fashion photographs, but this idea would become his most famous.
“The whale sharks in Mexico were moving too fast to put someone in front of them, but our dive master, Shawn Heinrichs, knew a place in the Philippines where the fishermen throw food into the water to keep the whale sharks away from the other fish,” continues Kristian. “The whale sharks are kind of stagnant waiting under the boats for food, which made it the perfect spot to shoot.”
Heinrichs, who is a noted underwater photographer himself, spent the next four months working with Kristian to organize the shoot, and Kristian gives him credit as the reason everything ran so smoothly. The process of finding the right model, however, went much less smoothly. Victoria’s Secret models were among the many women who auditioned, but Angels are meant to fly, not swim. “The models were in the pool, dresses wrapped around their faces nearly drowning — it was a disaster,” moans Kristian, who probably imagined them saying, “‘Underwater model?’ I thought you said ‘underwear.’”
Kristian started to think the shoot would never happen, but then he recalled meeting Hannah Fraser at a party in Miami. The Australian beauty is a professional mermaid impersonator who does spectacular underwater shoots. “Hannah could hold her breath underwater for more than five minutes, and she’s been doing this mermaid stuff for a long time, so she can position herself exactly where the light is,” he continues.
The images of Fraser and the whale sharks were a global hit, and the duo teamed up again earlier this year to take pictures with giant manta rays in Hawaii. If you thought the shark shoot sounded sketchy…“We took her 40 feet underwater and tied her foot to a rock in the middle of the night, and we would bring her oxygen every few minutes,” Kristian says in a surprisingly nonchalant tone.
“We had a big surfboard with light coming down and two lights on each side, and we had these massive manta rays going around her. I am wearing full scuba gear freezing my ass off, and she is naked, so it was incredible what she was doing. She would be under for an hour, and we’d go to the surface to warm her up and then start again. We did that all night.”
In addition to becoming photo art, the images were used in a conservation campaign that helped motivate CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to put manta rays on a protected list. “It made us feel really good about what we are doing,” adds Kristian, who has also shot a famous campaign with NBA star Yao Ming to call attention to elephant ivory poaching in Africa.
Kristian, the son of famed European stage producer Lars Schmidt, started his professional career 15 years ago directing television shows and music videos. It was while directing a shoe commercial in South Africa that he started taking wildlife pictures.
“The pictures were quite good, so I did a gallery exhibit in New York, and they sold out,” he recalls. “I kept doing this, and then about five years ago, I began mixing it with fashion. I started by shooting these elephants in South Africa, and the models wore these Japanese headpieces with real human hair pulled back into lion and elephant shapes. The photos mostly appeared in galleries, but then I started doing fashion editorials.” Zink Magazine published his latest editorial in its summer issue, and it pairs 2011 Miss USA winner Alyssa Campanella and a giant tiger in the Nevada desert.
Kristian’s photos seem so fantastical that many people wrongly assume they are Photoshop creations, but the public will soon have the chance to see these shoots in action. All of them were filmed for the forthcoming TV series The Kristian World.
“Each episode is one photo shoot, and when you work with animals, it is always so chaotic,” says Kristian. “I shot with massive eagles, cheetahs, lions…we had two baby bears climbing around this bar in the West Village. It also shows the nonsense and craziness that happens behind the scenes, like the staff is drunk and the lion is attacking the model. We already shot two seasons worth of material.”
Specific Media, which recently purchased MySpace with Justin Timberlake, bought the internet rights to the series for the new MySpace TV channel, though the show is also expected to air on cable TV outlets. Kristian concludes, “Every single shoot is in the show. It’s all there. And there is a number at the end of each show where viewers can book the same trip. If someone sees the show and wants to dive with whale sharks in the Philippines, we can organize it for them.” Swimming with the mermaid, however, naturally costs extra.
©2013 Photos courtesy of Kristian Schmidt and Shawn Heinrichs