A collection of striking black and white stills, The Bathers is not just about the theme of bathers, but more importantly about the way women are portrayed and perceived. Winner of the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography, Jennette Williams states that her initial project was: “to photograph without sentiment and objectication (sic) women daring enough to stand before [her] camera.” The photos illustrate that there is no doubt that she has achieved her goal. Despite being a volume of photographs of the feminine body (all except one shot), this oeuvre compounds in one tome the exact opposite of what most modern-day mainstream media presents of the objectified female figure.
In William’s lauded collection of photos, the female forms are shown in all their plump softness, reflecting the reigning ambiance of the collection: a peaceful reflection that can be seen not only in the visages of the women represented but also in the muted colours of the platinum prints. In the faces of these Hungarian and Turkish women, we find the same gaze that existed in Auguste Renoir’s early twentieth century paintings of “his” bathing subjects. It is probably this mysterious contemplation that explains artists’ fascination for bathers as subjects: a dream-like placidity and sense of inner calm. The prominence of rolls, folds, dimples, body hair, bellies, and nipples is natural although sometimes veiled by the often-foggy images; William also manipulates light and shadow expertly; one can almost feel the cocooning humidity of the public baths.
The representation of this serenity contrasts with the modern stereotypical depiction of the female body, the Tyra Banks-coined squint–or “smizing”–and purely angular (sometimes skeletal) silhouettes that are so coveted by most of the globe’s population. There are few shots in Williams' collection that do not display flesh in a way that is completely foreign to North American media (birthplace of the Playboy Bunny!). These “Cosmo-type” bodies are rare in the book, and even so-called “imperfect” bodies such as the very controversial silhouette of “plus-sized” (U.S. size 12-14!) are few. Most of the women have strong rounded figures that stand out in the stark detailing of the photographs. You’ll remember twenty-year-old model Lizzie Miller’s charmingly rounded tummy from a recent issue of Glamour magazine, yet the magazine’s most recent issue still provides us with advice on how to dress ten pounds thinner.
This attractive volume is thought-provoking because it defies stereotypical gender norms and photo enthusiasts will also find it to be a very stunning collection of images.