I met Elaine and her mother as they were floating in the heated therapy pool of a neighborhood recreation center. I was drawn to their gestures, their faces, how their bathing caps carved a space out of the background. I was especially drawn to their relationship, how it showed itself in water, and how light, bent by that water, distorted those bodies in unexpected ways.
Elaine’s mother moved with slow, serene dignity, while Elaine floated and hovered nearby. They swam in the steaming water amongst a dozen others, wrapped in inner tubes, orange water wings, and blue sponge belts. They stood in the shallow end making slow, circular motions with tiny weights. Stretching against the sides of the pool, they were recovering from accidents and disabilities, or simply comforting their aging bones and muscles in the enveloping warmth.
Water is life, water is comfort, water is warm, and the womb. Water is elemental, in the power of river rapids, the gentle lapping of waves on a sandy shore, or a lake so placid it turns to silver in the sun. Even water heated past body temperature, in a small pool, in a building, in a city, contains elements of soothing, of birth, of warmth. It is feminine. It bends light and thus substance, and photography, a sister of both, makes Elaine and her mother appear and disappear, seem both beautiful and grotesque. Aged above the waterline, their faces show the ravages of time. Below the waterline, the light bends, makes magic, and denies time. Their aged bodies become ageless, shimmering illusions of their youth, save for a hand that reaches out of the water toward the lens.
I photographed them with little direction from me, with both a film and digital camera and one or two constantly fogging lenses. Their faces, the water, and the light directed me. I let some of the images go “soft”, their eyes closed, some just showing the pool and surroundings ( I could not photograph others in the pool, that was part of the agreement with the center). Finally, in the last image, I allowed the pool to seemingly disappear in the bright light coming in through a large window.
Photography is a personal way of addressing life, of showing someone else what you see and asking them: what do you see? what do you think? I saw two women in a pool, recorded it, and ask those questions. I am thankful that I asked, and was allowed to capture that swim. Elaine’s mother succumbed to Alzheimer's, and Elaine to cancer not long after I photographed them.