If Covid-19 won’t let you go to the pool, then you can let the pool come to you, thanks to curator, writer, and avid swimmer Lou Stoppard’s new photo book, which explores its longstanding role as a muse to writers, artists, photographers, and filmmakers.
Stoppard’s own relationship with swimming pools dates back to her teenage years, when she was a competitive swimmer and would spend most of her evenings and weekends at her local pool. “When I went to university, I stopped swimming entirely and I didn’t get back into the pool for years. I started to notice that I’d become slightly fearful of water,” she says.
“I felt anxious in the deep end, and very aware of other forms or shadows. I have a very overactive imagination, so I managed to picture all kinds of horrible things. I knew I wanted to cure that fear, so I started swimming constantly. Lakes, rivers, ponds, pools – I’d get in. Now I swim whenever I can.”
Having wanted to do a swimming-related project for years, Stoppard already had a collection of photographs which became the starting point for Pools. “You are hard-pressed to find a photographer who hasn’t made a pool image, at some point, at some time. And so many photographers have made really great pool images, famous images, that we all know and love,” she says.
“I knew that I wanted a real mix of photographers – young, old, celebrated, unknown – and also a mix of styles and genres, from fashion through to documentary. Part of this was to show the way that the swimming pool has remained a seductive place for photographers, as years have passed. It sounds negative to call it a trope, but in a way, it is.”
While it would have been easy to organise the book chronologically or by photogapher, Stoppard wanted to curate a reading experience that spoke to the myriad ways that swimming can make you feel. Instead, it is organised by theme, flitting from the glamour of the poolside party, to the meditative pleasure of being in the water, to the role it can play in our formative years.
“In the end, the book is organised around moods of swimming, and the photographs are grouped that way: Meditation, Glamour, Coming of Age, Holiday, Sex, and so on. That way, we could look at different ways the pool can be seen – as a backdrop for subplots (pool parties, style, sex) or as a state of mind, or even a set of angles and lines,” says Stoppard. “Each chapter starts with a quote from a great swimming scene in literature that echoes the mood of the images. It’s a nice wandering bibliography; a reading list for people to go away and work through.”
Featured photographers include Glen Luchford, Stephen Shore, Mert & Marcus, Diana Markosian, Martin Parr, Martine Franck, Alex Webb, Alice Hawkins, and Nick Knight, while the book’s striking cover image of a woman submerged in water is taken from one of fashion photographer Sølve Sundsbø’s early shoots in 1998, which appeared in Frank magazine. Also included is a foreword by co-author and fellow swimming obsessive, Leanne Shapton, and it concludes with Stoppard’s personal guide to a selection of the best swimming pools around the world.
As for the design of the book, Stoppard approached London studio B.A.M., who she had previously worked with on Open Eye Gallery’s show North: Identity, Fashion, Photography, which explored the impact of northern style on the wider world.
“I knew I wanted the book to be playful, yet still beautiful; the blue acetate cover sums that mood up. It makes the book simultaneously a gorgeous object but also something that feels very much like it could and should be found poolside; waterproof! A lot of little design details in the book nod to pool life – the recognisable aesthetics of the signage, the tiles, the symmetry,” says Stoppard.
What’s particularly striking about the book is the way it lays bare just how much of an influence the swimming pool has had on creatives of all backgrounds. Why does Stoppard think it has been such an enduring source of inspiration to so many?
“It’s a place where life happens, where people go to perform, to relax, to flirt, to play – of course image-makers wind up there,” she says. “The pool can be gritty, a place of past glory. It can be sombre, silent. It can be a shining symbol of everything you ever wanted – time, style, wealth – or the setting of something terrible – abandonment, accidents, drowning.”