When it comes to prominent gay photographers, some have distinguished themselves by pushing the boundaries of sexual expression (Robert Mapplethorpe, Steven Arnold) while others have focused on the aesthetics of the male form (like Tom Bianchi or Herb Ritts). Lucas Murnaghan added a new dimension by taking the art form underwater, producing an impressive collection of captivating images that showcase not only his subjects’ bodies but also challenge us to look beyond the surface. When it came time to publish his works, the title Beneath the Surface made sense literally and metaphorically. The images are not just physically provocative but evocative, exploring a spectrum of emotions and themes. Alan Cumming [stage and screen actor], an admirer of Murnaghan’s work, wrote in the foreword how Murnaghan’s images “transcend the usual click-bait aesthetic of the male form…” capturing “an otherworldliness, as though we are joining these perfect specimens in a kind of amniotic pool that takes us away.”
My interest in learning more about the man behind the images hit a brick wall when Lucas passed away this year at the age of 45. Like so many of his fans, I was shocked and saddened by this sudden loss. I had seen a riveting TEDx talk Lucas gave in 2019 two years before his death. In just under 20 minutes, Lucas gives an unflinchingly honest and cohesive account of his life, distilling well-earned life lessons. Having battled homophobia, depression and addiction, Lucas spoke of his relationship with water as a sacred place of refuge. While photography and medicine were interwoven in his family lineage, his interest in photography only developed much later in life once he had become established as an accomplished orthopaedic surgeon in his native Canada.
I realized I would have to settle for a posthumous account of the late photographer’s life, but it wasn’t until I reached out to his surviving partner Antonio Lennert that things really came into focus. Little did I realize that my article about photography would turn into a love story.
Adjusting to the loss of his life partner of 14 years, Antonio assumed the task (a labour of love, no doubt) of managing Lucas’ estate and carrying on his legacy. Handsome and youthful at 37, with a lanky athletic build and an endearing, soft-spoken manner, it is easy to see what drew these two together. A native of Brazil, Antonio grew up with a deep reverence for the ocean and for surfing specifically. But as a gay man, he encountered homophobia in Brazil and moved to the United States at the age of 20 in search of a more tolerant existence where he studied design and interactive media.
Over the course of our hour-long Zoom chat, Antonio took me back to the beginning of their relationship, starting with their “cute meet” when Lucas was visiting San Diego for a medical conference. Lucas wandered into a G-star clothing store in the Gaslamp district where Antonio was selling overpriced jeans. Antonio recalls how Lucas kept trying on jeans as if looking for any excuse to prolong his immediate and palpable chemistry with Antonio. When he learned of Antonio’s passion for surfing, Lucas played up his interest (and ability) in surfing, quickly taking Antonio up on his offer to join his friends for a surf outing. At this stage, there was an undeniable spark, but neither was completely sure whether the other was gay. Once they exchanged phone numbers, Lucas levelled with Antonio via text that he might have exaggerated his interest in surfing. They settled on a non-surfing first date and would go on to form a tight bond even though their relationship would have to endure a period of long-distance separation while Lucas returned to Canada for work and Antonio finished his degree in San Diego.
Five months later, Lucas returned to California for a visit, but a sudden medical emergency would change everything, putting their relationship on a fast track that would test their budding relationship. When Antonio realized how dire the situation was, he dropped everything and flew to Canada to be with Lucas. “I remember the first few days at the hospital, he was asking: are you sure you want to be here? You didn’t sign up for this. Well, I said, I’m in love with you and it doesn’t matter. I’ll do whatever I have to do to take care of you. I feel like that has been our main role in each other’s lives. I took care of him, and he took care of me in different ways. And we created this life for ourselves, and we just lived life to the fullest, because we knew it was so fragile and could be taken from us at any point.”
Lucas’ medical problems eventually settled down after he had his spleen removed. His health improved to the point where he was competing in Ironman competitions, something he turned to as an outlet from the stressors of a demanding career in medicine. But this close call had another impact on his life. Having watched his father (also an orthopaedic surgeon) put off travelling and enjoying life until late in life, Lucas resolved that he would enjoy life to the fullest, and this led Antonio and Lucas to travel to many exotic locales for surfing. Antonio recalled the early stages of Lucas’ interest in underwater photography. They were travelling in Barbados when Lucas bought a waterproof case for his iPhone. “We surfed for about 30 minutes. He caught a couple of waves, and I was encouraging him. But then he decided to hang back and just take some photographs.” Antonio was struck by Lucas’ excitement as they looked over his photos, recalling Lucas’ words: “Oh my god, this is so amazing. I love taking photos of surfing way more than I like surfing.” “And from that point on, he just started going out with me to shoot whenever I went surfing. So, we got him a proper case for his DSLR camera, and he started documenting the surf scene here on the Great Lakes.”
It was during this time that Antonio was starting to develop a business to promote and support the surf community in the Great Lakes region in Canada. When he first moved to Toronto to be with Lucas, the prospect of surfing the placid waters of the Great Lakes seemed nonexistent. It took a trip to the Bahamas where he ran into a fellow Canadian to explain that the Great Lakes were in fact surfable. You just had to know how to find it. Antonio describes how Lucas was one of the first photographers here to get in the water and document the surf scene on an immersive level. “So that’s kind of how it started. We travelled to beautiful islands, and he would get out and shoot. He did that for a few years. But I think we both struggled a bit in the surf industry because we were gay. There are a lot of amazing people in surfing, and it’s come a long way, but it’s still a very white male-dominated sport. Very hetero-centric. It’s changed quite a bit over the years, and we’re a part of that change, but he never fully felt that he belonged there.”
For a time, it seemed that Lucas found his niche in sports photography, but for some reason, he was not getting a response from the commercial market. So, he redirected his energies. Because of his clinical practice at the University of Toronto Athletic Centre where he treated professional and varsity athletes, he got permission to shoot the water polo team as well as the swimming team. As Antonio explains: “From here, it actually evolved very quickly. He had an opportunity to book one of the other pools at the University of Toronto. It’s like this beautiful pool – for himself to shoot with three of the athletes from the swimming team.” Antonio, who was recovering from back surgery, went to assist him. “They started shooting – and the guys were doing action stuff – and then Lucas approached one of them and said let’s just sink to the bottom of the pool. He got him to pose as if he’d won a Gold Medal – just crossing his arms, looking straight at the camera. And that was the moment things clicked for him. When he posted that photo on his Instagram, that photo just blew up. That’s when he switched all of his work underwater.”
Lucas’ technique was pioneering in many ways, eschewing breathing apparatus in favour of a more holistic approach, focusing on the connection between photographer and subject. For someone who had an interest in acting during high school, it seems that he would channel that creativity into creating artistic scenarios with his subjects underwater, drawing on his imagination and exploring the dynamics of various conflicting impulses: vulnerability and confidence, solitude and connection, pride, and shame. It was in this manner that his art really flourished to the point where he was waking at night scribbling down ideas that would come to him and finding ways to bring these ideas to life. It seemed as if he had truly found his calling, but it would take a while for him to navigate his place in two disparate worlds, the world of medicine and his role as an artist with a homoerotic bent.
But in a cruel twist of fate, having mastered two very disparate careers, Lucas’ medical problems resurfaced. As Antonio explained: “He was really healthy for many years – that’s when he was competing in Ironman races and triathlons. We were travelling all over the world, surfing and free diving. But two years ago, in the winter – right around when he had his first underwater photography show – he got really sick.” They relocated temporarily to Oahu to escape the harsh winter, but after two months, his doctors found a tumour. “The moment they gave him the diagnosis, he knew what the outcome was going to be. We had lots of difficult moments and sad conversations – but there were also some of the most beautiful conversations we have had in our lives. I am just so happy that it was not something that took his life overnight. We actually had 8 weeks to take care of each other and tell each other all of the things we always wanted to say.”
As with many couples, Lucas and Antonio each brought something unique to each other’s life. I asked Antonio what he brought to Lucas’ life. “The main thing that I brought to his practice and to his life was the creativity – the encouragement to pursue his creative side. I went to design school here in Toronto – we were always surrounded by artists and designers, and we were always going to art shows. I think it was my encouragement – to push him to pursue his creative side. That was probably the biggest gift that I gave him. I was able to witness and empower him to get behind the camera and get underwater and produce those beautiful images. And the images aside – just to see how happy he was when he was shooting – when he was coming up with those ideas and planning shoots. I just feel so honoured I was able to witness that.”
But Antonio did more than just offer encouragement. He handled a lot of the logistical challenges. His background in lifesaving and rescue as a surf instructor became particularly useful during the shoots that were filmed in the ocean in non-controlled settings. “I was part of most of his shoots. I did art direction, I did the lighting, I did wardrobe, I did safety – because I am a surf and paddleboard instructor. So, for the photoshoots involving shipwrecks and stuff like that, I oversaw taking everyone to those places. And tying the boards and overseeing safety, looking out for the bad weather. Our creative practices were very intertwined and very connected.
Antonio is excited about the work that lies ahead.
“I just know that there will be so many gems that I’m going to find as I start going through his work. It is going to be something I will probably do for the rest of my life. That just gives my life a sense of purpose now that he is no longer physically present here. I just have something so special to hold onto and to give continuity to.” Lucas is not the only one with a legacy. Antonio is featured in a soon-to-be-released documentary called Fresh Water. The 40-minute documentary explores Antonio’s conflicted emotions about his homeland (Brazil) and the homophobia and bullying that compelled him to leave. At the same time, he acknowledges that the adversity instilled in him a resilience that pushed him to persevere. It is also the source of his lifelong passion for surfing which provided the impetus to bring his surfing expertise to Toronto and build and foster a sense of community and camaraderie in the Great Lakes region through the surf company he co-owned with Lucas.
Article first published on www.metrosource.com
Written by: STEVE GOTTFRIED