Photographer Lucas Murnaghan died peacefully Tuesday, March 23, at the age of 45 in his home in Toronto, surrounded by loved ones. Diagnosed with a rare cholangiocarcinoma in February 2021, he received treatment at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre before returning home to be with his family.
Lucas contacted us at The Advocate a few years back to see if we were interested in his work, and of course we were. Among the things we published was a promotional slideshow from his book Beneath the Surface, pictured here. That day, we began to talk about his work and his life as well as mine. Usually conversations with photographers go fast; we both know what we want, and they usually happen in text or email. But Lucas wanted to talk. So we talked for hours in the middle of a busy workday in the frantic offices of The Advocate, which are always running at breakneck speed. And we had a great connection. He would call from time to time from amazing places around the world and talk about the new photos he was shooting. I love all the photographers I work with, but Lucas was a special guy. He almost demanded that we have a connection. And his persistence shows in the perfection of his work.
Lucas Murnaghan was born in Toronto and raised in Ottawa, Canada. He obtained his medical degree from Queen’s University and completed his orthopedic surgical training at the University of British Columbia. His early photographic work focused primarily on surf and adventure. He always preferred to immerse himself in this environment, leading to shooting from within the water. An accomplished triathlete and free diver himself, he worked without additional SCUBA equipment, allowing him a deeper connection to his subject. This personal and organic approach allowed for greater versatility and a heightened level of intimacy to the finished product. Murnaghan brought a fresh eye to a challenging medium and took his audience with him, beneath the surface, to see things from a novel perspective.
“Beneath the Surface”: A photographic exhibition featuring the work of Lucas Murnaghan. This was the first solo show of his underwater work and coincided with the launch of his photo book Beneath the Surface. In this collection, Murnaghan explored notions of male vulnerability and confidence through the familiar yet physically and emotionally challenging underwater medium.
Beneath the Surface is Lucas Murnaghan's photo book debut and is the culmination of two years of underwater exploration. With 100 pages, the book includes a foreword by Alan Cumming, a preface by the author, personal responses by collaborators, and 70 curated images. Each limited edition 11" x 9" hardcover Smyth sewn bound book is series marked and signed by the artist. You can get your own copy of this collector's item here.
In this collection, Murnaghan explores notions of male vulnerability and confidence through the familiar yet physically and emotionally challenging underwater medium. Slipping beneath the surface, he removes traditional constraints and conventions and frees his subjects of their earth-bound conceptions and societal norms. With the rules changed, they are liberated to explore themselves in a parallel universe and express what lies beneath.
The Advocate: In going through your work, I am aware that you carefully title your work in a meaningful way. Can you tell us about that process?
Lucas Murnaghan: Ah yes, that’s a great observation. To be honest, I think I recognized that I had some talent with words well before I considered myself a visual artist. I’ve always enjoyed reflecting on lyrics or turns of phrase – and I’m a sucker for great copy when it comes to a marketing campaign or advertising. As Instagram was where I was first putting my work out, there was an opportunity to try to be creative with the captioning as much as with the images. I think of the emotion I am trying to evoke through the image – and tie the title in with that. I aim to avoid being too "on the nose," though I’m sure I stumble from time to time. Either way, I have never been happy putting out an "untitled #3" – perhaps I’m just not sophisticated enough for that.
Does your work as a surgeon affect your work as a photographer? And vice versa as well?
When I first started shooting, I really tried to keep the two worlds separate. It was as if I thought that if people knew my day job, they would take my work less seriously. I came to realize that not only is this not the case, but to keep them separate is to deny the inevitable connectivity that exists between the two. As a surgeon I am meticulous in my preparation and execution – a perfectionist to a fault. As a photographer, especially underwater, there is much to be said for being prepared, technically sound and safe throughout. Much of my work in surgery is arthroscopy – which involves using a small camera inside a joint filled with fluid – so the crossover there is undeniable. On the flip side – having an artistic voice is liberating from the day-to-day challenges working in health care. I feel that my artistic practice makes me a more well-rounded person and thereby hopefully a better care provider to my patients.
How do you get your subjects to not look like they are holding their breath?
When I am creating an image – whether it’s in my mind first, or later in the water – I am trying to consider the emotional response of my audience. I often delve into melancholic emotions of solitude, shame and regret. Without a sense of calm or serenity – these emotions could shift to anxiety, anger or fear. I want my audience to experience the water as less of a literal location and more of a metaphoric alternate reality. I try to avoid too many reminders of the physical struggle that is required to create the images – so the process has to look easy even when it isn’t. I think of a ballet dancer or figure skater - it isn’t only the physical prowess that they demonstrate – it is the apparent ease with which they do it that transforms from athleticism to artistry.
If I am a subject coming to work with you to be photographed underwater, what should I know, and how can I be most prepared?
The first thing that most of my subjects tell me is that it is harder than it looks. I guess that ties in with your previous question. It is a process that usually starts with a dry-land shoot. Our first water session can often take hours to come away with a handful of shots that we are happy with. The best work tends to come when we are humble enough to admit how hard it is and give up our preconceived notions of what is right or what is beautiful. Some of my favorite subjects have little to no "modeling" experience. They are liberated by their inexperience and enter into the process more freely, and I think this comes through in the final product.
You work is above reproach in terms of taste and refinement. Tell us, is there a secret stash of photos somewhere that show another side of your work?
Well, first of all, thank you – I take that as a huge compliment. When dealing with naked or nearly naked men as one’s subject – you can imagine it would be relatively easy to slip into a different kind of work. I am also aware of the relative and evolving nature of the line that exists between different artistic forms. I am inspired by the works of Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom Bianchi, who pushed that line – well beyond what the world was ready for at the time. I am equally fascinated by the differential interpretation of male and female nude subjects over the centuries in various artistic media. I hope to have the opportunity to explore these boundaries through my own artistic practice in the years to come.