There’s something alluring and even a little mysterious about ballet dancers, gymnasts and synchronized swimmers. They look picture perfect, moving around gracefully with their dazzling smiles and glossy hair. But this impeccability also throws up questions, like what’s going on behind those serene masks?
Photographer Emma Hartvig is especially interested in what’s hidden underneath this perfection. Her new series, in which a group of synchronized swimmers swirl around in a Hollywood pool, she explores the tension that arises when people have to be in control all of the time.
“All my life I’ve been very interested in the idea of glamorous Hollywood stars or glamorous swimmers,” Emma says. “The whole Esther Williams thing. Or the Marilyn Monroe thing. You know this sad and tired look, but beautiful. I’m interested in bringing out that other side.”
And so Emma was delighted to get an offer to shoot LA-based swimming group Aqualillies. They rented a big house in Hollywood with a huge swimming pool and started shooting.
“Synchronized swimmers, the old-school ones, they’re very performative. It’s more about their red lips and being smiley, quirky and fun. I wanted to bring out the opposite of that,” Emma says.
“I’m very interested when you take something that is supposed to be very glamorous and add a slight weirdness to it. I told them in my emails – I don’t want you to wear make up, I want you to only wear white. I just want you to be very natural,” she says.
“It was the same whilst we were shooting – I had to tell them to not smile, and close their eyes and just float. I wanted it to be the opposite of what synchronized swimming usually is.”
And although the girls were quite surprised by Emma’s unusual approach, the resulting shots are gorgeous, as we see the swimmers serenely floating in formation, diving in sync or switching positions underwater.
Interestingly there’s a difference between the images taken above and below the water line. While the pictures taken from above show the swimmers in control, confidently showing off their skills, in the underwater shots you see them a little bit looser, as if momentarily stepping out of their performance.
“When we were above water, I was telling them you stand there and then you jump here. Underwater I didn’t direct them as much, I just let them swim around. So it was more constructed above,” Emma explains.
It turned out that shooting underwater was quite tricky too. “I had to wear goggles and nose protection. And then I had to have my assistant pressing down on me to hold me still. You float around quite a lot.”
So The Swimmers opened up a new way of working for Emma as well as for her models. Her previous photos are typically very stylized and still. But here, underwater, she breaks out of her tendency to plot every shoot in detail. Partly this is because it’s so hard to give directions while you’re wearing goggles, but it also shows how she’s growing as a photographer.
“I feel like I’m changing. In university you have to research, you have to have a clear idea, and you have to be able to explain every single detail, otherwise you don’t succeed. I think I’m letting go of what my teachers taught me and I’m just doing my thing instead,” Emma says. “The swimmers taught me that actually – to just go with the flow.”