At the age of twelve, American photographer Larry Sultan narrowly escaped drowning. Some fifteen years later, he discovered a Red Cross swimming manual whose black and white photographs inspired him to start a series on learning to swim. The project quickly became an exploration of the formal potential of water, whose captivating images had long remained in the shadows. Brought together for the first time in a book published by the British publishing house MACK, they reveal a little-known facet of the photographer’s work.
Beneath its elegant cover, Swimmers is a series of body parts floating, swimming or playing in the water. There is something dreamlike about these silhouettes caught up in a strange, silent choreography. The chlorine waves distort them to the point of abstraction, while the light breaks through and stains them. Sometimes it’s the diffuse glow of Larry Sultan’s flash that outlines them. The colours take on a particular hue. Sometimes aged, sometimes brilliant, they stand out poetically against the azure background.
This superb collection is the result of five years spent in public swimming pools in San Francisco Bay. Between 1978 and 1982, armed with his Nikonos, Larry Sultan photographed people of all ages learning to swim. When he began this project, he had in mind to conquer his own fear of deep water. Photography helped him to do this: it was in his desire to capture certain scenes that he left the shallow end of the pool and ventured into the deep end.
In addition to this almost psychological approach, Larry Sultan intends to “push the medium to its perceptual limits”. Visually, this work has echoes of André Kertész, who himself tried to push back the limits of the medium by using distorting mirrors. These silhouettes tormented by the ripples of water are reminiscent of the Hungarian photographer’s Distorsions.
At the time, Swimmers’ essentially formalist exploration drew some criticism. At the turn of the 1980s, photography was taken over by postmodern thinking. In the fascinating essay that closes the book, photography historian Philip Gefter reports that Larry Sultan himself was not entirely comfortable with the series: “He was worried that the images were too beautiful, too easy, and worse still, irrelevant to what was being done at the time. For years he refused to see Swimmers as a viable body of work.” Yet this project represents a crucial stage in his work, marking the transition between his conceptual work and the more narrative clichés of Pictures from home, The Valley and Homeland.
Abstract and poetic, sensory and instinctive, this astonishing series is perhaps Larry Sultan’s most personal, revealing all his vulnerability by confronting his fear of deep water and his uncertainties about the photographic medium.
Larry Sultan – Swimmers
Mack Books, 2023
30 x 25.2cm, 144 pages
€60 £50 $65
Available in all good bookstores and online