Art Portfolio: Deanna Templeton’s The Swimming Pool
Our editor-in-chief, Sophia Neophitou, discovered a new pastime last summer: skinny-dipping. In the privacy of her fabulous Greek abode, obviously. Don’t get any ideas. Naturally, she shared this revelation with her tens of thousands of Instagram followers. The accompanying visual? A nude woman swimming just beneath the water of a bright blue pool.
It wasn’t one of Sophia, but an image from photographer Deanna Templeton’s book, The Swimming Pool. A book that, since we discovered it, has had us totally transfixed. Published last year, the book is made up entirely of nude swimmers, each one photographed making their way through the azure-blue waters of the swimming pool that sits in Deanna’s Orange County yard. So is the Californian photographer herself a fan of a nude-y swim? “Sure, if no one’s taking photos.”
A series of photographs taken over the past eight years, this “photo essay”, as she describes it, is about far more than a cheap thrill or a momentary pleasure, though. Instead, over the course of the pages, Deanna develops an intimate portrait of the human body in all its glory, captured variously in colour and black-and-white lm and on Polaroid. She wanted to capture people in what she deems their “truest form”. Each of the subjects is photographed in motion, under the pool’s surface – some face up, some down, others merely limbs or blurred faces. Her subjects appear weightless, dreamlike, their bodies dotted with the shadows of bubbles. Together, they conjure images of a perfect summer, a brief moment of calm. Or, as Ed Templeton, Deanna’s husband and fellow artist, describes in the accompanying essay – “a solitary dance for the photographer above, choosing movements and directions, twisting and swooping, contorting and expelling breaths, painting a picture of form and light together”.
The series began the way all good things do: by chance. One summer, about eight years ago, her husband was about to go swimming in the pool. He decided to, in Deanna’s words, go “sans suit”. There was something about the moment that made her reach for her camera, photographing his body as it moved beneath the sun-dappled waters. At that point, it was for no other reason than to capture a moment in the couple’s life.
Previously, her work had centred around the pursuit of strangers, or passers- by, collected and photographed upon the boardwalks of Orange County – teenage skateboarders, girls in bikinis, tanned, tattooed punks. But those initial 8-10 frames of Ed fascinated her. Her work had never had that intimacy that comes with photographing people you know and love. “It was so different for me,” she tells me. “So stripped down. One of those first images made it into the book, actually. It almost looks like a pencil drawing. Another, which didn’t make it in, looked like an abstract painting in such a fantastic ugly way.”
But the idea to shoot the photographs as a series only came when she visited her gallery in Los Angeles. They wanted to know if she had new work for a potential show that autumn. She brought back the images of Ed and they encouraged her to make a series. It was a moment that led her to, for the next eight summers (it was easier to shoot in summer, when the sun was shining and the days were longer), draft in friends, and then friends of friends, to strip off and swim underwater for her lens.
The process was, unsurprisingly, intimate. Her previous photographs had a spontaneous quality that left more of a gap between herself and the subject, fleeting moments based only on the briefest of connections. Shooting The Swimming Pool, however, was more of a process. Here, the subjects were in her house. Naked. And Deanna had never photographed anybody nude before, apart from her husband.
“Everyone knew beforehand that they were required to be nude, there were no surprises,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, by the way, you can’t swim in your bathing suit for this!’ But I do also have to add that I tried my hardest to make a comfortable safe place for all my swimmers. If they are uncomfortable I think it would come through in the photo.” All this made for an experience that led to new friends, new connections.
The choice to shoot nude was important. It was all part of Deanna’s desire to present the body in its purest form. “I really wanted to have no distractions between the light and shadows from the body,” she says. “I also tried really hard to find people with few or no tattoos. I wanted a blank canvas.”
The importance of light and the way it interplays with the water or flares off the swimmers’ bodies is something she consistently references over the course of our conversation. Why, though, is it so important? “The unexpected collaboration with something I’m not in control of at all,” she tells me. “It was about not really knowing what it will be until you get the film back – from beautiful sunbursts to lines that look like sound waves – I just love it all.”
And the pool itself was the logical place to shoot the series. For one, it was in her backyard. And she could control the environment (even though she couldn’t work out how to turn on the pool heater), which was crucial to her process. Lakes might have been too murky. And the ocean, well – “I’m not a strong swimmer,” she admits. “I almost drowned once. To be honest, even a lake scares me.”
So the swimming pool provided the perfect backdrop for the images, the clear water leaving no space between photographer and subject. It meant Deanna could capture that private moment of being underwater, when it feels like there is nobody watching. “Maybe because you’re underwater, everything else is tuned out – you’re just free to swim, to twist, to glide, to listen to the water about you, the weightlessness,” she says. “And after going back over the images when I was making the edit, I noticed the swimmers gave off a sense of strength and confidence.”
But more than that, the swimming pool has something universal about it. It could have been anywhere. You can’t see any of the surroundings or the edges of the pool. There’s nothing that situates it in either a time or a place. And that, somehow, makes the symbolism more wide reaching. Water has always been rich with symbolism – birth, fertility, the human subconscious, even death. What, though, does it mean to Deanna?
“Water to me is exciting and terrifying at the same time. I love swimming underwater in our pool because I love the isolation, the quietness, the feeling of being free,” she says. “But the pool is in a controlled environment. Like I said, our pool is pretty shallow, I can stand up in the deepest part of the pool and the top of my head sticks out. So I feel safe.”
Her desire to immortalise those fleeting moments is the reason she first got into photography, a career that has de ned her entire life. She wanted to share her view with the world – her thoughts and ideas. Photography was the only way she knew how. “Why photograph?” she says. “Well, I can’t draw and I can’t paint, but I have ideas that I want to share. I love how I can stop time in that moment but then relive it through the image every day.”
And what better way to immortalise her treasured images than by putting them in a book? Thanks to the recent heightened interest in the printed page – a phenomenon that must, in part, be attributed to Idea, the London-based art bookseller that now has more than 250,000 Instagram followers and who stocked The Swimming Pool – the book reached not just her Californian community, but the entire world.
Putting the book together was a living, breathing project for Deanna, shifting constantly over the eight years that she shot it. “The biggest change that happened over the eight years was that I knew what I liked and what I didn’t like in an image. By the fourth or fifth year I knew exactly what I was shooting,” she says.
Sometimes, she struggled with the size of such a long-running project. “I thought I’d finished at some point in year seven. But my publisher said, ‘Just shoot one more summer,’” she says. It’s something that she didn’t want to do, but she did. In the end, she got some of the best shots in that final summer. “But now,” she says, “it is de finitely finished.” The book went on to become a sleeper hit. So much so that the distributor has sold out and copies can now only be bought directly from her US publisher, Um Yeah Arts.
She tells me that her favourite image from the book is one of her husband’s legs as he crosses the pool. Ed has also spent his life photographing skateboarders in California and wrote the introduction. Each day the couple takes a mid-afternoon break – they both work from the house – to walk around their hometown of Huntington Beach. “We have been shooting locals, passers-by and everything in between,” she says. They hope to publish a book in two volumes – as she describes it, “a his and hers view of Huntington Beach”. The sunny beachside town is a place that means a lot to them both. “This is where I was born and this is where my parents are laid to rest,” she says. “This is home.”
See the full story in Issue 58 of 10 Magazine, ANGLES PLEASURE FLUID, on newsstands now…