Ruth Kaplan: Bathing as a communal practice

Canadian photographer Ruth Kaplan’s latest book Bathers, has just been released. The project spanned over decades where Kaplan travelled to United States, Europe, Iceland and North Africa to visit communal baths and documented the moments where people open their private to public and shift between their conscious and subconscious. Here is our chat on communal bath practice and its rituals.

Interview by Yetkin Nural

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Bathers is a project with a significant past, stretching over decades and around the globe. Can you take us to the beginning and tell the story behind the idea of this project?
The first glimmer of the idea occurred when I was at the communal showers in the local, Toronto Y. It revealed a world of female bonding that wasn’t like any other social environment. I was interested in the privacy, intimacy, physicality, sense of ease and detachment. I didn’t get very far photographing there but that led to exploring the hot springs in California.

Did you visit communal baths in your childhood/teenage years? Do you remember your first communal bath experience?
I didn’t know of public bathing when I was a child or teenager in Montreal. It would have seemed very strange to me. My parents were Lithuanian and I later found out that my grandmother sometimes went to a spa in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Other than going to public swimming pools in Montreal, my first regular communal bath experience was at the Y (health club) in Toronto. I experienced nude bathing outdoors at a friend’s farm but that was not communal. It did have a big influence on me pursuing this project.

My first real initiation into public bathing was at Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional, co-gender bath retreat in northern California. So my first bath experience was the most extreme.

“A public bath can be a private place — there is an similitude to the way people experience their bodies when poised for release — as the water flows, the mind opens itself into pleasures, which are all at once self-induced and communal. This is a release that wards off the terrors of human density; it begins with the impulse to close your eyes and move into darkness as the body liquefies into comfort, listening to the creak of the pail as it flushes your head and body with cold water. Sitting in steam you absorb the shock as it allows singular liberties. A moan, an ache, dissipate within, as your body begins to merge and your head comes to a spin…”
Larry Fink – Bathers

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I am guessing that depending on the local culture and the establishment, the experience of the bath and shoots were also various… What were some of the differences for you in communal bathing across cultures and countries?
The biggest difference was the way in which I worked – my preferred method was to be a guest myself and approach other bathers as we shared the experience. In California I could work this way most of the time. In eastern Europe it wasn’t possible to enter the baths without the spa management organizing it.

So I was brought in as a slight authority figure with a white lab coat, presented by the management, not as a bather. In Morocco I worked with a guide who planned it ahead.

In terms of the bathers, their behavior and attitudes towards their bodies varied between cultures – for example, Californians saw the baths as an opportunity for New Age re-invention, whereas eastern Europeans walked around with a natural pride as players in an old ritual.

Did time changed things as well? From 80’s to 90’s and 00’s, did you observe any trends, changes or constants across decades?
Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, my Eastern European exploration began as I arrived in Františkovy Lázně. The final shoot was in Fes, Morocco, only months after September 11, 2001. Although this work isn’t political, these global events created an apprehensive atmosphere impacting the way people related to one another.

The major change was the introduction of personal email addresses, then internet and finally iphones with high resolution. These things changed everything. Aside from that people were becoming more cautious and that there was a push towards staging the shoots, which I didn’t want to do. The project ended for me at that point.

“Ruth Kaplan’s black-and-white photographs, taken in countries around the world over a span of twelve years, encompass birth and death, youth and frailty, suffering and sensuality, artifice and nature. Having shed their daily lives along with their jewelry and clothing to enter spaces that are grave, calm, doleful, introspective, luxurious or shabby, her bathers are caught in liminal moments. Water changes us.”
Marni Jackson – Bathers

In your observations, what are the things people tend to do in communal baths other than bathing?
Space out, talk with each other, play chess, meditate, float.

In Liquid Sound, Bad Sulza, Germany, there are sounds, including music, projected in the saltwater pool so when you bathe you are immersed in this audio sensation as well, a profound experience that removes you from familiar reality.

It would be horrible to see people on phones now but I supposed that’s what they do. Maybe the water keeps the phones away..

People use the baths as a way to liberate. One escapes the physical moment and one’s identity.

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Apart from being a personal homage to communal baths, Bathers also celebrates nudeness and nude photography. If we were to assume that there are various ways of being nude, what are your thoughts on the practice of being nude in a communal bath? Are there any kinds of attitudes or postures specific to baths?
It’s quite varied. The postures relate to the culture more than the bath ritual. So in California, there was a dress code to nudity – lots of tattoos, jewelry, piercings, bandanas..

In eastern Europe people had a slight grandeur to their walk, the architecture brought you into a living history and that became part of how participants behaved in the environments.

The baths became backdrops to social theater.

Communal bathing is a very common practice in Turkey also, with the local history of ‘‘hamam’’ dating back to Ottoman Empire times. Did you consider coming here for any shoots?
Yes! I wanted to but couldn’t make it (not yet), a budgetary limitation. I would love to.

Now that the book is coming out, what is next for you? Any projects that you have been working on the side or any ideas that were waiting on the shelf for their turn?
I have completed a project about religion that has been exhibited but I would like to show it more broadly. It includes black and white photographs about the spectacle of spiritual passion and videos showing a wide range of people talking about the nature of faith. As a non-believer it is meant to be a bridge towards understanding how one comes to various points of view regarding a subject that is often polarized.

I am currently working on a project about refugee shelters in border towns between Canada and the U.S.A. This project focuses on the slow passage of time for those waiting hearings while their lives are in limbo. It incorporates still photographs of objects and rooms as well as videos of window views, meals cooking, and other small data of the every day.

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