Dreaded for a few centuries, water became a symbol of hygiene in the 19th century, then of health with sea bathing to become a source of pleasure and freedom in the 20th century. Former public bath house closed in 1977, Les Douches la galerie pays homage to this element that occupied its walls before photography replaced it. Bringing together the vision of different authors and photographic currents of the 20th century seemed to us like a return… to the sources.
At the heart of life, a source of inspiration for poets, water embraces bodies and containers, without its own form it escapes unequivocal representation. Whether it is sea, lake, river, stream, swimming pool, rain, drop, puddle, fountain, or simply coming out of the tap, it is our daily life but always changing, impalpable, it slides over bodies, is unleashed, evaporates . Elusive, it is a water clock, a symbol of passing time. Its ability to capture light, to diffract it, to reflect the world, has made it a subject of study for photographers, complex and rich in possibilities. While 19th century photographers often confined water to the landscape, those of the 20th century made it a subject around leisure, hygiene, still life, science, surrealism and figurative abstraction. Material with a thousand reflections, constantly changing appearance, water escapes a single representation. Its face has as many forms as it has reflections. Above all, it is its ability to play with light that fascinates photographers. It will be the companion of many compositions to, sometimes, become the main subject. In October 1938, the monthly brochure Mieux vivre, which “brings together the most beautiful photographic documents published each month, on a subject chosen from among the happiest of our existence”, publishes an opus on water. Torrents and streams rub shoulders with rain and swimming. The novelist Louis Guilloux (1899-1980) remarks in his introduction that “no element is so joyful, does not lend itself so much to joy, does not give so much. … Water, having become expanse, reveals other secrets to us, that of its alliance with the fire of the sun, that of its complicity with the winds, and so many others that are perhaps only within us »1
From this selection stand out the photographs of André Steiner (1901-1978) and his immersed swimmers, where the body and water merge to become one in a formal osmosis not devoid of sensuality. Often assimilated to youth, fountain of youth, water is a partner of youth, associated with games, it exalts the vitality, the playfulness of children as evidenced by the photographs of François Kollar (1904-1979), Pierre Jamet ( 1910-1920), Sid Kaplan (1938-) and Jean-Claude Gautrand (1932-2019).
For Dora Maar (1907-1997), Emeric Feher (1904-1966) or Ray Metzker (1931-2014), it mirrors the world. In the shape of a puddle, the water plays with the appearances of the world where the photographs capture a double vision of the same reality to better show us that everything is a question of point of view.
The exercise of the representation of the glass of water in painting, in particular the classic still life, is a challenge. The transparency of glass and water, that is to say the visual void, mobilizes all the dexterity of the artist to show what cannot be seen. Everything is then an arrangement of reflections, shadows, composition and controlled light, a challenge that three eminent photographers of the thirties took up with talent in an aesthetic specific to each: Pictorialism ending for the Frenchman Daniel Masclet (1892-1969) , the modernity stemming from the Bauhaus of the German Elfriede Stegmeyer (1908-1988) and the new objectivity for the German Willy Zielke (1902-1989).
It is through mythology that Pierre Boucher seizes the subject, he gives it substance with the female genius of the waters, Ondine2, in an enigmatic surrealist photomontage that he masters with art. The surrealist Raoul Ubac (1910-1985), photographer of the mineral, produced a rare image of the aqueous universe seeking to “disintegrate the latent form under the calm photographic surface”.3 A few years later, he continued to seek “the unconscious image”, but this time by fire, by heating and deforming the negative.
With the authors of the Subjektive photography, the faithful representation matters less than the vision of the author. The German Peter Keetman (1916-2005), one of the founders of the avant-garde group Fotoform4, is one of the eminent photographers of this movement. His emblematic Spiegelnde Tropfen (Mirror Drops) from 1958 is a multiplied image of drops of water which are so many mirrors of the world as if it were impossible to give a single representation of them.
It was in a scientific approach that, from the 1930s, the American photographer Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), set out to unravel the mysteries of water by devices of which he developed to capture what the eye cannot grasp. His compatriot Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) who also worked for MIT, in the 1950s, on the understanding of wave propagation and produced abstract photographs of great poetry. She showed us calm and gentleness, where her predecessor expressed energy and tumult.
The delicate pinholes of Bogdan Konopka (1953-2019) around mountain streams transform their appearance. These limpid waters, become opalescent by the pause time imposed by the photographic process, and are transformed into luminous trails which split the darkness of the undergrowth and compose strange dreamlike landscapes.
The contemporary work of German photographer Rainer Leitzgen (1963-) was also obvious to us. He made water not a subject but a filter, a transparent screen, a distorted representation of the surface of the real world, giving to see another reality. Faces and bodies seem dissolved on paper like ink. We lose the notions of space and scale in this other world. His photographs prove to us that beauty is not in the clear representation of reality but in a personal, strange, disturbing and fascinating vision.
Les Formes de l’Eau
from June 10 to September 9, 2023
Les Douches la Galerie
5, rue Legouvé 75010 Paris