Find­ing a com­mu­nity in steam rooms, min­eral pools, and hot springs

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Ruth Ka­plan

Find­ing a com­mu­nity in steam rooms, min­eral pools, and hot springs

In 1990, while vis­it­ing a YMCA in Toronto, I came upon a row of women shav­ing their legs in the show­ers. The in­ti­macy of the scene sur­prised me— what I had con­sid­ered to be a pri­vate act was sud­denly com­mu­nal. “You can’t pho­to­graph that,” I thought. But the idea of cap­tur­ing the women’s ease and con­fi­dence stayed with me, and I soon em­barked on what be­came a twelve-year project, pho­tograph­ing peo­ple in pub­lic baths across North Amer­ica and Europe. My in­ten­tion was to cel­e­brate in­di­vid­ual bod­ies in all their bizarre speci­ficity. Join­ing and doc­u­ment­ing nude bathers was a way to free my­self and, I hope, peo­ple who see these pho­to­graphs from rigid, in­ter­nal­ized at­ti­tudes about body im­age—and a way to re­learn a ba­sic com­fort with the hu­man form.

My first trip for the project was in 1991, when I vis­ited Harbin Hot Springs, a re­treat in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia. At that time, bathers trusted me. None of us imag­ined pho­to­graphs be­ing shared in­stantly on so­cial me­dia, as they would likely be to­day. The at­mos­phere was invit­ing. I could spend hours with a sub­ject, get­ting to know them long be­fore ever reach­ing for my cam­era.

Over the next decade, I vis­ited cul­tures with more es­tab­lished bathing tra­di­tions— in Poland, the Czech Re­pub­lic, Slo­vakia, Hun­gary, Ro­ma­nia, Ger­many, Italy, Ice­land, and Morocco. In East­ern Europe, I was of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by a bath­house-ap­pointed su­per­vi­sor while I pho­tographed. But I was also re­minded of the demo­cratic as­pect of nu­dity; with­out any clothes, it was nearly im­pos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish be­tween so­cial classes.

Fif­teen years later, pri­vacy is more dif­fi­cult to find and even de­fine; any­one with a phone can take a pho­to­graph. Which is, per­haps, why the com­fort with which we all sat to­gether is what I re­mem­ber most clearly.

The book Bathers was pub­lished by Dami­ani in 2017.


Min­eral pool, Mar­ián­ské Lázně, Czech Re­pub­lic (1994)

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