Men in Pools

Nonfiction / Jo-Anne Berelowitz

:: Men in Pools ::

I was going to sneak the photo out of my mother’s album, but when I saw her watching me, I photographed it with my iPhone and replaced it under the clear plastic sheet. I tried to align it on the page, but the gluey bond had long ago worn off so it lay there, unmoored, cattywampus. When I returned home an hour later, I printed a black and white copy on my laser printer. I’m not sure why I keep looking at it, but I can’t put it down or turn my eyes away.

The photo shows my father alone at the shallow end of the pool at the house on Inness Road, the last house we occupied as a family before we shook the dust of South Africa off our feet and scattered. Only my father’s head and upper torso are visible. His arms below the elbows are submerged—probably crossed, judging by the waist-high ripple in front of his chest.

I’m guessing my then-fourteen-year-old brother, Roy, shot the image with his new wide-angle lens, a recent gift from my parents. Lying on his belly at the far (bougainvillea) side of the pool for a worm’s eye view, Roy filled the lower half of the frame with water, clicked, and froze the moment.

It was, (again, I’m guessing), an unremarkable moment for my father and brother, another ordinary sunny carefree day in my subtropical hometown, Durban, on the eastern seaboard of South Africa. Certainly Roy possessed only rudimentary skills with a camera, yet it seems to me that he captured something important, something there in the photo that I’m struggling to grasp but don’t yet have. Surely if I look deeply enough, I’ll understand?

What had made me want the image, want it so badly that I’d considered stealing it, was not the emotional charge I feel now at my desk in San Diego, peering through the image’s grey-scaled fuzziness, as though by intensifying my focus I might better penetrate the surface and enter a moment frozen forty years ago. No, something more cerebral, something less personal had gripped me. Or so it had seemed when, mildly bored, I had flipped through my mother’s album and come upon the photograph.

As an art historian who has taught Pop art more semesters than I care to count, I was struck by the photo’s compositional similarity to David Hockney’s 1966 Portrait of Nick Wilder. I’ve always felt a kinship with that painting—perhaps because, like Hockney, I came to California when I was twenty-seven and felt at once its chimerical allure, its differentness from everything I’d ever known.

Both photo and painting show a man within the curvilinear embrace of the far end of a pool, with only his head and upper torso visible, his house behind him. And in both the water flows our way.

I searched online for Hockney’s painting, printed a copy, and placed it beside the image of my father, their congruities more evident in black and white. The dimensions were as like to one another as I could get them: the photograph, 3” x 2,” the painting 2 ½” x 2 ½.” I glued them side by side on a sheet of paper and stared at them, willing them to speak to one another and to me, and to surrender the mystery of their doubleness. A long-forgotten snapshot by a boy beside a canonical monument of Modernism by an art-world genius.

Beneath their superficial similarities the moods are different. In Hockney’s painting, the mood is idyllic—we’re looking at the California Dreamin’ good life. Not just looking, but experiencing, for Hockney gives us enough of the pool’s oval arc that we feel compelled to fill in the rest: I imagine I’m in the pool with Wilder (a contemporary art dealer who was Hockney’s friend and neighbor), floating lazily on an inflatable mattress, the dry California sun warming my back in a moment of stilled perfection.

The images differ, too, in their depiction of space. The photograph obeys the rules of perspective, as photographs like this tend to do, but Hockney’s painting lacks depth: Wilder’s house is at one with the picture plane, a savvy acknowledgement of post-war guru Clement Greenberg’s insistence that painting honor its limitation as pigment on a flat canvas. Even Hockney’s choice of medium—acrylic—adds to the sense of surface impenetrability in its refusal of subtle tonal changes. And it’s a stretch to call this a “portrait” (though Hockney does), for Wilder’s face is blank, lacking the psychological depth that five hundred years of portraiture have led us to expect in something that bears the word “portrait” in its title. His mouth is closed, his eyes vacant—characteristics consonant with the carefully contrived, all-on-the-surface affectless affect of Pop.

In the photograph my father’s mouth is a dark hole—is he shouting? laughing? gasping? —and his eyes are wide, perhaps in surprise. He’s at dead center: lord of his manor, the patriarch in his pool. Is that what his look of surprise is about—a sudden realization, one balmy weekend in 1974, that he no longer fit his own self-mocking, self-descriptions: “I’m just a small town boy from the country,” and “I’m a simple man with simple tastes, simple pleasures”?

For him to be in the pool as I see him here, he would have come out of the house—probably with The Daily News tucked under his arm. I wonder what the headlines were that day. Was it: “Anneline Kriel, South African Model, Crowned Miss World in London”? or: “Japanese Government No Longer Grants Visas to South Africans”? or: “Government Passes Riotous Assemblies Act”? or, perhaps: “New Government Publications Act: More Stringent Censorship”?

He would have crossed the verandah, then the lawn, and walked down four steps into the shallow end, sucking in his breath at the sudden drop in temperature as his warm body entered the eighty-degree water, bracing relative to the sultry air. But that’s not how the image speaks to me. As I look and look, he seems, rather, to be emerging from the pool’s amniotic wateriness, gasping with surprise to find himself on such a fancy spread of property. His.

Behind my father and to the right, the sharp diagonal of the verandah’s roof defies the picture plane, punching back into deep space and drawing me in. I know those lines are not a pictorial device but a literal reality—a raking view of the roof—something verifiably there. And yet seeing it beside the Hockney I think of a key art-historical text: Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting of 1436, in which the great humanist writes that receding lines of linear perspective draw us, as though “through a transparent window,” into a scene (an “istoria”) that “will capture the eye of whatever learned or unlearned person is looking at it and will move his soul” to a higher, moral, or allegorical significance.

Why do I not find the mood in the photograph idyllic, this moment that I imagine as my father’s full-blown emergence into triumph? (Surely it should be?) Why do I not find the mood utopian and eternal, as I do Hockney’s?

What is here that moves my soul?

I’ll disavow nostalgia, at least that variant of nostalgia that yearns to restore the past.

What moves me, I think, is the future that spills out of the image and into my—our—present.

It was a happenstance shot that a fourteen-year-old boy, playing with his new wide-angle lens, took, one warm weekend in Durban, laying on his belly at the far side of a pool. And yet I can’t stop wanting to see—can’t stop seeing, with the prescience that hindsight affords—something deeper, something about the tide of events in South Africa that was about to burst through the constraining dam of apartheid and carry us all away—far away—into different lives.

Fig. 1


From the writer

:: Account ::

My essay is, in many ways, an account of how I came to write it.

I love Judith Kitchen’s work, particularly Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate (Coffee House Press, 2012). Like Kitchen, I have a rich archive of images, letters, and cards. These all speak to me, though there are huge lacunae in what they say, and I try to fill in the gaps via my writing.

Other influences include Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Harvard, 1997) and Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001). I treasure, too, the work of Bernard Cooper, Teju Cole, and Jo Ann Beard.

Having taught art history for as long as I have (two and a half decades), I have a huge data bank of images in my mind. These surface as I write and seem inseparable from my own history. It’s likely that as I continue to work on my memoir, images from art history will continue to float into my consciousness, making my personal history resonant with art historical references—as here, in this essay in The Account.

I aspire to write nonfiction that is lyrical and charged not only with personal stories but with history, for knowledge, as Donna Haraway writes, is always “situated.”

Themes that unfold in my memoir are: home (my search for it) and betrayal (largely by the South African government of its citizenry).


Jo-Anne Berelowitz is an art historian by training and profession, now writing a memoir about growing up in South Africa during the apartheid regime. She lives with her husband and two Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers in San Diego, where she’s a faculty member at a large public university. Though she has published extensively as an academic art historian, this is her first publication in a literary journal. She is currently enrolled in the MFA program in creative writing at Rainier Writing Workshop.