Larry Sultan’s painterly photographs of swimmers

Partly to confront his own primal fear of the water, the Californian photographer spent years capturing the sometimes ungainly, sometimes balletic dance of humans learning to swim

Growing up in the suburban Sherman Oaks district of Los Angeles, Larry Sultan lived close to a public swimming pool. His regular visits there were undertaken with a degree of trepidation. “I was petrified of water, of deep water, especially,” he recalled in 1980. “When I was 12, I almost drowned in the ocean. Water is the only bit of nature I know that we can’t control, that seems overwhelming when you enter it and are totally immersed in it.”

In 1974, partly as a way of confronting his own primal fear, Sultan began photographing the participants in a local swimming class for blind people. He abandoned the series soon afterwards and began working on more conceptual projects alongside Mike Mandel, whom he had met at art school in San Francisco. In 1977, the pair published Evidence, an enigmatic book of monochrome found photographs from various American technological and research institutions that is now considered a landmark of conceptual photography. It was both the apex and end point of their creative partnership.

People swimming backwards underneath the water
Untitled, from the series Swimmers, 1978-82. Photograph: courtesy of Larry Sultan/Mack

In 1978, inspired by a Red Cross swimming and life-saving manual, Sultan once again began photographing people in the San Francisco area learning to swim. For the following four years, using a small underwater camera and a snorkel, he shot regularly at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the Richmond Plunge and the Recreation Center for the Disabled. Throughout, what he called “the groundlessness of the experience” of swimming in the deep end remained an issue for him and for many of his subjects. It also determined his approach. “I knew I had to get underneath the water to photograph this lack of support, lack of control,” he said, describing how, by doing so, he became a participant in the very experience he was photographing.

People sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool
Untitled, from the series Swimmers, 1978-82. Photograph: courtesy of Larry Sultan/Mack

The resulting images, titled Swimmers, evoke the sometimes balletic, sometimes ungainly, sometimes sensual dance of submerged bodies in motion: floating, flailing, sinking and resurfacing. The water itself is the defining element, altering his photographic perception and subverting any attempt at capturing the decisive moment. Submerged bodies often appear elongated or distorted, the play of light on water dappling limbs and torsos, sometimes rendering his fellow swimmers translucent, even ghostlike. Here and there, bodies fall though water or are kept afloat with the help of instructors. He later described his time at the Recreation Center as “the most profound experience”.

An arm and a cherub-like face in the water
Untitled, from Swimmers, 1978-82. Photograph: courtesy of Larry Sultan/Mack

Sultan found the physicality of photographing bodies partially or totally submerged in water as unsettling as it was liberating, and his own fear is a constant subliminal presence in the images. Formally, too, it was risky, not least because it meant abandoning the more cerebrally driven approach that had characterised the projects he had undertaken with Mandel. Perhaps for this reason, the series seems like a brief, but heady, interruption of his usual practice, neither as conceptually playful as the work that preceded it, nor as formally rigorous as the work that followed it.

A person crouching at the end of a swimming pool, seen from the other end
Untitled, from the series Swimmers, 1978-82. Photograph: courtesy of Larry Sultan/Mack

Larry Sultan died in December 2009, aged 63, by which time he had reinvented himself once again through meticulously choreographed series such as Pictures From Home, in which he photographed his ageing parents in their sumptuous suburban house in the San Fernando valley, and The Valley, which featured middle-class homes there that had been rented out as sets for porn films.

Painterly and impressionistic, filled with movement and gesture, Swimmers is Larry Sultan’s most instinctive and unselfconscious body of work. A creatively liberating moment that reveals as much, if not more, about the person behind the lens as those in front of it.


Sean O’Hagan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Another side of Amy Winehouse: intimate photographs by her friend Blake Wood
Blake Wood’s previously unseen photographs reveal a natural, more carefree side to the troubled singer

Tim Lewis

30, Jun, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
The Riverbed exhibition: photographs of a secret Spanish mountain commune
Photographer Ben Murphy looks back on his 10-year study of a community of British punks, hippies and nomads living in Andalucía

Tom Seymour

19, Mar, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
The car’s the scar: photographs of US veterans’ interior lives
ML Casteel’s images of the clutter in ex-servicemen’s vehicles offer a powerful metaphor for the enduring psychological impact of warfare

Sean O'Hagan

10, Mar, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX – California dreamin’ in the 21st century
The photographer’s new work exploits the golden state’s unique light to create his mysterious images of people and place

Sean O'Hagan, captions by Gregory Halpern

15, Oct, 2016 @4:30 PM

Article image
Days of la dolce vita: Claude Nori’s images of Italians on holiday
The French-Italian photographer captures people soaking in the sensuality of Mediterranean beaches

Kim Willsher

18, Aug, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
‘Something magical happens’: the cameras helping refugee children to heal
We talk to the person behind an extraordinary project in Turkey, where children, most of them refugees, have been given old analogue cameras and taught the art of photography

Sean O’Hagan

19, Sep, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
‘I see them as cautionary tales’: Kristine Potter’s darkly imagined American south
Inspired by the American murder ballad the photographer captures a strangely familiar psychogeography

Sean O’Hagan

23, Jul, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
In the trees with 90s ecowarriors: Olivia Laing on Janine Wiedel’s protest photos
The bestselling author, who joined the protest camp documented in the photographer’s new book, argues its spirit is more vital than ever

Olivia Laing

13, Aug, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Stonewall at 50: stories from a gay rights revolution
In June 1969, in the violent wake of a police raid on a New York bar, Stonewall was born – a defining moment remembered here by those who protested

Kate Kellaway

06, Apr, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
An ode to a schizophrenic sibling: Louis Quail’s moving portraits of his brother
A new book of photographs ​challenges the stigma around mental health and captures the light and shade in the lives of Quail’s brother Justin ​a​nd his girlfriend, Jackie

Sean O'Hagan

15, Jul, 2018 @7:00 AM