Some reflections on American swimming pools

A plain clothes police officer jumps into a pool to arrest a group of of black and white protestors, 1964, Monson Motor Lodge, Florida

I’ve found, recently, that whenever I am swimming I can’t help but think about photographs. Perhaps it is something to do with the development process. In a darkroom, where film photos are processed, the negative is projected onto blank paper using light, the paper is submerged in trays of chemical, until an image rises up from the surface and becomes fixed. The water I swim is treated and it too tastes stinging and chemical, and I too feel as I break its surface to take a breath that I am becoming fixed from beneath. It isn’t that I feel myself becoming a photograph as such, rather that, at somepoint, both experiences seem to intersect.

When I think about swimming pools in the USA I also think about photography and the proliferation of images. I think about the reasons why, by the late 1960s, the swimming pool had become ubiquitous in the back gardens of American households. The pool was the focus of family life and the new hearth around which to gather. Images of the swimming pool are found in magazines, real estate adverts and vernacular postcards from the time. This glut of garden pools was not just a symbol of a disposable income for the rising middle-classes. To make the swimming pool private is also to turn inwards, away from civic life and towards a subjective understanding of self that, in turn, assumes a danger in the presence of others.

Space, and who gets to take up space, has always been political. In her essay Holy Water Joan Didion writes about the control of such a precious and unpredictable natural resource, now safely contained:

…the symbolic content of swimming pools has always been interesting: a pool is commonly misapprehended as a trapping of affluence, real or pretended, and of a kind of hedonistic attention to the body. Actually a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable.

Writing on the arid American West, Didion places the swimming pool within the broader landscape of reservoirs, aqueducts and the underground piping systems that transport water over mountains, to agricultural fields, to sputtering taps and the symbolic orange groves. The back garden swimming pool however, unlike the regulated currents managed by various control centres, is almost stagnant. Apart from the barely perceptible silking caused by the filter, the swimming pool is still water.

There is something in this stillness. Whilst the water system is a marvel of engineering, the swimming pool as static site cannot be something shared with others without invitation. By the 1960s, the swimming pool in the USA had become something insular, a private if widespread phenomenon in the back gardens of post-war modernist houses. A wound in otherwise neatly landscaped back gardens, the manifestation of Barthes’ notion of the punctum: intensively subjective, the part of the photograph that pricks. In this subjectivity too, is the suggestion of ownership. Unlike the water shared and portioned out amongst a community, the still water of the back garden swimming pool is something claimed, exclusive and socially selective.

Ed Ruscha, Pool #5, 1968 (printed 1997) Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Artist Rooms Foundation 2011

The question is raised then, of control not only over what but also of whom. If the swimming pool is control over the uncontrollable in terms of a precious resource, then so too does it represent ‘order’ more broadly as a negotiated space. The transition from public or civic pool to the back garden in 1960s USA coincided with a civil rights movement that was demanding rights for black bodies. Photographs documenting and capturing this struggle were disseminated widely.

I found the photograph of a protest at Monson Motor Lodge, Florida online. In June 1964 a group of black and white protestors entered the Monson swimming pool in what would be termed by the New York Times as a swim-in, breaking segregation ordinances. In the foreground the uniform brickwork of the pool’s edge curves gently in a satisfying contour. Although the photograph is in black and white, the parked cars and the palm trees and large billboard proclaiming MONSON MOTOR LODGE and the lodge itself, squat roofed in the mid-distance, all bring with them that seductive promise of colour. In other circumstances, this could be a recognisable image of the American swimming pool that I am most comfortable with, of azure blue and blinding sunshine, of summer holidays and relaxation.

Then I notice all the people. People grouped around the edge of the pool, watching, leaning against the patio furniture (nobody sits) and the palm trees. There is at least one person holding a camera to their eye. There are at least two men in uniform. One is in the foreground, with his hat tipped slightly forward, gun visible on his hip, standing next to another man in a white t-shirt that is tucked into his trousers. These two men are looking at a third man, who is jumping into the water. There are seven people in the water. Despite the size of the pool they keep close to one another. Their bodies are partially submerged up to the chest. All but one woman, who has turned in retreat, open mouthed, are looking upwards at the man jumping towards them. Captured mid-jump, the main thing I notice about this man is that he is fully clothed apart from his shoes, which have been discarded by the water’s edge, one overturned. There are small sharp shards of water, bright white in the sun, kicked up from the pools placid surface.

This photograph is no longer just an image of a swimming pool, but of the swimming pool as inhabited space. In the act of jumping into the water fully clothed, the man transcends understood and negotiated rules. Usually, to enter a pool, there is something of a ritualistic undressing. To enter a pool is to acquiesce to the removal of those layers, such as uniforms, which indicate a certain societal status. I keep thinking about the group of bodies in the water, what it must have felt like for them to undress and step down the ladder together, watched by a crowd of others. I wonder whether any of them dipped underneath the water’s surface, making all the people above them nothing but indeterminate shapes.

Within weeks of the photographs from the Monson Motor Lodge protest being published a bill proposed by the Senate was passed into law. The bill prohibited, among other things, discrimination over use of public spaces. The swimming pool was, by law, a space that could no longer be exclusively claimed on racial terms. The proliferation of images of the protest was a claiming of rights, a demand to be able to exist within both a specific and symbolic space. As subjects of a photograph, the bodies in the water of a roadside motel pool are not flattened but rather made flesh. These are not bodies that disappear into an image, but rather lay claim to the image in order to be able to speak.

When looking at the images circulating of the Black Lives Matter protests, the waves of bodies close and hot, I think back to the swim-in protests. Through the photograph the static water of the swimming pool was made mobile, shared through print media from the time and remembered and archived today. Similarly, we are currently seeing the proliferation of images relating to protest being shared widely online, applying important and needed political pressure.

Back in the 1960s, in response to the law over use of public space, many Americans dug up their back gardens. The swimming pool became a symbol of domestic isolation: an extension of interiority, the untouchable body able to exist in its own, separate, private space. When we see protest images now, or when we march in solidarity, we must do so alongside a further extension outwards, until those spaces that are currently held tight and close are opened up, are given over and become shared. We must do so with the knowledge that taking up space is always political and look to those (especially those) spaces that seem trivial, such as the swimming pool, the space in which we can dip under, and feel the water cool against our skin.

Fred Rogers shares a paddling pool with Francois Clemmons in 1993 in a recreation of the original scene from an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood in 1969. At the time this small act was incredibly meaningful (Photo: John Beale)

Essay writer and arts professional living in London. Interests include existentialism, photography and cycling. Get in touch if you'd like me to write for you!

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