The Saint Marquis. Four o'clock. Sunset Boulevard ... As soon as I step out of the car, I look at the pool and wonder if anybody has drowned in the pool.
— Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero
Off to my left there was an empty swimming pool, and nothing ever looks emptier than an empty swimming pool.
— Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
I WAS AT A PARTY AT A HOUSE on the very crest of the Hollywood Hills. It felt like a movie: the house was midcentury, the crowd spilled out onto the cantilevered deck talking about studio deals, there were "starlets," and there was a swimming pool, actually an "infinity pool," where the water seems to stop on the edge of space, with no deck or walkway around it. Obviously you know there's a retaining wall, that you couldn't in reality flip over the edge and go tumbling into space and crash down the hillside, but when the pool happens to be on the very crest of the Hollywood Hills, the illusion is all too convincing.
A few of us walked gingerly around the three solid sides of the pool and said we were terrified, and we began to devise the opening of a movie. There's a girl and a guy in the pool, maybe two girls, maybe a guy and two girls, and they're naked and whooping it up, and suddenly there's a deep rumbling sound, but the kids in the pool don't hear it, and a moment later the whole hillside shifts and slides, the walls of the infinity pool crack, then split wide open. Boys, girls, water, concrete, now really do go tumbling into space and crash down the hillside. The pool, the deck, the midcentury house, the Hollywood Hills are all left in ruins.
We poolsiders liked the sound of that. And why wouldn't we? A swimming pool sends all kinds of messages about money, success, leisure, good times, good bodies. But you also know it's too good to be true, you know something bad has to happen. A cracked pool, an abandoned pool, a ruined pool, that's what we're looking for. When the pool gets ruined the people get ruined too. And don't we essentially reckon they deserved it?
Not long after that party I was at the Palm Springs Art Museum for the exhibition "Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography 1945-1982," part of Pacific Standard Time, running till May 27th (and also published as a book by Prestel). If it seemed I was putting a little too much symbolic weight on that Hollywood Hills infinity pool, the curators of this exhibition would have told me I didn't know the half of it. According to the catalogue, the pool is "a visual analogue of the ideals and expectations associated with Southern California" and the images "an integral part of the region's identity, a microcosm of the hopes and disillusionments of the country's post-World War II ethos."
The show is large and diverse and includes architectural photography and qui...read more