Deep diving with artist Rod Klein. Let’s do it then.
Rod, you do a lot of different things, including being an artist, video editor, scuba instructor, and underwater photographer. If you had to only do one of these things, which would it be, or do they all fit together seamlessly for you?
Well, I have a very eclectic background. I started out as an artist, earning an MFA in studio art at UCLA. In order to make a living, I started working in television, back in the day before you could easily edit and produce videos on your desktop. It was a creative way to have fun and make a living, but after a number of years, I was looking for something different. I had taught photo and video on the college level, and I wanted to get back into teaching. I also wanted something that involved the marine environment. I took a vacation and did a little intro scuba course, came home, got into a full certification class, and a year later I was teaching scuba in the Caribbean.
With art, photography, scuba skills, underwater photography was a natural extension. After a number of years photographing marine life and writing magazine articles for dive and adventure magazines, I wanted to go back to my artistic roots. That’s where I am now. So, yes, my entire background has merged into what I’m doing now. But I must say, if I had to make a choice, diving and underwater work would always be my first choice.
I want to talk about the process of collaboration, especially when it comes to working with models such as Vartuhi Oganesyan. How did you meet and begin collaborating? How do you choose who to work with?
In 2015, I completed work on a custom live/work space, which includes a large art and photo studio and a 12’ deep studio pool. Pool photography has become very popular over the last few years. Most are shooting in normal residential pools that have a shallow end where an untrained model and a non-diver photographer can shoot without the help of a scuba regulator, since all they have to do is stand up to get air.
My pool and shooting style requires skills that most models don’t have. This is because they need to learn to be comfortable in a deep-water setting and learn to breathe on a scuba regulator. As a result, I never shoot anyone in the pool who I have not evaluated and trained first, even before a shoot date is scheduled. Every spring, I post a casting call on several model websites to see who might be interested in trying shooting underwater. I get many responses but very few can make the cut. Sometimes I get models who show promise but are not 100% comfortable. This was the case with Vartuhi. I offered to give her extra training, and we had three or four 2-hour training sessions, as well as a test shoot.
We have worked together each year ever since. We’ve also worked in my studio, and she has sort of become my muse.
The paintings that you recently showed at Gloria Delson Gallery are really breathtaking. I imagine that they began as underwater photographs. Is that true? Can you describe how you create those photos and then transform those into these huge paintings?
Actually, not all the work you saw at Delson Gallery – which I call “digital paintings” -were based on underwater images. And yes, the base imagery was photo-based, but some images came from the studio, some from underwater, and some from other sources. I basically have three styles of work that I do: digital paintings on canvas, archival prints on watercolor paper, and full underwater imagery. I have a large 64” Epson P20000 printer and do all the printing, whether on canvas or other media, myself. The images are a combination of multi-media and computer digital design.
When did your obsession with the ocean begin? Did you grow up near the water?
I grew up in Los Angels and learned to swim at 5 or 6, and I spent all my summers at the beach boogie boarding and body surfing, so basically, I am a water baby. I had always wanted to learn to scuba dive, but it wasn’t really on my radar until I took that vacation, as I mentioned, and took the intro scuba course.
I actually made becoming a dive instructor sound too easy. I had to get many certifications first: open water diver, advanced diver, rescue diver, dive master, open water scuba instructor, and Master Scuba Diver Trainer. Over the years, I have at least 3000 dives.
“Love working with Rod because he believes in me and my creative vision and he is always pushing me to new limits! I can always count on him coming up with some crazy and unique shoot and its fun to be a part of that process.”
– Vartuhi Oganesyan, Model and Muse
You’ve been to Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and many other countries. How have your travels influenced your work? Do you absorb the colors and cultures of those places?
I am a very bad tourist and don’t really like to travel without a specific purpose. This is one of the great aspects of dive travel. One can go to many exotic places, such as Indonesia, which has probably the best diving in the world, and interact with the people and culture without wondering around as a tourist. It’s impossible not to have all of those visual experiences not having an impact on my work.
I’ve never been scuba diving and it kinda frightens me. Have you ever had an experience when you told yourself that you’re never doing it again?
The first question most divers get from non-divers is, “What about sharks? Do you ever see them?” The answer is usually “I certainly hope so!” There are so many misconceptions about diving and being underwater. In fact, there are more accidents in bowling than in scuba diving. In almost 30 years of diving, I’ve never had a bad experience. Good training, common sense, and experience make for a very safe and fun activity.
I share your fascination with whales. Can you describe what it is like to swim amongst them in the ocean? When and where did you first encounter a whale?
Sea mammals are the most incredible animals we see underwater: warm-blooded, large-brained, and highly intelligent. I spent three weeks in the Kingdom of Tonga a few years ago, where humpback whales congregate every year to mate and give birth. There you can snorkel and free dive with the whales. It’s an incredible experience
What is coming up for you in the next few months or year? Are you traveling? More shows of your work?
Since I built my live/work space, I am spending most of my time in Venice Beach working. I shoot in the pool May through October, and work in the studio during the winter. I have another show at Gloria Delson Contemporary Art Gallery in April 2019 where I will show underwater imagery for the first time there. The end of March, I will show at March 28-31, 2019 in Downtown Los Angeles at the Magic Box @ The REEF. I may go to Isla Mujeres near Cancun next summer to swim with the whale sharks.