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Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier
©Pixabay/The Swimming Pool in Photography

The Swimming Pool in Photography Conveys the Symbolic and the Concrete

From the imposing specter of England's public bathhouses to the pristine aqua gems embedded in the Hollywood Hills and so many chlorine dreams in between, The Swimming Pool in Photography, a new art book from Berlin-based Hatje Cantz, illuminates an essential iconography, its disparate histories and prismatic charms. More than 200 images (mostly of Europe and the United States) are paired with insightful text from U.K.-based critic Francis Hodgson, surveying a rich stylistic range from the late 19th century until the present. Therein, focus pulls toward early histories, as well as the modernism that transformed U.S. topography and continues to feed our fantasies of leisure, luxury and lifestyle.

In a sense it's always the same — an approximation of idyllic sea, nature extrapolated and chemically perfected — but the subject varies wildly in coded meanings and aesthetic gestures; a watery lens through which to view class, gender, culture, fashion, art, nationalism, economics and ecology. It is the people, objects and architecture in and around the water that you will respond to.

Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon Seminary girls in swimming pool
Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon Seminary girls in swimming pool
Frances Benjamin Johnston/©Library of Congress/The Swimming Pool in Photography

As Hodgson notes, pools are both building and machine, and swimming has ready symbolism — of physical cleansing and spiritual purification — but "[i]t is the social history of pools that is extraordinary, as though the water really did permit every kind of transformation."

Artificial beaches, water parks, pickup trucks and blow-up pools; the space between motel and hotel pools (now collapsed in midcentury revivals like Palm Springs); pools on beaches, in mountains, snow and storms. Fascist stadiums, brutalist lines and suggestive curves; elaborate domes and humble cement holes; Esther Williams and Hollywood's aquatic heyday; high-waisted hunks, cinched beauty queens and the ever-present anxieties and desires governing (especially) female bodies in public — it's all there, in mordant black-and-white and pungent Kodachrome, gilded with the perspective of time.

Mother and son take a dip in the warm pool in Vail, Colorado.
Mother and son take a dip in the warm pool in Vail, Colorado.
©Library of Congress/The Swimming Pool in Photography

Hodgson acknowledges our own special paradox — Southern California as "natural home" of the swimming pool but one where water is scarce, imported, politicized. And while he mentions the iconic skate culture that grew out of a landscape of empty pools and "plenty of pictures" from that era, none are included. Larry Sultan's masterful images are teased but not shown; a gorgeous Deanna Templeton nude is. Several by Slim Aarons bear witness to a golden era of celebrity that, if now polluted and warped, remains intact in the symbolism of the swimming pool.

In the book, the dream ends darkly — pools abandoned, overgrown, razed by war; relics of outsized ambitions that faltered in economic decline. For us, it remains a dazzling, troubled muse.

But in the record heat of this L.A. summer, you may be acutely aware of whether you own a pool or covet such refreshments from afar; whether you grew up swimming in municipal pools or in the comforts of your own backyard, or not at all. Some recognition of our own place with the landscape they define seems inescapable, even in an artful photographic history that can be consumed as simple aesthetic indulgence.

It may be an ornament of aspirational wealth, even a gaudy relic of a less ecologically sound era, but in our increasingly deep chasm between haves and have-nots, the pool remains a powerful symbol with material resonance for Southern Californians.

The Swimming Pool in Photography Conveys the Symbolic and the Concrete
Courtesy Hatje Cantz

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