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.