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James Cameron’s titanic bid to save the oceans

5 April 2024

Far from immune to the charms of the Hollywood blockbuster, Rakewell feels his ears prick up when news of James Cameron is mentioned. After all, the director of the highest-grossing films of the 1990s, the 2000s and – so far – the 2020s is not simply a box-office juggernaut: he is also a draughtsman and painter. Cameronheads know that when Rose in Titanic demands of her new paramour, ‘I want you to draw me like one of your French girls,’ she was half-addressing the director: Cameron executed the (rather creditable) charcoal sketch himself.

So imagine Rakewell’s disappointment at the latest Cameron-related development, involving the Canadian film-maker’s plan to sell four new pieces of photographic art which, in limited editions of varying dimensions and in unlimited posters, he hopes will fetch a total of $10 million. There’s no doubt the fundraising is for a good cause: all net proceeds will go to The Nature Conservancy, a global charity that aims to ‘conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends’. As anyone who has seen Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) can attest, this is a cause close to Cameron’s heart.

Clockwise from top: Zoe Saldaña, Kate Winslet and Sigourney Weaver in Muses of Avatar (2024) by Christy Lee Rogers. Courtesy and © the artist

What has left Rakewell scratching his head is how abysmal the art is. The photographs, taken by the underwater photographer Christy Lee Rogers and co-commissioned by Cameron and Disney, are part of a series titled ‘Muses of Avatar’. They feature a combination of Kate Winslet, Sigourney Weaver and/or Zoe Saldaña – the female leads of The Way of Water – swathed in what appears to be some sort of taffeta and suspended in a languorous aquamarine dream state with sapphic overtones. With Winslet, Weaver and Saldaña rendered practically unrecognisable by whatever trickery has been wrought on the photographs, it looks like nothing so much as AI art, as if Midjourney had been fed the prompt ‘Create an aquatic pre-Raphaelite purgatory but make it Quality Street’. Perhaps these photos are a balm to Cameron – many of his films have required extensive underwater shooting – but personally Rakewell is relieved that the heroines from Cameron’s oceanic extravaganzas The Abyss (1989) and Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) were spared from this project. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Tricia O’Neil surely have better things to do.

The Cinémathèque française evidently thinks enough of Cameron’s artistry to be devoting a nine-month exhibition to the art designs he made for his films. But one need look no further than Titanic itself to notice the director’s shaky artistic bona fides. A minute before Rose’s request to be drawn, Jack’s eye is drawn to one of Monet’s Water Lilies – artistic licence on Cameron’s part, as no Monet is known to have been aboard the White Star Liner. ‘Look at his use of colour here. Isn’t he great?’ says Jack, waving his hand over the canvas. One would hope that a talented artist might have something a little more precise to say. More egregious is a shot of Rose holding Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which most certainly is not at the bottom of the Atlantic – it is ensconced at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Rakewell had assumed, perhaps wrongly, that a director who has dominated the box office with his every release for decades would have the commercial nous to realise that if you want numerous buyers to pay $35,000 for a nearly two-metre-tall photograph, it would help if the artwork in question were appealing. Still, one hopes for the sake of The Nature Conservancy, which aims to conserve more than 10 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030, that the sale is a success.

Zoe Saldaña and Kate Winslet in Muses of Avatar (2024) by Christy Lee Rogers. Courtesy and © the artist

Update 22/04/2024: There is no suggestion that AI was involved in the making of these images. The photographs were shot with divers, in pools, in Los Angeles and London.