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Siren Call: Q&A with Ocean Photographer Rachael Talibart

The British photographer tells us how she came to capture incredible seascapes that evoke mythical creatures and abstract designs

Today, Rachael Talibart travels the world as an ocean photographer, capturing the arresting seascapes she’s become renowned for—but it was an Italian sunrise that first convinced her to make a living behind the lens. While on a break from a successful law career, she was considering returning to academics but “photography was pulling me in another direction. One morning I was in Venice, standing alone with my camera in a quiet spot before the sun came up, and felt so at peace and content that I decided not to go back to my studies.”

Instead, she returned to her roots on the rugged coastline of West Sussex in the U.K., entranced by the pull of the sea and determined to capture its wild beauty. Here she tells us more about finding the drama in nature.

Artist Rachael Talibart at work
Rachael Talibart pictured at work on a “wonderful, stormy day” at Rosamol beach on the Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides. Image: Jenifer Bunnett

Tell us about where you grew up, near the sea…
I grew up on the coast, with the sea about 300 feet [100 m] down a lane from our house and I remember falling asleep, on stormy nights, to the sound of the pounding ocean.

I love that wonderful sense of exploration for its own sake, being open to new experiences and seeing what’s out there

And there were keen sailors in your family?
Very much so. Dad was a really keen yachtsman. According to one apocryphal tale, my younger brother’s conception was timed so that he would arrive in the winter and the sailing season would suffer no interruption! For the first 12 or so years of my life, almost every weekend and school holiday was spent at sea. In the summer, we would always go away on the boat for a month, sailing south down the French coast or north into the canals of Holland, or along the English coast to Cornwall.

Seven Sisters, East Sussex
White Cliffs from Talibart’s Coast series; an evocative shot of Seven Sisters in East Sussex, renowned chalk cliffs that border the English Channel.

How did your move to photography happen?
It was gradual. I spent many years working as a lawyer in two “Magic Circle” [an informal term for the big five London-headquartered multinational law practices] firms—it was a good career, but not creatively fulfilling for me. So, I took a break when my second child was born, went back to university and gained a master’s degree in Victorian literature and art. During this time, photography, which had always been a hobby, began to absorb more and more of my free time and my imagination. In 2015, I decided to see if I could make it as a full-time fine art photographer. I immediately felt a great sense of relief—it was the right decision.

Ice Art by Rachael Talibart
Ice Art from Talibart’s Freshwater series, which encompasses mesmerizing photographs of rivers, caves, and waterfalls.

How did your Sirens body of work come about?
During winter 2015–16, I often went to Newhaven in East Sussex to capture photographs of stormy seas. One afternoon, there were big waves and the light broke through the clouds for about 10 minutes. In that time, I captured a wave that seemed to have a personality—it was rushing across the sea with purpose. There was no quay or lighthouse in the frame, no landmark to suggest location or scale. My childhood watching waves and imagining creatures popped into my head and so did my studies of Homer’s Odyssey at university. I suddenly knew what I wanted to do: I would try to capture isolated waves of character and name them after mythological beings.

Choosing to make it as a full-time fine art photographer gave me a great sense of relief—it was the right decision.

Then I just had to wait for the right conditions, and I finally got lucky—only two weeks later Storm Imogen came along. It was the perfect storm as far as I was concerned, not only big waves but also good light. I worked on that beach for six hours in winds gusting up to 70–80mph [113–129 kmh]. It was the hardest shoot of my life, physically exhausting, but it was also the most exhilarating. That was the beginning of Sirens.

Niobe by Rachael Talibart
Alluding to the tragic tale of Niobe, a character in Homer’s Iliad, this photograph is from Talibart’s Sirens series.

You also teach photography. Tell us about your workshops.
The idea for f11 Workshops began five years ago, and it’s all about small groups, individual attention and local knowledge. I usually have no more than four clients on my location workshops and I don’t bring my own camera, so I am fully focused on them. I also lead international workshops and tours for Ocean Capture, a leading fine art photography workshops business.

Western Isles by Rachael Talibart
Western Isles, an almost abstract image of the Outer Hebrides from the Coast series. Talibart deliberately moved the camera while taking this photograph, and Strand II, below, to blur the boundaries between elements.

How do you compose your pieces?
I’m always asking how I can simplify my compositions. I want to create art that stimulates a sense of curiosity and wonder, probably because that’s how I feel when I’m by the sea. People often comment that I like to leave them guessing about scale. They’re right. That’s one of the ways in which I try to leave room for mystery and obscurity, a space for the viewer’s imagination to engage.

Tell us about some memorable shoots…
I had a wonderful few hours on the Oregon coast last fall. I found a quiet beach where enormous basalt sea stacks protected a vast stretch of pristine sand, but beyond the stacks huge waves were crashing. It was wild and so beautiful. As I walked along the shore, two bald eagles in the trees called to each other. One of them took off, swept low over the sand right in front of me, and headed off down the coast.

Strand II by Rachael Talibart
Beach scene Strand II. Talibart says that in the Outer Hebrides it’s often hard to tell exactly where land ends and sky begins, or where sea ends and land begins.

What’s your idea of the perfect adventure?
I’m heading down to Antarctica later this year—that’s a pretty big adventure. But, whether I’m discovering new places or exploring already known places, I just love that sense of waking up in the morning with the whole day ahead of you. It doesn’t have to be gnarly and extreme, just that wonderful sense of exploration for its own sake, being open to new experiences and seeing what’s out there.;

Banner image: Echo, from the Sirens series, which recalls the mountain nymph Oread