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Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California

In Pictures is a still and moving image gallery for significant works, events and places

Robert and Cliff, Sherman Oaks, 1980
Robert and Cliff, Sherman Oaks, 1980 Photography by Mel Roberts, © Michael H. Epstein, Scott E. Schwimer

California in 50s and 60s America was considered the “brightest national beacon of a better way of life”: a symbol of hope, prosperity and glamour following the chaos and disruption of World War II. Nicknamed the Sunshine State owing to its constantly...

California in 50s and 60s America was considered the “brightest national beacon of a better way of life”: a symbol of hope, prosperity and glamour following the chaos and disruption of World War II. Nicknamed the Sunshine State owing to its constantly warm climate, and brimming with toned, bronzed beauties and Hollywood stars, it laid claim to the outdoor swimming pool as no other state could; think Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 cult film The Graduate, who whiles away lazy summer days airbed-borne in the Braddock’s glimmering garden pool.

Now the focus of a new Prestel publication, Back Yard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography 1945-1982, the swimming pool is considered as a symbol and embodiment of the Southern Californian ideals and expectations, through an enticing array of sun-filled photographs and a number of accompanying essays. Glamorous images of poolside celebrities – from Marilyn Monroe to Richard Gere and Esther Williams – demonstrate the pool as a Hollywood accessory for the showing off bare bodies in a respectable context, while wonderful photographs by Julius Schulman, Bill Anderson and their peers explore the central role of the pool in “California Modern” domestic architecture. Swimming pool enthusiast David Hockney (naturally) numbers among the artists featured with his mesmerising studies of swimmers and rippling waves; as does his contemporary, the brilliant Ed Ruscha. A more surreal rendering of the swimming pool is carried out by John Baldessari, who creates his moustache (in a self-portrait) from a swimmer’s open legs. 

From glamour to disillusionment, there are also examples of empty, derelict pools as a reflection of the failings of the American Dream following the political unrest brought about by the Vietnam War and Civil Rights issues.

"Nicknamed the Sunshine State owing to its constantly warm climate, and brimming with toned, bronzed beauties and Hollywood stars, California laid claim to the outdoor swimming pool as no other state could..."

On the purpose of the book and accompanying exhibition of its photographs at the Palm Springs Art Museum, senior curator and editor Daniell Cornell explains, “Since the end of World War II, Southern California's backyard pools – those blue-green oases in an otherwise often arid landscape – have symbolised any number of American ideals: optimism, wealth, consumerism, escape, physical beauty, and the triumph of people over nature. Simultaneously, the field of photography developed as a transformative method for recording the human condition. This exhibition and catalogue celebrate the nexus of these two phenomena."

Back Yard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography 1945-1982, published by Prestel, is available now and the exhibition is at the Palm Springs Art Museum until May 27.

Text by Daisy Woodward

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