Thursday, 10 January 2013

On Drowning and Burning: Photography and Swimming

Wilhelm von Gloeden, Sicily, 1906/Max Dupain, Sunbaker, 1937/Shell Grotto,
Margate, Kent/Leni Riefenstahl, Korallengärten, 1978



















"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea." (Isak Dinesen)1

From observing the unfixed image of mute crashing waves thrown into the concave dish of a camera obscura, (the dazzling sun reflecting off the water such that the rotating image moves from shadowed land towards a blinding bright light) we move into the sea, thinking about photography's relationship to water, light and dissolution.


Untitled from Mythologies, 2012 © Esther Teichmann

Light must touch, sear and burn the light sensitive emulsion to leave its imprint, an inscribed image, in its wake. Richard Avedon's description of his first encounter with the photographic is one of branding and imprinting an image of desire onto his own skin, a memory of the salty sea and love, a violent, tender and carnal response to the medium. In his autobiographical essay, 'Borrowed Dogs', he tells of a photographic tattooing, of burning an image of his muse, his sister onto his body.

"It was my father who taught me the physics of photography. When I was a boy he explained to me the power of light in the making of a photograph. He held a magnifying glass between the sun and a leaf and set the leaf on fire. The next day, as an experiment, I taped a negative of my sister onto my skin and spent the day at Atlantic Beach. That night, when I peeled the negative off, there was my sister, sunburned onto my shoulder."2

Gidropark, 2011 © Yelena Yemchuk


The strangeness of the photographic lies not only in its altered, other temporality, but also in its relationship and parallels to the experience of love and the desire to escape oneself; delirium, madness, ghostly survival, a haunting.3


 

Thinking about liquidity and photography both metaphorically and literally, I move from observing the miniature crystalline waves within the darkened womb of the camera obscura to the blinding light of Avedon's searing sun and into the ocean itself.

"As he swam , he pursued a sort of reverie in which he confused himself with the sea. The intoxication of leaving himself, of slipping into the void, of dispersing himself in the thought of water, made him forget every discomfort."4

Untitled from Mythologies © Esther Teichmann/Btm right, Anonymous

Maurice Blanchot's short novel, Thomas the Obscure, begins with a description of a man seeking self-oblivion, making real that universal, yet unreal¬isable desire to merge with something outside ourselves. Entering the sea, Thomas allows the currents to take him and shape him within the sea's "utopic deluge". Momentarily within a state of ecstatic adja¬cency, he fleetingly attains this dissolution. Thomas soon realizes however that this attempt to escape the isolation of existence simply returns him to himself. Emerging from this struggle with the sea he returns to his own body and separateness, only able to recall traces of the event.

Daniel Gustav Cramer, from Trilogy

Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur, The Swimmer as Hero, leads us through an autobiographical and historical account of swimming, examining the relationship between the poet and swimmer as well as that between swimming and a desire to return to a primordial state of oneness, a return to the amniotic waters of the mother.

George Hoyningen-Huene, 1930


"The passion for bathing really began with the Romantic generation and 'swim' was a word that particularly appealed to poets… The word suggests a state of suspension, a trance-like condition . .. Like the opium addicts of the nineteenth century .., these swimmers felt themselves to be pariahs, elect outcasts, insulated from their fellow men. They too often experienced through their swims the classic constituents of an opium dream: 'the feeling of blissful buoyancy, the extension of time, contrasts of temperature, the bliss of the outcast.' .. Swimming, like opium, can cause a sense of detachment from ordinary life. Memories, especially those of childhood, can be evoked with startling strength and in vivid and precise detail."5

Seeking this state of otherness, submerging oneself in rivers and lakes, oceans and seas, emerging only to close ones eyes to the burning sun, seems then a very photographic pursuit, that of the artist and lover who would rather live within the space of the imagined, within darkness or too much light, inside the image.

Bill Henson, from Lux et Nox, 2002


Esther Teichmann 2012 (Foam Magazine issue #32/Talent)

1. Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Seven Gothic Tales ('The Deluge at Norderney'), London:Vintage, 1991, (1934) 1
2. Richard Avedon, 'Borrowed Dogs' in Richard Avedon Portraits. New York: Harry N. Abrahams, 2002
3. Excerpt from Tarzan and his Mate of Jane and Tarzan swimming, directed by Cedric Gibbons, 1934
4. Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure, translated by Robert Lamberton, New York: Station Hill Press, 1973 (1941)1, p.8
5. Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur, The Swimmer as Hero, London: Random House, 1992, p.134

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