Bathing Beauties

June 1, 2009

Repose: "Budapest, 2003," from Williams' The Bathers series. Jennette Williams

Jennette Williams, a fine-arts photography instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York, has been selected to receive the fourth Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. Williams' work, The Bathers, will be published in November by Duke University Press in association with CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies. The book will feature about fifty black-and-white photographs of women bathers in traditional Hungarian and Turkish bathhouses.

The prize, given every two years to an American photographer who has never published a book-length work, includes, in addition to the print run, a grant of $3,000. In November, an exhibit of photographs from the book will open in Perkins Library.

Award-winning documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark, known for her numerous books, exhibitions, and magazine features, judged this year's competition. Mark selected Williams' work from a group of twenty finalists, narrowed by a panel of photographers from 300 total entries, and has written the foreword to be included in The Bathers.

Williams is from New York, and in 1994 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."

In creating the work that would become The Bathers, Williams faced the likelihood of both cultural and interpersonal boundaries. She earned the trust of her subjects by developing her negatives each night and returning the next day with boxes of photographs to show and give to the women. "I wanted to photograph, without sentiment or objectification, women daring enough to stand, without embarrassment or excuse, before my camera," Williams says. She drew upon classical gestures and poses from Titian, Ingres, and the Pre-Raphaelites in composing her shots.

Mark also awarded honorable mentions to Jon Lowenstein of Chicago for his black-and-white images about the experiences of Mexican and Central American immigrants living in the United States, and to Lucian Read of New York for his color photographs of Marines fighting on the frontlines of the war in Iraq.