Swimming pools have long served as inspiration for artists – the unpredictable light patterns, the sumptuous hues, the artful movements of bodies suspended in water. “You are hard-pressed to find a photographer who hasn’t made a pool image, at some point, at some time,” said curator Lou Stoppard when publishing her book, Pools, in 2020.
One such photographer is Larry Sultan. Known for his images examining domesticity, the late photographer captured people learning to swim in public swimming pools in San Francisco from 1978 to 1982. The images are being published in a book by Mack, which stays largely true to Sultan’s edit of the series, though it also includes others he marked on contact sheets and more from his archive.
The work was initially inspired by a Red Cross swimming and diving manual, according to Mack, but the underwater environment is surely where the links end. Whereas the Red Cross booklet featured black and white documentary images that were no doubt instructional, the photographs in Swimmers are awash with colour and feel painterly rather than practical.
People often appear ghostly, their limbs and torsos arranged in ways they wouldn’t on dry land. Their movements are accentuated by the lighting, with Sultan using a handheld flash with his Nikonos III.
Swimmers shows the spectrum of responses that people have to water. Bodies can appear graceful, like a ballet dance, in one image. In the next, faces twist into funny expressions in moments of surprise or panic.
In fact, Sultan himself had once been scared of water, after having nearly drowned in the ocean as a boy, according to an anecdote in Philip Gefter’s text in the book. “Water is the only bit of nature I know that we can’t control, that seems overwhelming when you enter it,” Sultan said.
Gefter indicates that this deeper meaning was overlooked when Swimmers was first presented in the early 1980s. Certain corners of the art world suggested that Sultan was too preoccupied with the purely formal aspects of the work, but for all of the tantalising lighting and framing, the images contain much more than that. As Gefter writes, “Above all, they speak to conditions of being that are fundamental to our experience – fear, discovery, immersion, mystery – that outlast fluctuating trends.”
Swimmers by Larry Sultan, published by Mack, is out now; mackbooks.co.uk