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H20

This summer  John F.Kennedy, Jr. his wife, and sister-in-law were buried at sea. President Clinton permitted a US Navy warship to take the cremated remains to the site where Kennedy’s plane plunged in to the seas off Martha’s Vineyard. And thus, after five days of searching, during which a grieving public was besieged with television and newspaper images of an American icon, the three were returned to the watery grave that had claimed them.

Burials at sea are unusual, but not uncommon. Once, an ocean grave was only associated with those who died at sea. But in recent years the practice has turned commercial.  Companies have sprung up to service the growing desire from celebrities and members of the general public to have their remain scattered at sea - dust to dust and water to water.

What is it about water that so attracts us? Ever since humans crawled up out of it, salamander-like, to find legs on land, we have looked back longingly at it’s many mysteries and secret ways. The vast underwater life of the great oceans are still frontiers of largely uncharted territory, waiting for discovery and exploration in myth and reality.  The Titanic has been found, but much about the dark worlds thousands of feet beneath the surface remains unknown. Humans are 90% made of it, having the same percentage of salt in our bodies as the ocean has in it’s waters. We cannot survive without it, we love to swim in it, we love to look at it, and photographers love to photograph it. The shimmering, rippling waves on the smallest pool are a delight to the eye. And who has not paused transfixed, gazing from the shore of a shining sea, a rushing river, a calm lake, or lounged entranced in the steaming liquid of a hot bath. Water is everywhere and we are sustained.

Los Angeles is a city obsessed with water. Anyone not in school is at the beach. The city with the largest port in the world is a former desert transformed by the miracle of water brought down from the northern part of the state. The history of Los Angeles and water is a murky one, fraught with intrigue and thievery and disputed claims; but on a blazing hot day in July, lost on the freeway for over an hour since taking a wrong turn on the 405, all my companion and I can think about is having a nice cool glass of it. We’re looking for the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Bergamot Station, and relieved finally to find the Cloverfield Exit off of the 10.

The exhibit “Water, Water, Everywhere” is an eclectic mix of vintage and contemporary photographs all having something to do with (you guessed it) water. My personal favorite is Sally Gall’s 20” x 24” black and white print of “Evidence of Wind.” It features a big cumulus cloud filled sky over a wide ocean. One is captured by the big sky and the beautiful water, so it’s a heartbeat before noticing the dime-sized ship in the left lower corner, tiny bright white sails billowing in the wind. There is a sense of a heavenly eye looking down on the earth, man and his little ships just a tiny speck in the universe. That valiant, microscopic ship strains all it’s hardy sails to harness the energy of the world’s winds, and succeeds!

By comparison there is Keith Carter’s photograph of the confined world of two blurry goldfish trapped in the restrictive space of a small fishbowl. We feel for those fish and their little lives, swimming in circles in their globe, their home, the only ocean they will know. They swim and swim in waters that are the circumference of all their existence. We wonder how long can they survive in a bowl that is so small yet looms so large in Carter’s photograph. Are these fish a metaphor for the inhibiting spaces of our human lives, their bowl like the transparent, confining walls of our own psyches ?

In Arthur Leipzig’s photograph, swimmers of another sort leap like dancers off a tall embankment into the East River in New York. We can’t see how far they are jumping, but we have the sense that it is from a very high distance. The boys leap with abandon, one following the other in perfect order, captured in mid air. Their lovely boyish bodies are gazelles in flight, but their swim suits and haircuts, plus the date on the photograph tell us it is 1948, just after World War II. They appear to be teenagers, too young to have been soldiers. Maybe their father’s have just returned from overseas, or maybe some of their fathers have not returned at all. There are corner candy stores, and the overhead El, and neighborhoods where everybody is Black or Italian or Irish or Puerto Rican or Jewish. It’s a different time, and Leipzig has preserved a consummate moment of boys before they became men, when they were free to spend a sweltering afternoon diving in the river. Do boys still swim in the East River?  Given what we now know is in it,  I hope not.

Martine Franck’s photograph “Swimming Pool, Var, France, 1976” is of a young boy watching a sunbathing bikinied woman and a man doing Yoga exercises. The boy  leans on his elbow in a hammock that casts a shadow with his figure in the middle. It’s a spare modern image of a graceful, meticulously ordered environment with just the hint of water to connect it to the theme. We see the edge of a pool in the upper right hand corner. Another famous poolside image is by George Hoynigen-Huene, “Divers,Paris, 1930.” Two perfectly composed bathers, sit at the end of a diving board and gaze out over the water, their symmetrical bodies and turned heads forming a classic and much copied image of summer and the sea.

The fascination with water demonstrated in this show of work by a wide range of  photographers proved a happy summer respite on a sultry Los Angeles day. 

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