It’s probably heresy to talk about Larry Sultan’s Swimmers (1978-1982) before mentioning Evidence. I mean, Evidence is famous, and Swimmers, while exhibited a few times, was never before published and was (as far as I know) largely unknown prior to this book coming out. I don’t feel too bad, though: I seem to be going largely out of order—I reviewed Pictures from Home some time ago, after all—so at least I’m consistent.
Swimmers is new (at time of writing), with a publication date of June 2023, and I’m honestly surprised I bought it…. It was sorta strange: I stopped opening the Mack emails more than a year ago, but for some reason, I opened this one and *poof—for whatever reason, I preordered the book and so received and unboxed it a few days prior to its official publication date. In fact, I started drafting this review on May 31, 2023, not that it matters. That said, I feel quite special…. I’m not, of course, but it’s still nice to feel that way time to time.
I hadn’t heard of this photographic series before. Apparently, according to the publication blurb and Sultan’s own statement about the work, the pictures were exhibited at various points, but Swimmers is the first book version. It’s no exhibition catalog or anything, though: in fact, while Mack’s edition contains “all the pictures from the series Sultan himself chose and exhibited,” it was expanded “to include additional images he marked on contact sheets as well as further selections from his archive which he likely never even reviewed.”*
To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about this. Sultan passed away nearly 15 years ago, and so it’s his estate that worked with Mack to put the thing together. While I’m wildly impressed with and inspired by the work, the knowledge that the artist had no input whatsoever on it, I think there should be an editor’s name on the cover instead of, or in addition to Sultan’s.
Anyway. The publication and exhibition history (or lack thereof) has little to do with the content of the book, which is, as mentioned, wonderfully impressive and I’m saddened to know that the inspiration I feel from it won’t amount to any picture-making of substance.
Other reviewers have surely already written beautifully, cogently, coherently, and eloquently about the series. I point you in particular to @swerdnaekalb over on Insta, whose thumbnail review hits all the right notes and has a more thorough and exacting history. So rather than attempt to wax lyrical like my betters, let me just get right into the weeds here…
Comparing Sultan’s new book to Deanna Templeton’s The Swimming Pool is probably a fool’s errand. And still. I love Swimmers and am more or less indifferent to The Swimming Pool. For one, Sultan’s photographs are of ordinary people: old, young, portly, slim, abled, and differently so; Templeton’s swimmers are all slim and conventionally attractive, and don’t really look like me or anyone I know. I’m being facetious here… Maybe 5% of the people I know or encounter in any given day look like Templeton’s swimmers. Sultan’s subjects, by contrast, simply look like me.
“Looking like me” isn’t necessarily an end all or be all of a photographic project or series, and I certainly appreciate views into cultures or ways of being that are wholly other-than. But I’ve probably seen enough photographs of slim, light-skinned people to last several lifetimes, and the interesting distortions and grotesqueries produced by the water don’t do enough to bring them down to my level. Anyway.
For a second thing, sorta, where Templeton’s book and swimming pool series is, I think, more about capital-A Art and the ways in which water distorts the human form, making the conventionally attractive rather grotesque, Sultan’s project is different. According to Philip Gefter’s afterword, “Deepdiving,” the Swimmers project was (I’m paraphrasing) an attempt to make some “actual,” hands-on photography after a decade of things like Evidence,*** with a goal both to interrogate his own fears of water, and also push his—and photography’s—observational limits.****
Third, Templeton made a sort of celebration of the human form, sleek and graceful and sun-drenched in a California pool. That’s all well and good, though the bodies, slim and naked, would be more or less celebrated out of the pool as in, and they didn’t really need the photographer’s help. Sultan’s subjects are, more or less, likely as grotesque out of the water as in it…. And his work celebrates the clumsy way we landlubbing humans flail about in water.
Ok. That’s enough of that.
One thing in particular that strikes me about the Sultan work: it couldn’t be made today. The late-1970s and early 1980s were a completely different time. I’m old enough to (barely) remember something of the early 1980s, and I spent a fair amount of time in public pools throughout the 1980s and into the very early 1990s. There were no creepy men in snorkel gear popping flashes at us as we horsed around in the pool, but I can imagine there might have been, especially early on. In my memory, which may be faulty, there was, in general, much less “stranger danger” in, say, 1983 than there was in 1993, and my second grade class—and the whole school—was fingerprinted by the FBI in 1985 purportedly to protect us in case of kidnap. I remember all sorts of cartoon warnings and after-school-specials warning against strangers that I don’t think existed for earlier generations. These days… sheesh. I’m honestly shocked that I haven’t seen the usual town criers screeching about the work on Twitter…
But, then, I haven’t been on Twitter much in months, all thanks and praise be to God.
I dig Sultan’s book quite a bit. The whole thing just works. The black pages set off the dim, blue pool and colorful bathing suits beautifully, and really draw me into the depths, and the grain and color of late 1970s/early 1980s color stock is incredible and well-reproduced by the technicians at Mack. Great stuff.
Overall, I rate Swimmers a solid, recommended, 4.33 stars.
Being a new, posthumous, book from a well known and celebrated photographer, Swimmers is readily available direct from Mack and at various booksellers. I’ll imagine that it will eventually sell out and may indeed become expensive and hard to findOnly time will tell, and jump on it while you can, if you can… don’t go into debt for photobooks. Don’t be like me. And, no, as much as I joke about it, photobooks are not a safe investment vehicle.
*Mack. Publisher’s blurb for Larry Sultan Swimmers. retrieved from https://www.mackbooks.us/products/swimmers-br-larry-sultan 31 May 2023.
**Rest assured, though: I remain entirely self funded (except for the two books I received free from now-defunct Temper Books a couple of years ago) and have not yet sold out, not that I’ve received any offers to anyway….
****Gefter, Philip. “Deepdiving.” In Larry Summer Swimmers. Mack: London. 2023. unpaginated.