Jennette Williams: Beautiful Bathers

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’ve just discovered the work of Jennette Williams, who won the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. This prize is given to a photographer who has just published a first photography book, and the winner is selected by well-known photographer Mary Ellen Mark.

bathers in a Budapest bath-house

Williams won for a book called The Bathers, which is being published this week by Duke University Press. The photographs were taken in women’s bathhouses in Budapest and Istanbul. An extensive gallery of the Budapest photographs can be found here.

About her selection of this project, Mark says:

I asked Jennette about her process in taking these pictures—how she convinced these women to let her photograph them nude, how they came to trust her. First of all, of course, she was willing to be nude herself (though she often wore a vest or shorts with pockets to hold her film and light meter). Even so, many of the countries where she photographs are quite traditional, and it’s easy to imagine the difficulties she encountered in gaining these women’s confidence so that she could photograph among them freely. Jennette told me that she would shoot in the baths and then go back to her hotel room each night to process the film so that she could read the negatives. She would make prints back home and return to the baths with boxes of photographs to show and give to the women. When the women saw the photographs, they allowed her to continue to photograph them. I’m sure it was the beauty and dignity of her images as well as her approach that put them completely at ease in front of her camera.

Many of the photographs have the feeling of spontaneity that we see in the best documentary work. Jennette is both an excellent documentary photographer and a superb portraitist—a rare combination. Her photographs are also painterly. … Jennette’s lounging women not only revel in intimate feminine moments but in the camaraderie of women as well. They relax together, soaking in the steamy atmosphere. These hauntingly beautiful and iconic images of women are captured in extraordinary, magical spaces enhanced by wonderful light.

Williams says:

“What makes for beauty in women? How do we as a society perceive women as they age? 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 … 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.”

bathers in a Budapest bath-house

We love to see photographs of women who look like they’re living in their own bodies. We love to see nudes. We love to see photographs that are really good art. We especially love it when the photographer’s intent and attitudes match so closely with our own (especially Laurie’s, as the photographer).

Here’s a little more from her photographer’s note:

When I reflect on the photographs, these quiet moments of shared sensual experience, of community, seem punctuated by an element of outrageousness. The sight of women unabashedly at ease in displaying their bodies transformed by age, circumstance, and gravity is hardly commonplace. This only happens when women are living in rather than fighting against their bodies.

Williams is photographing these women with respect, with care, with admiration, and with a fine eye. The original platinum prints are certainly much more impressive than these reproductions. And these are lovely enough.

bathers in a Budapest bath-house

Thanks to men_in_full for the pointer.