Photographer's Forum Magazine

Andreas Franke: LIFE UNDERWATER

Adam’s Break. Florida 2012

The first time you submerge underwater, you know you are in a different world. Sounds are muted and the blue wash of the water changes colors and contrast, blurring out anything that is too far away. You are in an intimate space, interacting only with your immediate environment, floating freely until your lungs beg for breath and you have to emerge. Despite the obvious constraints, the feeling can be liberating. For a short time, you are able to disappear into an alternate universe right beneath the horizon. You’re weightless, suspended in time. It’s a liberation that allows you to imagine another life, another civilization just below the surface.

These daydreams inspired Austrian photographer Andreas Franke to create a fanciful series of photographs titled “The Vandenberg Project,” a series of underwater scenes composited with carefully crafted subjects. It’s the perfect culmination of Franke’s two passions — diving and photography — and both worlds are excited about how and where he has decided to display the images.

Franke was introduced to photography at an early age, when he was given a Polaroid camera as a present. “Everything started with this camera,” he says. “It was very straight and very clear for me. At first I had to become an engineer,” he laughs, as it was a family expectation, “but for me, photography was a lot more interesting.” When he was 16, he entered a school that specialized in photography, and within a few years of graduating, he and a friend started a professional photography studio, Staudinger + Franke.

In Vienna, there were not many established commercial photographers when Franke finished school in 1989. “It was a time, especially in Austria, when commercial photography was not as advanced. Coming out of school, we could start immediately, and three months later we earned money.” Staudinger + Franke began as a still life photography studio, but when digital photography came out, Franke was excited. “We were one of the first photography studios in Austria to use computers for retouching,” he explains. “We had Silicon Graphics machines and were working with more advanced and complex ideas. It’s a very important part of my work, to have retouchers in house.”

From this foundation, Staudinger + Franke became a powerhouse in the advertising community, with photographers, CGI artists and retouchers all working together to realize the visions of their clients. They became well-known in Austria very quickly, and in a few years built up a diverse and international clientele. The studio has created a portfolio of complex, intricate, fun and slick composite photography.

“Not that we only do retouching, but it’s the direction of our commercial portfolio. We handle the more complicated stuff. I’m very happy if there’s some easy, perfect, nice job with less retouching,” he admits with a smile. “We have up to five retouchers working at once, and I always oversee what they are doing.”

Despite the rigors of the commercial photography business, Franke finds time to shoot for himself. After a trip to Egypt and the Red Sea, where he had the opportunity to dive a shipwreck, an idea struck him. He photographed the sunken hull and envisioned a personal project creating fantastical scenes based on dramatic images of the shipwreck. When he returned to Vienna, he photographed models for these scenes with the same exquisite control that he applies to his commercial photography. He composited the first few images with his team and liked what he saw.

Then a chance article he found in a magazine provided a new direction. The article showed the intentional sinking in 2009 of the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg to create an artificial reef off the coast of Florida. Franke’s imagination was ignited. “I thought, ‘Oh wow, I need to go there.’ So, a couple of months later, I went diving at Key West.”

The resulting photographs show a recently sunken ship that hasn’t yet lost its shape but has started to take on a mottled crust of sea life. The images are the perfect backdrop for a series of composite photographs that reveal a relaxed and everyday sort of Atlantis. There are elegant dancers practicing on the deck, the rail their balance bar. A young girl runs on deck amidst a sea of fish, happily wielding a butterfly net. A disturbing man, tightly bound in a straightjacket, is wheeled down a narrow, darkened path. The images are enchanting in their own right, but what makes this story particularly fascinating is where Franke chose to display them. Once he had a portfolio of 12 completed images, he thought, “Why don’t we take them back to Key West and go diving?” The concept was simple enough — display the images of life underwater in the ship used as their backdrop — but the implementation of this gallery display was an unprecedented feat in the history of photography.

Vandenberg Project Underwater Gallery 4. Florida 2011

More of this article can be read in the Winter 2012 issue.