The Dream of the Swimming Pool
By James DelbourgoDecember 14, 2020
The latest entry in this increasingly crowded field is Lou Stoppard’s Pools from the house of lavish itself, Rizzoli. Like the editor of most such books, Stoppard is light of touch and low of word count, including just a few choice paragraphs to accompany photographs that are intended to speak for themselves. But what are they saying? To distinguish this book from several similar ones, Rizzoli has wrapped the cover in a latex-like transparent blue sleeve. This slightly kinky touch makes the book appear to be submerged in water, beckoning the reader to dive in. Several of the pictures Stoppard includes have been reproduced before in recent books like Hatje Cantz’s stunning album of classic 20th-century images, The Swimming Pool in Photography (2018). Stoppard, however, juxtaposes canonical shots with pool photography from the present, allowing the reader to see how the cultural imagination of the swimming pool has evolved.
These utilitarian exercise machines, these mere accessories to boutique vacations, possess a very varied cultural backstory. “Enjoy your workout!” my friendly neighborhood pool attendant yells at me just before I enter the water. I always bristle at this aggressively cheerful exhortation, because swimming is much more than exercise. It’s a form of ritual that involves a highly deliberate process of transformation: the careful, even fetishistic shedding of a quotidian skin. One doesn’t have to accept the Freudian notion that swimming enacts a return to the womb and some form of prelapsarian amniotic nirvana to appreciate that bathing originated in the ancient world as a component of religious ritual, and that the act has by no means entirely lost the aura of a baptismal rite. The Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro in Sindh, Pakistan, which dates as far back as the third millennium BCE, appears to have encouraged bathing for just this sort of reason, and remains an archaeological site of considerable historical value. The ancient Greeks and Romans constructed pools for athletic purposes, it is true, but employed them for many other purposes besides, including ritualized social bathing and the keeping of fish, resulting in the term piscine.
Our modern image of the swimming pool as exercise machine and Olympic arena thus possesses a richly complicating global history. In the early modern era, Europeans shunned bathing as an activity for savages — Africans and Asians were brilliant divers whose skills they could barely comprehend, let alone emulate. When Westerners finally embraced swimming again as a mass pursuit by the turn of the 20th century, it was with a dramatic sense of rediscovery and rapture. The avatar of the Surrealist movement André Breton rhapsodized about what he called “the voluptuousness of swimming,” declaring himself “born under the sign of Pisces.” Swimming not only changed one’s body, he insisted, but transformed one’s mind, freeing it from the shackles of rationalistic thought to a more authentic dimension of imaginative consciousness.
Lou Stoppard’s juxtapositions of classic and contemporary photos suggest how the swimming pool’s cultural meaning has shifted during the century since Breton. Consider, for instance, the following carefully curated double-page spread. On one side, the reader is greeted by Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s adoring portrait of Marie Helvin at the French Riviera’s Eden Roc Hotel pool in 1977. On the one hand, it’s just another glamour shot: big-name photographer, top model, high-end digs. But the picture is exquisitely realized, a vision of ecstasy. Helvin’s head thrown back, eyes closed, her expression is beatific. Her jet-black locks dance mesmerizingly in the water around her. The portrait dazzlingly records the play of light on her chest, tracing wild light-lines across her skin, which looks as though it is swathed in sunlit Jell-O. In Helvin’s profoundly private sense of repose and pleasure, Lartigue captures the paradox of erotic desire as innocent bliss.
Opposite this blast from the 1970s, Stoppard reproduces two bright and striking images by Karine Laval shot in 2010. Laval calls these images Poolscapes. Four-plus decades on from Helvin’s hedonistic headshot at Eden Roc, Laval’s pictures offer few anatomical, social, or geographical coordinates. No details of place or person are deemed worthy of inclusion even in the titles of these shots. Laval’s are not pictures of a swimming pool as such, more an exercise in the production of disorientating chromatic-aquatic effects. A submerged human figure, clad in red, can be seen in some sort of agitated pose, like a cubist minotaur strutting against the currents. The viewer’s gaze is dashed by shards of light and color that come flying out of the image. Brittle and crystalline, they cut up the humanoid form: all that is soft shatters into lines. If this is the picture of a swimming pool, you’d never know it, since Laval has abstracted it into a set of tones, lines, and ripples. We have left Breton’s “voluptuousness of swimming” and Helvin’s fleshy ecstasies far behind. The question is how and why?
It’s crucial here to go back to the early part of the 20th century, when Breton and many others dreamt of swimming as a revelatory and paradisiacal form of experience, to understand how the archetypal pool photo was invented. A better description than ecstasy for Helvin’s portrait is reverie: closing one’s eyes while in the water, escaping into a personal and private realm not merely of physical pleasure but intimate emotional and psychological experience, enabled by the act of immersion. This is the classic photographic conceit of the swimming pool as an entity that transports its subject to a dream-like world beyond the quotidian and beyond the limitations of gravity. Invented in the 1920s and ’30s during the zeitgeist of Surrealism and psychoanalysis, this kind of photo features the swimming pool not as an arena of competition or consumerism, but as the trigger of subconscious desires for personal transformation.
There are many versions of this archetype, and Stoppard lovingly reproduces several of the best. Perhaps the first great psychological pool picture is George Hoyningen-Huene’s masterpiece from 1930 featuring two bathers sitting together on a diving board. Their backs are turned to us and we cannot see their faces. They are modeling elegant designer beachwear, but this mundane act of salesmanship is completely transcended by the existential quality of their pose. They look away to the horizon, following the trajectory of the diving board, perhaps with excitement, perhaps trepidation. We cannot know. But we have been fooled. The viewer’s mind has responded to the diving board and imagined the presence of water below it. There was no pool: Hoyningen-Huene took the picture on a rooftop high above the Champs Elysées in Paris.
The conceit of the swimming pool as a portal to other mental, historical, and even mythological dimensions is also superbly suggested by Louise Dahl-Wolfe in Night Bathing, shot in 1939. A woman in a delicately striped one-piece bathing suit stands at the edge of a pool by night, mirrored in her pose by a statue of Aphrodite, goddess of love. Both figures look shyly away from the camera, as the darkness presses in. This pool is a scene of metamorphosis; indeed, it is reminiscent of the tales of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, such as Narcissus falling in loving with his own reflection. The juxtaposition of the two female figures implies the pool’s hidden power to transform the living woman into a goddess.
Pools, bathing, swimming, swimwear: in the post-Freudian imagination, the superficial accessories of luxurious living become tools of psychological emancipation and emotional self-expression. Yet they also became instruments of fascist conformism, racialist theorizing, and eugenic ideology. Between Hoyningen-Huene’s divers and Wolfe’s Aphrodite, Leni Riefenstahl filmed Olympia, her unsettlingly brilliant documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl’s Aryanist dogmas led her to combine bravura images of swimmers and divers competing in front of cheering stadiums in Nazi Germany with a fantastical sequence featuring Greek statues coming to life as German athletes. The modernist swimming pool’s dream of transformation was as politically dangerous as it was personally alluring.
The psychological pool photo enjoyed a long afterlife, flourishing well into the 1970s. Martine Franck’s image of a boy in a hammock gazing at sunbathers round the curves of Alain Capeilleres’s pool near Marseilles suggests those curves as the very contours of his mind. Horst P. Horst — who posed as one of Hoyningen-Huene’s divers in 1930 — shot Janice Dickinson cocking her head to one side, eyes closed, in that eternal yet fleeting instant before exiting a sun-drenched pool. It’s 1979, and like Helvin, Dickinson is a nude supermodel. But Horst’s portrait is still an image of innocence and experience — still the picture of swimming as flight to a private mental paradise.
Such images of bathing as reverie coexisted, however, with two main rivals in the late 20th century: social shots of public pools as riotous lower-class playgrounds; and luxury shots of private pools as pure consumer glamour. Exceptionally, all three visions might converge in the same image, like Helmut Newton’s virtuosically overloaded panorama of Paris’s Piscine Deligny in 1978. Newton fused sexuality, surrealism, and glamour with dark humor. Worlds collide with magnificently absurd results. In the foreground, two models in black evening gowns pose with incongruous campy melodrama, as male bathers stripped down to their briefs look on with a mix of desire and exasperation under a hot sun. Yet the humorous center of the photograph is a wonderfully oblivious topless female bather who entirely ignores the absurdity around her, hunched with Rodin-like concentration over the book she is reading. Newton’s photo captures the invasion of the swimming pool as a public institution and its denaturing by money, glamour, and fantasy, presaging the shift in pool photos since the 1980s from a public resource for ordinary people to a moneyed private oasis. Newton played a leading role in this transformation, especially in all the celebrity shoots he did in the ’80s; perhaps the Deligny panorama is a confessional premonition, a mea culpa before the fact. Anyone who has floated idly in the Standard Hotel’s enticing rooftop pool in downtown Los Angeles, to name just one of today’s most photogenic boutique destinations, might well conclude that glamour won, the spirit of the bains publics is dead, and Newton helped kill it.
It would likewise be tempting to read pictures of bathers taken in momentous political years, like Olaf Martens’s portraits of swimmers in the German Democratic Republic in 1989 (which Stoppard also includes), in a similar light. 1989, after all, is famously taken to mark the end of the Cold War, “the end of history,” the end of the public, and the dominance of capital. In the vanished world of the GDR, now a distant mirage of social unity and fodder for Ostalgie, a regimented body is about to spring into a pool like a wind-up toy programmed to win an Olympic medal for the communist bloc. Meanwhile, Martens’s portraits of the naked yet submerged “Simone” evince the distinctive German Freikörperkultur (“free body culture”) that encouraged public nudism as a form of salubrious self-expression in the absence of political or economic freedoms.
If 1989 does mark the caesura between 20th and 21st centuries, what does recent photography reveal about the cultural meaning of the swimming pool of the present? One answer lies in the utterly banal celebrity culture that Newton’s Piscine Deligny image foreshadowed. We have ended up with images like supermodel Gisele Bündchen striding past a pool, staring straight to camera, being ogled by some starry-eyed dude in sunglasses. And with shots of former James Bond star Pierce Brosnan’s teenage sons Dylan and Paris lounging in jeans, backs turned to their Bel Air pool, occupied instead by two inflatable swans. The pool as designer accessory is wholly evacuated, a reference point you don’t even have to look at. It’s just a checklist luxury. In the absence of any social realism or public context, glamour, wealth, and privilege have bored themselves, and the viewer, to death, making the pool itself invisible.
A second answer is to be found in Stoppard’s canny juxtapositions. Opposite Janice Dickinson’s glamour shot, for example, Stoppard places a double-portrait taken from 2018 by the fashion photographer Joyce Sze Ng. This picture features two women of color, elaborately clothed in gowns, staring from distance straight at the camera. They stand on the other side of a motionless, mirror-like pool that reflects their dignified yet expressionless faces. The photograph is neither one of pleasure nor psychological depth; indeed, it seems to disavow any invitation to depth. The picture is a hybrid: a fashion photographer evidently making a political statement, but what is the statement? Sze Ng’s subjects appear to demand that the viewer acknowledge their presence but without any promise of revelation or intimacy, since they parry the viewer’s gaze. The inward gaze of reverie has turned outward to repel the viewer. Sze Ng seems to want to make a point about identity but, perhaps wanting to disavow the history of female nudity in pool art, feels it necessary to disavow the pool itself, converting it instead into a conceptual abstraction.
Sze Ng’s double-portrait has a self-consciously pristine quality that is even more evident in the photography of Sølve Sundsbø, although Sundsbø’s pristineness is of a different character. It is technological, and showcases a third trend in recent pool imagery: the abstraction of pools and bodies into technical virtuosity. Sundsbø does still take photos of people in water. One portrait of a young woman in a dark asymmetrical bathing suit shows her gazing wide-eyed under sanitized steel-blue water, like a doll in suspended animation or an amniotic spa. She enjoys no state of reverie, however; her open eyes appear lifeless. But the viewer is distracted by Sundsbø’s bubbles, which the speed of his camera recasts as beads of blown glass. Sundsbø loves his bubbles; other shots engulf human forms in vast bubble clouds that fan out like Rorschach patterns. Sundsbø says he strives for “purity” in such images, but the result is really pure mechanism: one can’t help look at these pictures without thinking of the lens rather than the artist. What is absent from this kind of work is not merely the psychological charisma of classic pool photography, but the social reality of the swimming pool and its storied cultural identity. Instead of accumulating and drawing on this history, it is all but erased.
Why has pool art taken these turns? Several predictable answers naturally suggest themselves. We now possess more powerful cameras than ever before, with much faster lenses, and greater capacity for manipulating images. At the same time, our culture has tired of meaning and come to mistrust the promise of depth. We have rejected not only Freud but, seemingly, the whole naïve project of self-discovery, settling instead for anti-depressants, cheaper consumer goods, harder bodies, and endless Instagram posts. Most importantly of all, we have retreated from public life to private islands. If photography provides any sort of guide to our collective imagination — and it may not — we no longer marvel at the grand architectural designs of public baths but dream of the hotel spa and the exclusive infinity pool. Twentieth-century photographers loved social realism and the hedonistic playfulness of the madding crowd; their 21st-century heirs are private clinicians who shun the mixing of different social classes in public waters.
But let’s go easy on the jeremiad. Stoppard’s selections undeniably show that the dream of the swimming pool in all its different forms is far from over. There are a number of contemporary photographers who resist the current vogue for the clinical and the impersonal, the luxurious and the technical. For these artists, the pool is not an abstraction but an enduringly meaningful dream-machine that continues to inspire compelling, humorous, and imaginative visions.
Stoppard includes many extraordinary images of public pools as social panoramas that continue to be shot around the world, showcasing multitudes of bathers clambering en masse for the physical pleasure and psychic relief of water — from the multiracial swimmers of the French banlieues to the vast crowds happily hugging the shores of indoor beaches complete with artificial wave machines in Japan. The reverie shot is not dead either, but lives on, poignantly renewed in Diana Markosian’s portraits of Afghani refugees floating in pools in Germany. They lie on their backs, gazing heavenward, dreaming of a better life. Even America boasts trusty throwbacks to bygone pool pleasures. Alice Hawkins is an expert in the popular sublime: she knows how to take sparkling shots evoking dreams of glamour that are far from faded for her subjects. These include gangs of girls lounging on dusty pool decks, wedding parties thrilling to kitsch joys of liquor and love, and close-ups of a cheeky blonde’s “Lucky Bum,” poolside in Vegas. Hawkins’s bathers have no doubt that the swimming pool can still sprinkle magic dust on ordinary life.
Finally, Stoppard includes one of the most striking pool photos of recent years, and quite possibly of all time — a remarkable untitled image made by the British photographer Polly Brown, taken in France in 2015. Like much recent pool art, the picture admittedly has a clinical quality, lacks an explicit psychological appeal, and offers no portrait of society. Unlike almost all recent work, however, it possesses a genuinely exhilarating grandeur of conception. Brown’s camera tracks a lone female swimmer in mid-stroke from high above a large multi-laned pool. All geared up, she wears a dark blue one-piece, cap, goggles, and even fins. The aerial distance between camera and subject makes the picture impersonal. Bright but sunless, its steely blue colors cool the viewer’s eyes. We are too far to sense the swimmer’s emotions.
There is, however, no flight to abstraction here: this is a swimmer in a pool. Yet we cannot see the pool’s edges. This is crucial. We cannot see where the pool begins or ends, that it begins or ends. Through her cropping, Brown has given us a subtly yet profoundly suggestive portrait of the pool as an infinite expanse, and of the swim as a limitless odyssey. The notion is reinforced by two telling details. Painted dots mark distance in each lane like repeating metronomic beats; and the swimmer swims through an opening or gate, the width of a single lane, leading her from one section of the pool to another. She is going somewhere. This is not the 20th-century dream of the inner life; indeed, in the pandemic year of 2020, it could be read merely as an image of persistence or survival in an evacuated world. But it is undoubtedly the image of an existential quest. The majesty of Brown’s photograph lies in its liberation of the viewer’s mind from the narrowness of much recent pool art, returning the swimming pool at last to the free rein of the imagination.
James Delbourgo is professor of history at Rutgers University, where he teaches the history of science, collecting and museums, and the history of the Atlantic World. His most recent book is Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum (Harvard University Press, 2017).
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!