A few months ago, I went to the Helen Levitt retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Looking at her photographs from half a century ago of families on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, I wondered why these pictures still resonated. They’re not beautifully composed. They’re not sensational. In fact, they’re mundane--without shouting in your ear or grabbing you by the collar, they capture everyday New York life of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Most of us, I think, are nostalgic for an immediate past, and the unadorned directness of Levitt’s photographs speaks to that need.
I am nostalgic for the present, for images of Los Angeles that are both grittier and more commonplace than are usually offered. The media tends to disparage or sentimentalize L.A.'s public life, reducing all experience to horror stories or “human interest” stories. In either case, ordinary citizens become so demonized or so idealized that what made them--and us--ordinary in the first place is lost.
I took these photographs in June and July, at city pools in Los Feliz and Echo Park, because I’m drawn to shared public experiences--to the rituals of everyday life. A great urban institution, the public pool attracts people of all backgrounds. (On occasion, they can attract violence; youths at Will Rogers Park in Watts attacked six lifeguards this summer.) Public pools quite literally strip people of their social uniforms. I also wanted to investigate my own back yard; Griffith Park Pool is down the street, and Echo Park Indoor Pool is just five minutes by car.
The Echo Park pool also happens to have fantastic light, which comes raking through skylights onto cement bleachers that overlook the shallow end of the pool. I turned the bleachers into my studio, where I could convey the few quiet moments of pool life: kids sunning themselves, being shushed by their parents, drying off. But I knew that if I was going to capture the kids’ abandon, I would have to get into the water.
As I descended into the Griffith Park Pool with an underwater camera, I felt bulky, the orange flash protruding like a periscope. Documentary photographers, the old saw goes, should be unobtrusive. But there’s no way to do that when you’ve got a contraption this cool and dozens of thrashing kids who want their picture taken. They bobbed up and down and waved at the camera as if on TV. “Just be natural,” I shouted stupidly. They rushed forward and splashed me as I hit the shutter. “How many of you’ve peed in the pool this afternoon?” I yelled. “Me,” they answered in unison. This is good. This is what it’s like being in the public pool on a 100-degree Sunday.