Here, in New York, it is appropriately wintry and cold on this Christmas Eve, with snow still lining the streets, albeit browned and pounded into impenetrable, slippery cover. Personally, I've always skipped this particular holiday, but today I have this singular hankering to spend the day at a bath house, a winter time nostalgia for penetrating warmth sans clothing.
I find bath houses to be resolutely un-American institutions (the anti-Christmas?). In a previous piece on bath houses, I wrote:
"Where the public bath was a matter of scrubbing oneself clean, it has vanished. In the U.S. practically every home is equipped with private facilities for the upkeep of hygiene and water is subsidized by the government, telling us, in effect, that we should use plenty of it to make sure we keep that hygiene up. Public bathing is limited to the beaches of various bodies of water, well chlorinated pools, and people’s parents’ Jacuzzis. On the other hand, where public bathing served a role larger than hygiene, it persists. In New York, for example, public bath houses were a popular meeting place for gay men into the mid ‘80s, when the NY Supreme Court ruled it legitimate to close one such establishment (thereby setting a precedent) under the pretext of public safety, citing the rising numbers of AIDS cases. Elsewhere, notably Mexico City, such massage parlors and bath houses carry on as before. In the US, there is no widespread tradition of the public bath except in the context of cleaning, and when cleaning became affordable, bathing became private and public baths extinct. Not so for the Russians, Japanese, Finnish, etc, who have a long history of using the bath not only to wash but also to socialize and conduct business."
Jennette Williams traveled to bath houses in Europe and Turkey for her series called The Bathers. Her photos capture this social bathing that is practically non-existent in the US, with the exception of immigrant-run establishments in emigre enclaves, focusing especially on women bathing. Williams says of the project, "I began with what were simple intentions. I wanted to photograph without sentiment or objectification women daring enough to stand, without embarrassment or excuse, before my camera and I wanted my photographs to be beautiful. . . . I drew upon classical gestures and poses from Titian, Ingres, and Pre-Raphaelites (to name a few) and utilized the platinum printing process to assure a sense of timelessness, as if the older or 'normal' woman has always been a subject of the arts."
Though I'm not sure she's successful at avoiding sentiment (how could she have, after talking about herself, a middle-aged woman, executing the project and what it meant to her personally), she is successful at capturing the comfort, the ease and the beauty of these bathing women. Check out Daylight Magazine's slideshow of The Bathers. Williams won the Honickman First Book Prize in Photography for 2009 with this series.