Going beneath the surface for inspiration and connection

by Frank D. Quattrone
Posted 3/23/23

Although her photography spans the breadth of human experience, Julia Lehman has found her truest inspiration underwater.

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Going beneath the surface for inspiration and connection


Although her photography spans the breadth of human experience, Julia Lehman has found her truest inspiration underwater. And she has fashioned an impressive body of underwater photography, from the quiet depths of her own swimming pool to the mystic cenotes of Yucatan.

For her, it is a personal passion – her way of linking mindfulness, fitness, and meditation.

“I mean, water is life,” Lehman said. “We come out of the womb. We need water to drink and to cleanse ourselves. We can’t survive without water.”

As an artist, Lehman said, she finds a particularly close connection with her subjects when they work underwater. 

“Holding your breath recalls meditation, doesn’t it? It clears your mind. It forces you to trust your body as you focus on the beauty and magic right in front of us.”

Yet the medium also presents special challenges. 

“I have to teach them not to be uncomfortable being underwater without goggles on,” she said. She does a relaxing five-minute breathing exercise to guide them into a mindfulness frame of mind by relaxing their facial muscles, and putting their tongue to the roof of their mouth.

And it is exhausting work. For modeling shoots, she needs to find the right costumes in addition to teaching safety measures and comfort in a water realm.

After all, one can’t talk underwater. So the process becomes intuitive, a term frequently applied to Lehman by her clients. She says that a “graceful fluidity” comes after a half-hour or so. 

Lehman said that her best models have been dancers, some from the Philadelphia Ballet, because they are so athletic and graceful. Local ballerina Sarah Brower, who came to realize the beauty and magic of underwater photography after booking an underwater session with her, now works alongside Lehman as her assistant.

A childhood spent in nature

Lehman, who grew up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, calls herself “a nature child.” She often found herself alone, playing in the woods, and also loved riding horses. 

So it was no surprise that the stunning photo spreads she saw in National Geographic would energize a mind already curious about animals and the natural world. By the time she was 14 she had fallen in love with the darkroom and photography.

Lehman took courses in photography at several colleges before landing a plum post as photojournalist for the City Paper. Shortly after that, she moved to Cozumel, in Mexico, where she worked on a dive boat and later led snorkeling tours and diving excursions at Cozumel’s Aqua World. 

Then she became a mother, and moved back to the Philadelphia area.

After finding a lovely house in Mt. Airy with a swimming pool badly in need of cleaning, she had a “eureka moment” when it occurred to her to start shooting underwater. 

Without totally abandoning her photoshoots of portraiture, events, and commercial photography, Lehman found new solace and inspiration in the depths of her pool. She began renting underwater camera housings at first, before purchasing an Aquatech housing for her Nikon D850 and an Outex housing for her Nikon video camera.

And now, she said, she thinks she may be the only photographer in the Philadelphia area who specializes in underwater shoots.

Getting involved and giving back

Lehman is also involved with various charitable initiatives, including the “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” bereavement photography organization. She has several ongoing projects with Comcast’s Accessibility Lab for people with hearing and visual impairments and other special needs, as well as abused animals. She works in collaboration with other artists to help illustrate the plastic pollution problem in our oceans through underwater photographs, donating 100 percent of the proceeds to Charity Water. And now she is also donating her time and professional services to Indigenous people, specifically the remote Pacchen tribe in the wilds of Yucatan, Mexico – where a set of train tracks now being built is threatening their sacred lands, waters and ancient way of life.

With the help of her friend Aeon Karris and anthropologist Adrian Perez, who are closely connected to the Pacchen tribe, Lehman has spent weeks in Yucatan, getting to know “these lovely, pure-hearted, gracious people who are so in tune with the earth.” 

With her drone equipment and underwater camera, Lehman has photographed their sacred cenotes, which are natural pits of fresh water created by the erosion of limestone, and is some of the purest water on the earth. She has descended by rappelling into the pitch-black “Jaguar Eyes” cenote, which is essentially two holes on the top of the jungle floor, with stalactites all around. 

When descending into that darkness, she said, smelling the freshness of the water as she felt the edges of the earth beneath her feet, she understood why the Mayans believe they must ultimately pass through the underwater world before they can be reborn. The Mayans, who still number six million people, believe that water is the gateway to other realms.

Lehman is now booking underwater portrait sessions in her pool for the May to September summer season. She is also planning a book about her experiences with the Pacchen tribe, and is dedicating her photography, both underwater and aerial, to help raise awareness as well as funds for the Mayan cause of preserving their land and waters. To that end, she is also creating a special gallery on her website dedicated to selling prints of her Mayan photography. 

Lehman and Aeon Karris are also hosting another retreat in Mexico, March 31- April 4. For more information go to www.julialehmanphoto.com, www.julialehmanart.com, and on Instagram @julialehmanart and @julialehmanphotography. She can also be reached at julia@julialehmanphoto.com and at 215-512-1013.