Back when photographer Alice Zoo was studying, one of her early assignments was to create a photo story that evoked the feeling of community. Alice headed to Hampstead Heath’s beloved ladies ponds, where women of all ages swim in the natural waters — whatever the weather.
“I’d swum in Hampstead in the summer and I knew the ladies pond was open through winter so I was curious to go there and see what I found,” she explains of the project’s beginnings. “I think the first day I went for a recce, without my camera, was actually the most beautiful of all: perfect mist and a thin sheet of autumn leaves on the water that had just recently come off of the trees.” This description of the ponds will resonate with anyone who has visited there, an idyllic landscape dotted with groups of women chatting, playing cards or eating picnics in warmer temperatures and of course, swimming. “The MA assignment passed in a couple weeks but I felt like the work had only just begun, so I carried on returning.”
Due to the colder of time of year Alice chose to shoot in, her approach “was highly limited by the situation,” she says. “As they had just emerged from sub-zero water, I didn’t feel I could ask them for a long and involved portrait session: I had a couple of frames at most, and their shivering meant they couldn’t stay still, which was tricky with a slow exposure due to the low dawn light,” she explains. “At first it was frustrating and I wasn’t very pleased with the images I was getting, but as time went on and I had a clearer idea of what I was looking for — rather than seeking to experiment — it got easier.”
Stillness is exactly what Alice has achieved in the series. Each portrait is fragile and focused replicating the exact freezing moment the swimmer has got out of the pond. This natural quality to the photographs is the result of Alice not having a fixed aim for the series, “other than to do justice to the beauty of the environment,” attained in Swimmers through the delicate coldness of both portraits and landscape shots.
“As I continued to return, I noticed certain things emerging that allowed the project to take shape,” Alice explains of the project’s process. “For example that characteristic bluish winter light, or a certain sense of breathlessness in the women getting out of the pond.” The photographer also took to the water herself for the project: “My own experience of swimming there — the intense clarity of mind that comes about while submerged in ice-cold water — definitely informed the eventual tone,” she explains.
Consequently, the project is personal to the photographer, conveyed in each singular image’s sentimentality. “The resulting images speak to an emotional experience as much as a physical or situational one, I hope.”
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