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The Bathers: Photographs by Jennette Williams

On display through December 13 at Perkins Library in the Special Collections Gallery

Jennette Williams, a fine arts photography instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, has been selected to receive the fourth Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography for her stunning platinum prints and color photographs of women at European and Turkish bath houses.

Celebrated photographer Mary Ellen Mark judged the competition and chose Williams for the prize because of her “original and beautifully rendered” photographs. “Jennette is both an excellent documentary photographer and a superb portraitist—a rare combination.”  Williams’s work was selected from three hundred entries in the fourth biennial First Book Prize competition.

Jennette Williams is from New York City, and in 1994 she began making photographs of women attending exercise classes at the “once elegant, now dilapidated, indoor pool” on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where she took her children for swimming lessons. Eventually, she expanded the scope of her project “to include new sites and their bathing rites and rituals, to broaden the age range of the subjects, and to photograph the aging body usually (safely) covered from view.”

“What makes for beauty in women? How do we as a society perceive women as they age?,” Williams writes of the bathers she portrays in these sublime and sensuous photographs. “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 drew upon classical gestures and poses from Titian, Ingres, and Pre-Raphaelites (to name a few) and 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.”

By alluding to gestures and poses found in iconic paintings of nude women, including tableaux of bathers by Paul Cézanne and Auguste Renoir, renderings of Venus by Giorgione and Titian, Dominique Ingres’s Odalisque and Slave, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and others, Williams sought to reflect the religious and mythological associations of water with birth and rebirth, comfort and healing, purification and blessing. She also used copies of the paintings to communicate with her Hungarian- and Turkish-speaking subjects—homemakers, factory workers, saleswomen, secretaries, managers, teachers, and students.

Working in steam-filled environments, Williams created quiet, dignified images that not only invoke canonical representations of female nudes but also early pictorial photography. At the same time, they raise contemporary questions about the gaze, the definition of documentary photography, and the representation and perception of beauty and femininity, particularly as they relate to the aging body. Above all else, her photos are sensuously evocative. They invite the viewer to feel the steam, hear the murmur of conversation, and to reflect on the allure of the female form.

Duke’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library (RBMSCL) acquired a selection of the exhibit photographs through the generosity of the Honickman Foundation established by Lynne Honickman.  Harold Honickman sits on the board of the Honickman Foundation and is a member of the Duke University Library Advisory Board. The gift of Jennette Williams’s photographs supports RBMSCL’s commitment to acquiring photographic collections that have artistic merit and that reflect the visionary purposes and documentary impulses of their creators.


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Posted 3 September 2009

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Last modified September 3, 2009 4:14:13 PM EDT