Los Angeles-based director and photographer Judy Starkman has been a swimmer all of her life, a passion that helps her escape the high-pressure world of commercial directing and advertising. It was during one of her hour-long swims at the Culver City Plunge pool that she developed the idea for a unique public arts project now on display as large-scale banners along Culver Blvd. Those images, along with a video directed by Starkman, also live in a “virtual” gallery online at thesecretlifeofswimmers.com.
“The Secret Life of Swimmers” illuminates a story Starkman knows well--that every die-hard swimmer has a life outside the pool. And that swimming is the great equalizer. Each character in “The Secret Life” is seen in the regalia of his or her everyday life and, in an identical pose poolside, baring all. Or nearly all.
The banners feature such real-life characters as a UCLA English professor, a local chef, a truck driver, a firefighter, a young mother, a veterinarian, and a physical trainer who lost a leg in an accident. Like Judy, all are self-proclaimed lap-swimming “addicts” who have a found a special kinship and community at the Culver City Plunge.
“No one was afraid to pose for me, or to appear virtually life-size on street poles throughout the city,” says Starkman. “They are young and old. Some are in fantastic shape, but most are just regular people.”
Starkman says the idea came one day in the locker room, when a middle-aged woman, dressed in a business suit began getting herself ready for the water. “I watched as this obviously high-powered, buttoned-down person ‘transform’ herself in minutes into a swimmer just like all of us. There was such a striking difference in her appearance, I thought about her while I was swimming. I thought to myself, this is her secret life. It was literally then the idea popped in my head.”
The Director/Photographer envisioned the project as a series of diptych photographs, and began asking swimmers who caught her eye to pose. She would photograph them first at the pool, and then in their “other” environment--business, home, and so on.
“My first subject was Blake Allmendinger. All I knew was that he was a dedicated swimmer, with a meticulous stroke and a deep tan,” she says. “It turns out he is a professor of English at UCLA who specializes in the history of the American West.” Starkman photographed him in his skimpy Speedo bathing suit poolside, and then in his office where he is researching his next book, and where he feels comfortable wearing some of his western gear.
Word soon spread among the regulars at the pool, and soon Starkman was busy capturing the “secret” lives of many of her fellow swimmers.
“One of my subjects was Barry Shore, who by all accounts, is the “happiest” man at the pool,” she says. “Barry’s story is inspirational. A non-stop businessman and entrepreneur, Barry woke up one day -- years ago completely paralyzed. He had contracted Guillain Barre’ syndrome.”
Barry struggled through years of physical therapy, but never truly regained mobility until he began swimming at the Culver City Plunge. On the street, he makes his way using a walker. In the pool, he swims laps an astounding three hours each day. A devout Jew, Barry’s “secret” life, shows him at his orthodox synagogue in West Los Angeles. Normally not open to women, Starkman’s photo shoot was an adventure in itself.
“Barry was great,” she says. “The Rabbi was a little nervous.”
Starkman photographed Jason Christopher, another inspirational swimmer. Jason, a personal trainer, lost a leg in a traffic accident, and “hops” to the water’s edge to begin his swimming routine. Daniel Dobbs is a Culver City firefighter, who posed for Starkman in front of a wall of flames at his training academy. Nina Shorey is a tattooed wife and mother whose job is restoring antique flutes.
And so on...
Starkman first approached the City of Culver City more than a year ago to pitch the idea for a public arts display featuring her swimmers. The city responded positively, eager to promote the Culver City Plunge Pool as place of community in the hectic metropolitan area. Together they devised a plan. The street banners will be displayed along Culver Blvd. right in the heart of downtown, and then moved to Sepulveda Blvd where they will hang for twenty-four months.
“The Secret Life of Swimmers makes a significant contribution to Culver City’s Art in Public Places Program in that it focuses on a unique community of individuals who are passionate about swimming and it celebrates portraiture as a genre. This, combined with Judy’s artistic vision, unwavering enthusiasm, and connection to each subject, made for an incredibly rewarding experience while working with her to realize this portion of the project,” comments B. Christine Byers, Public Art & Historic Preservation Coordinator, City of Culver City.
“It is a rare pleasure to create a project based on personal passion,” concludes Starkman. “I love making photos, I love telling stories, I love swimming...and I love all of my “secret” swimmers.”
The streetlight pole banner and virtual gallery portion of The Secret Life of Swimmers concept was made possible with the support of the Culver City Cultural Affairs Commission, the Culver City Parks, Recreation & Community Services Commission, and the Culver City City Council.
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