Thinking of swimming pools in Southern California conjures up memories of idyllic postwar suburbia, either through events we've lived or those taught to us via the crisp, sunny-blue landscaped world of classic advertisements and Hollywood sets.
Yes, Hollywood stars and their beautiful, adoring families often were pictured relaxing next to their sunken oasis, but really, pool photos were about regular people attaining the perfect, serene American dream, says Ming Fung, director of academic affairs at Southern California Institute of Architecture and a principal founder of L.A. design practice Hodgetts + Fung.
But why specifically Southern California? Fung says to chalk it up to nice weather — something California has in spades — and the ability to easily move from living indoors to outdoors. “That's how we sold real estate in the '50s and '60s,” she says. “If you fly over Los Angeles, you can see how many swimming pools there are. … Many of them were built a long time ago, when the family would just spend the weekend barbecuing.”
The advent of cheaper technologies, a fresh crop of designers and the expansion of urban sprawl brought the swimming pool to prominence, a rise captured in “Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945-1982.” The show opens Sat., Jan. 21, and runs through May 26, at the Palm Springs Art Museum, as part of Pacific Standard Time's look at postwar SoCal art.
Daniell Cornell, exhibition organizer and senior curator/deputy director for art at the museum, says that instead of a linear time line of swimming pool design, the idea was to “look at a whole range of social, political, cultural, economic issues through the lens of [this] particular site. … The images range from the most idyllic, almost commercial images that you find in the shelter magazines, like House & Garden or Sunset, which are meant to promote Southern California as this great place to come and live, to these darker images of abandoned houses or pools or people who look sort of uncomfortable in the setting that they're in.”
Palm Springs is an apt site for the exhibit, as the city embodies these poles. Cornell points out that while Palm Springs is a midcentury design mecca with a long tradition as a weekend getaway for Los Angeles' elite, it also had some bleak years in the '70s and '80s as homeowners moved south to gated communities in Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. Palm Springs, as well as other cities built during the housing boom, went from being this “idyllic Eden” to a “symbol of everything that's wrong with America and this idea of postwar promise,” Cornell says.
The exhibit is split into five sections, each of which explores a different aspect of pools in Southern California life, from “California architecture and design” to “Hollywood and celebrity culture.” The section on “bodies of desire,” for instance, looks at how the pool relates to sexual awakenings, partly through Bob Mizer's photographs of scantily clad male bodybuilders (he was famously convicted in 1947 of unlawfully sending obscene materials through the U.S. mail). The exhibit also explores the rise of the skateboard movement, during years of drought, when teenagers would hop fences on the hunt for empty pools in which to practice their skills.
Although some ephemera and film clips are featured in the exhibition, the main focus here is photography. Bob Bogard, the museum's director of marketing and communications, argues that this was a time when photography challenged painting as a respectable form of visual art. Gone was the notion that there's no skill involved because everyone knows how to snap a candid shot of friends on the beach.
“It's using the subject matter of the swimming pool, but also about how people used photography,” Bogard says. “True photographers didn't just see something and take a picture. They studied the scene.”
David Hockney, for example, did this when he broke ground at an exhibit at the L.A. Louver Gallery in 1982 with what curator Cornell calls his “very large, composite Polaroid photographs.” (This, by the way, is why this Pacific Standard Time exhibition extends to 1982 while others stop at 1980.) Some of Hockney's work is in this exhibition, as are Julius Schulman's architecture images and Palm Springs photographer Bill Anderson's “vacation” photos of classic Hollywood stars Rock Hudson and Liberace. There are also social commentaries, like New Topographic photographer Lewis Baltz's artistic documentation of everyday backyards during the tract-housing boom, plus street photographer Garry Winogrand's series “Women Are Beautiful,” which examines images of the 1960s American woman.
One of Cornell's favorite shots is a Mel Roberts photo of two seemingly carefree boys jumping off their Sherman Oaks roof into the twinkling blue paradise that awaits them below. “There's a kind of insouciance of it,” he says. “You just think, yes, that's the childhood that everyone wishes they had.”
That's the power of photography — to capture another person's memory and make you wish it were your own.