Apr/May 2012

Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945–1982

Albert Mobilio


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Herb Ritts, Richard Gere—Poolside (detail), 1982. Courtesy and the Herb Ritts Foundation, Los Angeles

SWIMMING POOLS. MOVIE STARS. The Clampetts found them when they moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. And they are what you find in this portable summer-between-covers collection of SoCal pool photos that feature the likes of Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe, assorted muscle boys, starlets, society dames, and just plain kids romping round the cement ponds. The shimmering aqua-blue parentheses in an otherwise bone-dry landscape are the locale’s most iconic domestic feature; what the stoop is to New York City, the poolside chaise lounge is to La La Land. If the stoop constitutes the border between home and street life, the backyard pool is the center of household intimacy. Given the bodily swagger and great swaths of skin on display, it’s not likely that the louche, seductive poses we see depicted are taken up by these same people in their bathtubs or beds. The pool is the Californian stage set, a theater-in-the-round for performing luxury and sensuality. And, as is always the case in filmland, the audience is paramount. In this case, they keenly delineate the singular nature of this privacy: Often perched on a hillside, the SoCal pool (in the photo of the famous Stahl Residence, featured in many movies, it hovers uncannily over miles of expanse) is flagrantly open to the surrounding mountains, desert, and cityscape. As such, these “backyard” retreats are taunts, inviting the overheated, thirsty masses to gawk from afar at cool waters and warm flesh. As viewers of these photos, we join the sweaty crowd. The presence of movie stars—their semiclad, behind-the-scenes lives revealed—heightens the effect: We’re in the inner sanctum where Liberace and a friend play tug-of-war, Olivia de Havilland prepares to spring from her diving board, and Richard Gere (see above) negotiates (I’m imagining) his payday for starring in American Gigolo. You might smell the chlorine, but you can’t get close enough to wet your toes. A status symbol denoting its owner’s wealth and hard work, the pool paradoxically presents a yearned-for spectacle of simplicity and pleasure—sun, water, and bodies recumbent or at play. An oasis, indeed. Or as Jed Clampett would put it, “Well, doggies!”

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