In case you missed Halle Bailey’s cover for V, the “Little Mermaid” singer and actress delivered a jolt of fantaSEA on the cover of our summer 2023 issue. Dressed by stylist Anna Trevelyan in the best looks of the couture season with Bulgari’s high-jewelry offerings, the real life siren’s dream mermaid shoot finally came to fruition during the press buildup of the highly-anticipated Disney flickand that’s all thanks to photographer Rob Rusling. Previously working as first assistant to fellow V contributor Nick Knight, the English creative, now based in Paris, has since developed his own style for photographic story tellingnotably using the help of AI technology to craft up the imaginative underwater world seen in Halle’s cover story. To get more insight on the creative process of the shoot, V caught up with Rusling to chat about the magic of image making.

V Magazine: What were some of your initial thoughts when first approached by V and Anna Trevelyan about doing this cover shoot with Halle Bailey?

Rob Rusling: When Anna and V came to me with the proposal to do the shoot with Halle for the cover, I really felt blessed. Halle’s casting for ‘The Little Mermaid’ is something which means an awful lot to so many people. I’ll never forget having seen an Instagram she posted where young girls of color were watching the trailer of the film and were so excited to see somebody that looks like them being the hero of the story. To be part of immortalizing the history of this moment in some small way is very special to me and I wanted to make sure we made images that felt fantastical enough that young kids might want to tear out the pages and put them on their walls.

Halle Bailey | Photographed by Rob Rusling for V142

V: Knowing she was the lead role (ahem, lead mermaid) in the upcoming Disney film, what were some sources of inspiration when coming up with concepts of what to capture? Did you ever find yourself going back to the book and/or 1989 animated film for references?

RR: With anything like this, you of course are going to be heavily inspired by the wealth of visual culture that exists around the different interpretations of The Little Mermaid and any or all art and cinema that’s excited around the subject. For me, the idea was to try and make a story that felt like a true couture fashion story, but one that just happened to take place in this magical underwater universe. It’s about having aspects of this underwater world that you know are recognizable, but at the same time knowing that this world is meant to be fantasy, I want people to get lost in the majesty and magic of both the underwater universe and Halle.

Halle Bailey | Photographed by Rob Rusling for V142

V: What was the experience of shooting with Halle Bailey like?

RR: Halle was a total pleasure to photograph. She loved the couture and was completely on board with our concept. The way the work is made really demands a lot of imagination on the day (spoiler alert, we might actually have been in a studio and not actually in the ocean for the making of!) and Halle’s amazing acting skills really came in handy for this. 

V: In more recent times, the use of technology within the art space has been something that some love and some hate. Personally, why is this something you seem to embrace, especially when it comes to your latest editorial work? 

Halle Bailey | Photographed by Rob Rusling for V142

RR: There has always been a link between art and progress. This has been manifested throughout art history, from early artists experimenting with different pigments to make brighter paints, through better, sharper tools making intricate sculptures possible or even just the invention of photography. Post production for me is something which really forms a part of image making and it always has. You only have to look at the work of the early pictorials to see examples of photographers placing images on different backgrounds or bending their paper during exposures in the darkroom to make longer perspectives and alter the proportions of their models, etc. The only change is that these days, we’re doing these things at a desk on a screen. AI is yet another tool that gives us ways to create certain elements that have a different visual appearance from more traditional forms of set design, for example, but it’s still just a tool, and in no way a replacement to anything else. It opens doors but it also requires a delicate hand to make its use In image making interesting and relevant, rather than clumsy and basic. I think we’re at the start of this technology and we’re all still finding it’s best uses for our own work. For me though, I like to embrace challenge and experimentation, so I’m happy to play with new techniques and technologies to just see what they might give to my work. True experimentation in your work really helps keep things interesting. 

V: Working with your AI extensively on the images, was the balance of keeping the integrity of photographs in line with the otherworldly nature of AI a challenge for you? What were some of the overall directions you gave to the team?

Halle Bailey | Photographed by Rob Rusling for V142

RR: Working with AI in this way is somewhat like working with a traditional set designer really. Nik Gundersen who is the digital set designer and AI artist we worked with on the project, would have conversations with myself, Anna and the magazine for us to discuss how we wanted our world to look and feel and then Nik would come back with options. From those options, I would sometimes mix elements from one to another to make new images and backdrops for us to begin our process—it’s not too dissimilar from deciding what prop should be on set and what shouldn’t. It’s collaborative and an interesting way to work but I can also say that, especially given where the technology is at the moment, it’s also very complex and difficult to build exactly what you want. It’s certainly not an easy option and you have to overcome plenty of challenges to retain the integrity and choice in things like your lighting and angles, for example. But the challenges are only technical obstacles and they’ll get easier as time goes on. As for the integrity of the photographs, I think that one really wants to make sure people know that there’s enough reality in the images to know that Halle really is there, and it really is her that is the focus of the images. At the same time, “reality” isn’t really a thing I get too caught up in when it comes to fashion images. I’m really of the school of thought that when we open up a magazine, we should be able to dream. These dreams are just believable enough that they impact us so strongly, and for me my hope is for my images to do the same. 

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