Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Impossibility of Swimming Pools

Diving into the Deep End of Illusion and Representation

Oh the good life.  That is what our parents were all promised, right, when they moved to California from Oklahoma or Nebraska or Ohio?  (Listen to the accents in the Antelope Valley and you can hear traces of Okie English still, especially among the most long-time of our residents.)  We know what makes the good life good, too, and it's not just the weather.  No, besides eternal sunshine and blonde wives, we each need a big house and a blue, blue pool.  This fashion spread from 1970 promises it all.

Yellow hair, yellow dresses, yellow sunshine, and beneath a perfect blue sky, the Roman villa indulgence of a perfect blue reflecting pool --- yes, the good life indeed.

Yet, as we all know, this is the endless trap of endless longing, since no matter how big or how clean or how lounge-chair bedecked our pools are, somebody down the block always will have a bigger, better, more lavish one.

Yes, Hearst Castle's pool is almost certainly bigger than yours, even if you own (and live in) a Hilton on Waikiki.  Down the block there always will be something better.  Our own pools will never compare.

Do we even know how to act around swimming pools?  On the right, East L.A. in 1968, I am practicing for what I have now, which is a mostly-white beard.  In the middle, neighbor lad Melvin seems a bit serious.  One wants to give his part of the picture the tag line, "Are we having fun yet?"  On the left my brother Fred is especially dubious --- just what is this pool thing all about, and why does the water from the hose come out so cold?  Note our scissors-and-a-salad-bowl haircuts.

The painter David Hockney would argue that one thing wrong with my pictures so far in this blog is perspective.  He faults the average photograph as being too limited compared to the scanning and edge blurred reality of normal vision --- he jokingly calls it the "product of a paralyzed cyclops."  He assembled a collage of Polaroids to capture the flickering light and shifting gaze that looking at a real pool entails, creating in the process a much larger print than the usual snapshot in an album.  For Hockney, size matters, as does a fractured and unstable horizon line.

Certainly that is what most pools are for, most of the time --- not being swum in, but being looked at.  Now to enhance the trick of that perspective, modern design options include the so-called infinity pool, where edge and sky blend into one.  Welcome to Los Angeles, baby doll, where even the water wants to be perfect and infinite.

Perhaps I am thinking about this all wrong, as is even the astute and multifaceted Mr. Hockney.  Maybe the essence of a pool is not the view from above, but the view from "inside," from below the surface, a look "into" the contents of the pool.

Sort of a sexy shot, isn't it?  (Most images for this blog come from the exhibition catalog titled Backyard Oasis, tied in with what I am told is a fun show at the Palm Springs Museum of Art.)  When I was in high school the water polo players (more so than the football stars) were the narrow-waisted, broad-shouldered epitome of Greco-Masculine ideal.

Sexuality and swimming pools no doubt goes back to the first thermal hot springs 10,000 years before the Romans, but in post-WW 2 America, it really began to flourish as an ideal.  Even MM herself deigned to do some pool shots.

Maybe I am missing something, but her awkward pose and the actual fact of how abrasive poolside concrete is in reality make this, for me, a lot less sexy than it is supposed to be.  That is true as well for this group shot below, from 1972.  (I hope nobody on the AVC staff list recognizes themselves in this shot.)

This is supposed to be an orgy about to happen, but all I can think of is how for me at least this horseplay is just that --- a lot of shouting and splashing and eyes getting weepy from chlorine.  Maybe it is the harsh lighting from the flash, too, but I just don't find this an invitation to be sensually inclined.  It might be fun, but it's not erotic.  Maybe I am just thinking of those times at cheap motels when having a room near the pool turns out to be a very poor (and noisy) choice.

Sexuality and swimming pools of course crosses lines of orientation, and entire museums could be filled with images cataloging the role of the swimming pool and the semiotic of gay erotica.  This fellow from Pacific Palisades can be a stand-in for all of his fellow bathers.

Yet all is not the sex and glamor and baby oil that it seems.  Somebody has had to sweep that patio, water the plants, hose down the faux Roman statuary.  The economics of pools perhaps needs more discussion.  For every swimming pool there is probably a person of color somewhere who chlorinates it, vacuums up the leaves, and changes the filter.  Here we see this premise in action, at a resort in Namibia.

Not just the social implications of pools remains under-examined, but also some of the ecological questions, as well.  Richard Misrach has made that point in his Desert Cantos series, when he made the photograph below, at an abandoned resort at the Salton Sea.  This fetid cesspit of a disaster is 20 miles wide and 60 miles long, water that via farm runoff and evaporation grows ever saltier and ever more toxic with each passing summer.  A river flows into it from Mexico that once was listed as the most polluted river in America.  Here is Misrach's photo.

The pool is left over from a brief boom, when it seemed that the Salton Sea was going to become the poor man's Riviera.  Alas, the water kept rising, the fish kept dying, the stinks kept getting stinkier.  Now flooded trailer parks and abandoned towns provide post-apocalyptic images for each new generation of art MFA students.  Only the mad, the very poor, and the birdwatchers come here.  His photo shows a horizon that fades away into summer humidity, an empty promise of failed dreams.

Elsewhere in Southern California, empty pools and foreclosed houses served a different purpose, as skateboarders turned pools into the prototype X Games that in turn lead to changes in the surfing culture, and, from there, to the invention of snowboards and snowboarding.

I admire their feisty style, even if I can't skateboard to save my life.  (Heck, I can barely surf, and water is a lot softer than cement.)  Movies like Dogtown and Z-Boys capture this era in a way that a previous generation was outlined in Endless Summer.  Sean Penn narrates Dogtown, and the movie includes footage by Chris Stecyk, who took the shot included above.

Which swings back around to my initial premise, that a swimming pool is an impossibility.  It promises a lifestyle we'll never inhabit and yet at the same time, in its Edenic perfection, hides the problems of social inequality and resource consumption.  In a state that is a desert for much of its habitat, should pools even be legal in California?

While photographing the LA River from a helicopter, I took this picture at the north end of the San Fernando Valley, capturing a row of what were called (pre-bust) "McMansions" --- each huge, each on a postage stamp lot, and each with a pool wedged in like an afterthought along some margin of the dinky property.  Maybe the problem here is not the the pool, just its size in relation to the available space.  When I was a kid, my parents rented a really small house, and it had, as one would expect, an equally small yard.  But here we go then, let's make the resources fit the footprint, and for a small yard, they found a proportionally small pool.

Of course, times were simpler back then, as the telephone indicates.  (And God bless Kodachrome, still stable and vivid after all these years.)  Now I suppose kids that age will be put out of they don't have a real phone to play with, preferably an iPhone with some kind of "change my diapers" app and a ring tone array from all the latest Pixar releases.  Luckily I didn't know any better, and in fact, mine was probably the last house on the block in the 1990s to get a cordless handset for the house line.  (Land lines --- remember those?  Yes, I still have one, mostly for nostalgia.)

So in the end, what should we say about pools? 

One Hockney painting I am very fond of was made here in L.A. but is owned by the Tate in London.  Indeed, it is usually the first piece of proper art one sees upon landing at Heathrow, since, depending what terminal you come out at, a framed print of this painting is in a cafe near the where one exits customs.  Titled A Bigger Splash, it uses acrylic house paint to produce an intentionally flat, uniform finish, utterly unlike the skies of (say) 17th century Delft landscapes. 

For Hockney then, to wrap this post up, a pool is a kind of inverted sky, and the sky here, as we all know, is perfect and infinite and never, ever rainy.  Growing up in the Midlands and seeing the sharp-edged shadows of winter days in sunny California captured in the backgrounds of Laurel and Hardy films, Hockney knew that he had to come to California.  Oppressed with mildewy damp days and a cotton wool softness, he yearned for our sun and our sky.  And, once he got here, he knew he had to acquire the attributes of the lifestyle: a driver's license, a tan, a gorgeous boyfriend, and, of course, a swimming pool.  All of these things he did, and so we end the blog with this painting, showing not a person but the water, and not even the water, but a representation of water in splattered white house paint. 

What is the perfect swimming pool?  Not one at the Y and not one at your uncle's house, but as with all things in Zen and Hollywood, the perfect pool is the one in your mind: endless and clean and as eternal as the sky itself.


  1. its very nice post thanks for interesting knowledge

    1. Hi,
      I was wondering if you know the name of the photographer of the first photo in your blog (the ladies in yellow and white outfits by the pool).
      I would really appreciate your help on this as I really like the piece.
      Many thanks

    2. Slim Aarons, also has lots of books with similar images in, a great photographer. Interesting post about swimming pools btw

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