Water Angel: Remembering Christina

Christina Hope Shepherd was a devoted mother, loving wife, and talented artist celebrated for her magical underwater photography. Her exquisite studies in natural light, shadow, and the human form offer glimpses into dream-like realms inhabited by water angels. In Christina’s photographs elegant nudes float gracefully, veiled by swaths of gauzy fabric and bouquets of flowers, occasionally perched atop pillars like classical sculpture.

I go underwater with my camera, with ideas, with visions. The compositions are classical, sometimes allegorical. All involve human form. This is a given. I arrange props and models in this hushed, submerged world and hold my breathe. Light pours from above and the bodies become luminous. Water has its own transforming power. It both contains and suspends time. It is a liquid lens, delicately sifting shades of light and shadow. Hundreds of images later, the water reveals evanescent visions of its own.
– Christina Hope Shepherd (1949-2014)

Though her images feel quiet and contemplative, Christina’s photo sessions were elaborate affairs involving massive tarps, weighted props, and a wet ensemble of models and assistants (who might stand on the photographer’s shoulders to keep her submerged.) These happenings were relaxed and fun, like the artist herself, and through her direction and attention to detail Christina captured ethereal scenes that looked effortless. She would sink below the surface of friends’ pools with her Nikonis (an acclaimed 35mm underwater Nikon viewfinder camera) to choreograph and capture her remarkable underwater tableaus. She carefully orchestrated movements to create abstract water-angel-First-Lightpatterns with ripples and reflections in a pre-digital era without the luxury of immediate review. After processing countless rolls of film in her Jacksonville Beach darkroom (where she experimented with alternative processes like salt and contact prints), Christina would meticulously inspect hundreds of negatives, perhaps selecting only one or two that captured her vision from an entire session.

An original member of Southlight, a collective of young Jacksonville photographers that held its first formal show in 1982, Christina was a formative presence in the Jacksonville creative community. In addition to fine art photography, she explored commercial art, working with marketing and advertising agencies (including Shepherd, started by her husband, artist Robin Shepherd), and developed relationships with locals like Paul Figura, who became a close friend during his transition from the corporate world to professional photographer.

Christina’s lauded underwater series was exhibited throughout the First Coast, across the country, and as far as Europe, Asia, and South America. When a Southlight reunion exhibition was organized five years ago, Christina was enthusiastic to participate after having pulled back from photography to fully embrace motherhood with the arrival of her adored daughter, Yuxing. Last year Christina took up studio space in Atlantic Beach, where she and Robin lived for over thirty years, studying digital photography and expanding the reach of the underwater series she developed over twenty years.

On a balmy morning this past April, friends and loved ones gathered east of the Intracoastal to pay tribute to Christina Hope Shepherd’s beautiful, kind spirit and comfort Robin and Yuxing in a time of sudden loss and sorrow. Christina impacted countless people in our community and across the globe, and her standing-room only memorial service spilled out the front doors. Her dear friend Bruce Dempsey delivered a moving eulogy evoking laughter alongside damp eyes. “What fun we have all had with Christina. My fondest memories will always revolve around her sparkling personality and the many moments of laughter that we shared.” Dempsey recounted a story dating back to his tenure at the Jacksonville Art Museum: a story surrounding a lobster dinner honoring a prominent curator from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The last guests to enter were Robin and Christina. She had a brown paper bag under her arm and immediately produced large red felt lobster hats for all—bobbling eyes on the end of pipe cleaners, huge claws dangling from everyone’s ears….Christina tied the hats on everyone’s head and there we sat, gleaming plates of lobsters in front of us with our ‘lobster heads’ bobbing in animated conversation around the table. Christina had a wonderful way of breaking the ice—in fact, she smashed it!”

Christina Hope Shepherd was an original soul with a joyful sense of humor. I still remember our first encounter, her infectious enthusiasm (coupled with Robin’s British accent) made quite the impression on me. I admired Christina professionally and it was a pleasure to know her personally. Secretly I dreamed that she would turn me, like others I know, into an elegant water angel with her camera.

Our world is darker without Christina’s light, but her ethereal photographs and imaginative, ebullient personality have left an indelible impression on all who knew her.

Article written by Wesley Grissom

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