We’re deep in the throes of summer, so naturally, imagery of bathers taking a dip in the chlorinated waters of public swimming pools seem to be everywhere you turn. From the glossy pages of magazines to blown up advertising billboards, pictures of glistening bodies clad in bikinis and trunks become commonplace in the warmer months; but Karine Laval’s photographic series The Pool, now on display at London’s Crane Kalman Gallery, stands out from the crowd.
One almost feels a blazing heat radiating from Laval’s poolside photographs, and as the French photographer explains, she used natural lighting alone to create the a distinctive sun-bleached haze of her photographs. Shooting on film using an old Rolleiflex from the 1960s, Laval recounts how she often set out around noon when the sun was at its highest point and the light at its harshest. “Not exactly the kind of advice photography students are given in school,” she says. “But I like to use the harshness of the light to bleach out the image or create more contrast. I also use exposure, type of film, and the chemicals to process them to create brilliant, saturated colours.”
If the series embodies Laval’s penchant for abstraction, it also channels the tension between nature and artifice, which has proved to be something of an inspiration for Laval over the years. Challenging familiar notions of what a swimming pool is, the images teeter between a real and imaginary world. “The Pool reflects my interest in the social and architectural aspects of the subject, which combine the natural and artificial at once, in a man-made environment,” she explains. “Although the images are figurative and depict what seems to be a familiar environment, I also tried to create visual narratives that echoed moments from my childhood. Beyond my personal memory it’s also a collective memory I reveal through the common and universal experience of leisure and bathing.”
The repetitive gestures and movements of bathers reminded her of dancers, she says, explaining how the idea of ‘performance’ infused the work, the space of the pool becoming a stage for mundane social exchanges. “I tried to reinforce that theatrical quality by capturing gestures at unexpected angles and perspectives, and by distorting the natural colours to blur our sense of the real,” says Laval, who lives and works in New York. “I developed this particular colour palette through chemical and darkroom manipulations with saturated and bleached-out tones reminiscent of the qualities of my family’s Super-8 home movies.”
As visually enticing as they are, Laval’s images are a reminder of photography’s slippery ability to mislead. “Like images, swimming pools can be layered with ambiguous connotations,” says Laval, drawing an intriguing parallel between the two. “They can be a stage for leisure and mundane activities, but they can also become an arena for anxiety, drama, and tragedy. All of these aspects I’ve tried to capture through my different projects focused on the swimming pool.”
Karine Laval: Reflections is at Crane Kalman Gallery, London, from July 20 – August 19, 2017.