The Bathers

The Bathers

Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography

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Book Pages: 72 Illustrations: 44 photographs Published: December 2009

Author: Jennette Williams

Contributor: Mary Ellen Mark

Art and Visual Culture > Photography, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

Jennette Williams’s stunning platinum prints of women bathers in Budapest and Istanbul take us inside spaces intimate and public, austere and sensuous, filled with water, steam, tile, stone, ethereal sunlight, and earthly flesh. Over a period of eight years, Williams, who is based in New York City, traveled to Hungary and Turkey to photograph, without sentimentality or objectification, women daring enough to stand naked before her camera. Young and old, the women of The Bathers inhabit and display their bodies with comfort and ease—floating, showering, conversing, lost in reverie.

To create the images in The Bathers, Williams drew on gestures and poses found in iconic paintings of nude women, including tableaux of bathers by Paul Cézanne and Auguste Renoir, renderings of Venus by Giorgione and Titian, Dominique Ingres’s Odalisque and Slave, and Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. By alluding to these images and others, Williams sought to reflect the religious and mythological associations of water with birth and rebirth, comfort and healing, purification and blessing. She also used copies of the paintings to communicate with her Hungarian- and Turkish-speaking subjects—homemakers, factory workers, saleswomen, secretaries, managers, teachers, and students. Working in steam-filled environments, Williams created quiet, dignified images that evoke not only canonical representations of female nudes but also early pictorial photography. At the same time, they raise contemporary questions about the gaze, the definition of documentary photography, and the representation and perception of beauty and femininity, particularly as they relate to the aging body. Above all else, her photos are sensuously evocative. They invite the viewer to feel the steam, hear the murmur of conversation, and reflect on the allure of the female form.

A CDS Book
Published by Duke University Press and the Center for Documentary Photography


“In the digital age, seeing works like Jennette Williams's series The Bathers is a delight. The images depict women in bathhouses in Hungary and Turkey; the nude or mostly nude bodies belong to women of all sizes and shapes. Under Williams's lens they shine with true beauty. . . . The photographs of women in this book can be an inspiration to many: women who are accepting of and confident in their bodies, women eager to embrace female camaraderie, and photographers considering printing methods of the past. The book presents intimate, powerful images of women.” — Ilana Chlebowski, Afterimage

“Over a period of eight years, Williams photographed women bathers in the historic baths of Istanbul and Budapest. Her platinum prints are both sensual and ethereal, and if some of the scenes look familiar, it's because she alludes to classic images of women in paintings. Williams hopes to present a different way of viewing the female form, ‘women unabashedly at ease in displaying their bodies transformed by age, circumstance and gravity.’” — Shelf Awareness

“These platinum palladium photographs reveal a private world of shameless beauty, femininity and sensuality. Light and steam render the flesh of the female body in an elegant painterly manner. Soft tonality and luminescent highlights provide a dreamlike, almost otherworldly depiction of the dignified women bathers. Williams’ photographs possess both a documentary and portraiture mentality, causing the images to be informative as well as evocative.” — Tara Sellios, Boston Photography Focus

“These women, are, for the most part, round, naked, and utterly unselfconscious. The inner world of the bath house is dreamy and surreal, breasts floating, steam rising, curves emphasized. . . . The bathers look like a gathering of goddesses, behind the scenes, assessing the world outside, where their secret knowledge is hidden in the traditions of daylight. there is a profound strength in the exposed soft tissues. While there is no hint of sentimentality in these images, there are genuine moments of joy and play.” — Cassandra Goldwater, Women's Review of Books

“This attractive volume is thought-provoking because it defies stereotypical gender norms and photo enthusiasts will also find it to be a very stunning collection of images.” — Sophie M. Lavoie, Feminist Review blog

"The Bathers by Jennette Williams is visual comfort food. A lovely collection of black and white images taken by Williams of women in the communal baths of Budapest and Istanbul. . . . “ — Renée Jacobs, Photo-Eye

“Jennette Williams’s photographs of women bathing portray the female form, but they transcend simple representation to speak powerfully about women’s own private sense of identity and beauty. It doesn’t matter that these bodies are not conventionally ideal—when these women are in front of Jennette’s camera, they are proud to reveal their full femininity. . . Jennette is both an excellent documentary photographer and a superb portraitist, a rare combination. . . . As in Ingres’s The Turkish Bath, Jennette’s lounging women not only revel in intimate feminine moments but in the camaraderie of women as well. They relax together, soaking in the steamy atmosphere. These hauntingly beautiful and iconic images of women are captured in extraordinary, magical spaces enhanced by wonderful light.” — Mary Ellen Mark, from the foreword

“What makes for beauty in women? How do we as a society perceive women as they age? I began with what were simple intentions. I wanted to photograph without sentiment or objectification women daring enough to stand, without embarrassment or excuse, before my camera and I wanted my photographs to be beautiful. . . . I drew upon classical gestures and poses of Baroque and Neoclassical painters and utilized the platinum printing process to assure a sense of timelessness, as if the older or ‘normal’ woman has always been a subject of the arts.” — Jennette Willams


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Jennette Williams is a photography instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Williams has a master’s degree from Yale University and has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her work has been shown in exhibitions at the Bonni Benrubi, Robert Mann, and Opsis galleries in New York and the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. Her images have also been featured in such publications as Blind Spot and the New York Times Magazine, as well as in the book The Spirit of Family by Al and Tipper Gore. Based on her pictures of women bathers, Williams was chosen from three hundred entrants as the fourth winner of the biennial CDS/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography.

Mary Ellen Mark has received international acclaim for her many books and exhibitions as well as her editorial magazine work. Mark’s portrayals of Mother Teresa, Indian circuses, brothels in Bombay, and her award-winning essay on runaway children in Seattle have confirmed her place as one of America’s most significant and expressive documentary photographers. Her many honors include a Cornell Capa Award from the International Center of Photography, an Infinity Award for Journalism, a Guggenheim fellowship, the World Press Award for Outstanding Body of Work Throughout the Years; and the Matrix Award for Outstanding Woman in the field of Film/Photography.

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Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4623-4