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Jessica Cantlin


© Jessica Cantlin, Byron Bay

Captured By The Sea (Diptychs)

When I was growing up in Seattle, my parents had a large poster of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths hanging in the hallway of our home. Sutro Baths was a fantastically large bathing facility built in 1894 on the shore of San Francisco Bay in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. At the time the largest indoor bathing facility in the world, the Baths introduced swimmers to a new era of bathing as recreation. The poster was a promotional tool depicting the architectural and recreational marvel, a massive glass complex with several bays, towering wood rafters, bleachers for spectators, and all sorts of diving boards, slides, and trapezes to encourage bathers to enjoy the water. Multiple times a day I would pass the poster in my house, and with a seemingly rubber neck, would memorize the swimmers’ faces, bathing costumes, and body language. How I wished that Sutro Baths still existed so that I could visit and swing from the rings dangling over the water. The Baths burned to the ground in 1966, so unfortunately, it was never meant to be, but my curiosity about people interacting with water has persisted and apparently embedded itself in my brain.

© Jessica Cantlin, Marseille Beach

Fast forward a few decades. I may no longer be the kid amused by the faces on the faded poster in the hallway of my family home, but I have become an artist who approaches her work with very much the same interest. I have never considered beach photography the hallmark of my work; it is the genre in my portfolio that I sell the least. However, after cleaning out my archives last summer, I realized that I have a very deep file of images of beach culture that I have amassed over the years but never given much credence to individually. The photographs are detailed, vibrant, and convey a timeless sense of joy that has always been associated with beach culture. As a collection they come together and represent my lingering fascination with people interacting with water, or as the title of this book conveys, people captured by the sea.


© Jessica Cantlin, Sorrento Summer 2

Research has shown a direct correlation between wellness and being near water; those who live near it are proven to be happier (it’s no mystery that the color blue is associated with a feeling of calmness and a sense of peace). However, if you can’t live on the shore or in a home with a view of the water, you can still achieve the mildly meditative effects of water with a trip to the beach. The rhythmic sound of the waves, coupled with the smell of salty air, and the feeling of sand on your feet is shown to de-stimulate the brain and promotes feelings of relaxation and decompression. Just the physical act of transporting oneself to the beach, let alone turning off the phone, and breathing in the air, is enough for the brain to enter a state of mindfulness that transcends the psyche and reduces stress.


© Jessica Cantlin, Sorrento Summer

Humans are naturally drawn to water, whether they realize its therapeutic effects or not. It should therefore come as no surprise that a complete subculture based on the beach and recreational bathing came to life around the time that the Sutro Baths were built. Beach culture is not defined by class or race or age, but is rooted in local customs, resources, and accessibility. A day in the sun by the sea draws on everyone and is unifying in its ritual, one that when placed under the microscope of a camera is very telling anthropologically. As I walk down the beach with my cameras, I try to meet my subjects at eye level; however, my presence isn’t always welcome, so I have learned to disappear and become part of the view. I watch people interact with the landscape and contemplate what brings them to the sea. I wonder what the water does for them. I ponder if they are local or foreign. Is this a meeting spot for friends or for family, or am I perhaps witnessing a daily routine? These stories aren’t written in the sand, so I am left to evaluate body language, interpret age-old tendencies, and record fleeting moments with my cameras based on my instincts. After all, the beach is what you make of it.

© Jessica Cantlin, Bodies by Polignano

The beach can be a wide spot on an island road next to the sea, where concrete rubble is piled up next to tattered, old umbrellas, and the only thing that matters is access to the water. The beach can be a place to escape the concrete jungle of cities where apartments are stacked on top of one another, and people live in close quarters. Such as it was in Rio de Janiero, where, on an average Thursday in September, the beach was packed with bodies, locals rejoicing in the salty ocean water, not a tourist in sight. The beach can also be a place of community where generations of families come together to reunite, swap stories, and lay their eyes on grandchildren who have been born during the darker months. Community comes to mind, a photograph that I made on the shore of a small beach club in Italy. Year to year, families occupy the same chairs and umbrellas, and are expected to be in attendance according to an invisible schedule dictated by the summer months. As the morning bleeds into the afternoon, groups gather naturally, standing close together in waist-high water. Octogenarian men in striped swim trunks talk business. Old ladies trade stories of families and children abroad. Mothers manage young ones and make plans for evening dinners. Teenagers preen like peacocks. Children splash and scream with delight. Or at least this is the narrative that I, as an observer, have formulated to explain what I am watching and why I am attracted to beach culture.

© Jessica Cantlin, Il Ciolo

While this book is by no means the first of beach photography to hit the shelves, I hope that its images summon a deeper curiosity about the connection between people and water. So many nuances of beach culture are wrapped up in tiny details that go unnoticed or unappreciated, much like the swimmers’ body language drawn into the poster of the Sutro Baths that I didn’t notice for years. The next time you head to the beach, allow yourself to pause momentarily; take note of what the sea does for you, and then turn around and check out what everyone else is up to. Turn down the imaginary volume in your brain and sit silently with the scene. There is so much more to beach culture than a row of colorful umbrellas. Look into the eyes of the people around you—I bet you will find that they too are captured by the sea.

This essay is from my book, Captured by the Sea, which was published by Daylight Books in 2022.

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