At 3 years old, Smith Wallace can swim in a pool without wearing any arm floaties or a life jacket.
“He’s a water baby,” said Tessie Wallace, Smith’s mother. “He’s obsessed.”
He doesn’t blow bubbles while underwater either. It’s a rare combination for such a young swimmer, making him the ideal subject for underwater photography — something that helped propel Smith, his young cousins and his mom to Instagram fame this summer.
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Tessie has taken hundreds of shots of Smith in a family member’s pool. Her nephews also are frequent subjects.
She tells them what to do or where they need to be in the pool. Then she lets all her air out and goes underwater to shoot.
The images fill her Instagram account, where one of them caught the attention of the folks at Instagram headquarters — the odds of that happening seem minuscule given the sheer number of photos those folks view every day.
Tessie’s photo, though, caught their attention, and was featured on the official Instagram headquarters account. It shows her son and her nephews, who are identical twins.
“I asked them to sit on the bottom of the pool, and I said, ‘Face the light,’ because the light was up there. And I said, ‘I want to see your faces in the light,’” she said.
A few shots and a little Photoshop magic later, and the moment was published in black and white to Instagram’s 225 million followers. As you might imagine, the number of followers for Tessie’s Instagram account, @tessiewallace, skyrocketed. Then came requests.
Now she’s offering to shoot underwater pool sessions with other children during the remaining days of summer.
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Tessie mixes work and play with both fire and water.
She is an artist blacksmith, along with her husband, Matt. The couple owns Wallace Metal Works, through which they work with interior designers, architects, contractors and clients. They also sell gifts online.
“We do a lot of projects and do some out of state,” Tessie said. “We do a lot in White Sulphur Springs at the sporting club, and in Lewisburg and that area.”
These days, the mother of one does more of the business side of Wallace Metal Works than welding, which she used to do every day. She now incorporates photography, a passion project, into the business and on the side.
“I have a good friend who would come and take photos of our work,” she said. “We would kind of barter, and we had another photographer who we paid to come take photos of us from out of state, and I was just like, ‘I need to be doing this myself. I need to get a good camera.’”
When her son was 6 months old, she hired Rachel Jeffers, a local photographer, to take photos of him.
“We ended up becoming friends immediately,” Wallace said. “She did the photos and said, ‘You know, I could teach you and could show you what kind of camera to get so you can take photos of your work.’ So we did a little class together. She helped me get a camera. She helped me with everything, so I was able to shoot our work.”
Smith became her practice subject. The more she learned about photography, the more she grew to love it.
Anything she learns now comes from trial and error and help from other photographers through Instagram and photography websites.
“There’s a whole world out there of what they call ‘momtogs,’” Tessie said. “Like mom-photographer. There’s a whole community on Instagram of these mom photographers and everybody shares information.”
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This summer, she started venturing into underwater photography, using Smith and other young family members as the subjects.
“I started that just for fun,” she said. “On Instagram, I see all of these people posting amazing underwater photos and thought, ‘I want to try that.’”
She uses a GoPro camera for her underwater sessions with either a dome or a cover over it.
“I’ve shot maybe eight times underwater, and I love it,” she said. “The editing is crazy. I mean, you’re taking a Smurf and turning him into a person, because everything is blue. But, if you’ve got the good light, if you’ve got the sunbeams shooting through, it’s amazing.”
She uses a family pool to shoot in, but she recently opened up to the possibility of working with clients in their own pools for miniature sessions. There are requirement, however, for the photos to look good: For starters, the pool must be clean. It could be challenging if bubbles cover the subject, and it’s almost impossible if the child can’t swim or open his or her eyes underwater.
“It’s so hit-or-miss because you don’t know what the child is capable of,” she said. “You might have bubbles all over their face. My son can go underwater and, like, not breathe. There are no bubbles, and he just goes.”
Tessie uses the dome housing over the GoPro to split the screen, so part of the photo is below water and part is above.
“I just like incorporating architecture, lines, color, light,” she said.
She built a portfolio of photos and submitted it to stock photography companies. In April, she joined Offset, a stock photography company affiliated with Shutterstock. She takes photos and sells them to companies, who then make them available for individuals and businesses to purchase.
“You send them your portfolio, they say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and now they represent me as a stock photographer,” she said.
She also joined a popular online photography community known as Clickin Moms.
“You have to submit 150 images for review, and they score them,” she said. “So I did that and got in, which was huge. Now I’m able, if I want to, to teach classes. So I just submitted to teach an underwater editing class through their website, but I haven’t heard back yet.”
She’s also beginning to take clients for photo sessions and will shoot her first wedding next month.
Until then, she’s getting plenty of practice shots in the pool with Smith.
Reach Anna Taylor at
304-348-4881 or follow
@byannataylor on Twitter.