Jessica Cantlin: Captured by the Sea

Published on 05/14/ 2022

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.
Sutro Baths 1896, Designer Unkown

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.

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.

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.

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.
Read the full essay in Jessica Cantlin's Captured by the Sea.