Francine Fleischer’s Swim: The Water in Between

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We believe in the power of affordable art, and we believe in helping artists sustain their careers. The full artist receives the full amount of the sale.

We are pleased to release July's print, "Swim #8229" from Francine Fleischer. Read more about Fleischer’s work below.

Purchase this print from our print sale page.

Francine Fleischer
Swim #8229
Archival pigment print
6 x 9 signed and numbered edition of 5

In her photographic series, Swim: The Water in Between, Francine Fleischer presents a surreal subterranean landscape, where bathers gather to swim in ancient cavernous springs, lit only by shafts of sunlight streaming down from above. These deep crystalline pools of water, called cenotes (pronounced say-NO-tay), are sinkholes formed by collapsed limestone caverns, most famously found in the Yucatán Peninsula. It was there, that on a 2010 family vacation, Fleischer looked down the precipice into that dark water, setting both her gaze and her camera. 

Fleischer first glimpsed these bathers, their bodies gliding aimlessly along the surface of the water, and knew immediately that she, “had work to do.” She spent the rest of that first afternoon photographing them in their various free-form configurations. She returned again and again, spending longer stretches of time at each visit. Fleischer realized that a wholly, “different cast of characters and new scenarios” emerged each time, offering a rich and dynamic mise-en-scène for constructing her imagery.

Swim #9214

These photographs gain their magic, in part, from the contradiction between the simplistic superficial reality of recreational swimmers on vacation, and something else altogether. That tension between what is real and what is imagined—or interpreted—is what maintains Fleischer’s interest and keeps both her, and us, continually intrigued. 

Swimming itself remains a solitary endeavor. Filled with symbolism, it is often viewed metaphorically. We simply try to “stay afloat” as we often find ourselves “in too deep, over our heads.” We “tread water;” we gingerly “test the waters,” or we boldly “take the plunge.”  Sometimes, we take the more difficult route and choose to “go against the tide.” And, ultimately, we either “sink or swim.” All those metaphors are evident in Fleischer’s images, of course, yet just as her title suggests, she reveals to us something more—a mysterious paradoxical space in between, an allegorical elsewhere. 

Several of the swimmers, seemingly oblivious to one another, float on their backs, eyes closed, legs outstretched, arms reaching outward in a T-shaped formation, their bodies echoing the Christian cross, and—by extension—the crucifixion. Paradoxically, this particular cenote, Fleischer points out, maintains a dark history of Mayan human sacrifice. They believed they could appease the Gods, communicate with them and with their ancestors, by sacrificing human life. The Mayans felt that the cenotes were the source for life, the water representing an entrance to another world.

Biblically, light and dark represent good and evil, and—less abstractly—those who believe in and accept a higher power, and those who do not. To reach that other world, one had to first negotiate that watery darkness.

Swim #9385

Like the Mayans, these 21st century swimmers must also make their way beneath the earth’s surface and dive into that darkness, before they can be bathed in light. This ancient cenote, formed 70 to 100 feet below the surface of the earth, washed in one singular haunting light, suggests an all-powerful God from above. These images evoke a goodness found only in the light and the promise of salvation in the form of baptism by water.

To view Fleischer’s images through this spiritual, allegorical lens allows us to appreciate the allusions to other works of art, including some of the shared elements in renaissance paintings and even in literature. The soul’s journey towards God in Dante’s Inferno, with Dante traversing the dark, nearly bottomless River Styx comes to mind. In keeping with that same theme, a look at Rodin’s Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante’s Inferno, leads us to see Fleischer’s images on a wholly different level.

Fleischer’s real talent, however, lies not solely in her ability to envision this landscape in a way that others might not have immediately recognized, but also in her astute compositional skills. Her images, conceived in-camera, are only minimally tweaked afterward. In Fleischer’s words, her approach is much like that of a street photographer. She simply watches and waits. When a story begins to unfold, or a visually interesting group of people, shapes or interactions emerge, and when the light shifts and wanes, Fleischer frames her scene perfectly in-camera and clicks the shutter. She exploits the vines that drop from far above, not dismissing them as an unwelcome intrusion, but rather, including them as an integral compositional element. These natural vines and ropes can be seen as intersecting lines, connectors, separators, and even as tethers.

Swim #8750

Viewing these images, our perspective perfectly aligns with Fleischer’s as we look down from that very same precipice. This high vantage point creates a kind of separation, echoing that of the swimmers, who, whether in groups or alone, appear disconnected from those around them. In some of the group images, swimmers often seem to be clambering towards some unseen and unknown endpoint. And while not necessarily Fleischer’s point or intention, the visual parallels between these images and those of modern refugees struggling in unfamiliar waters to reach foreign shores are hard to dismiss.

In Fleischer’s carefully composed images, she reveals a world that seems at once balletic and chaotic. The allegorical view suggests that these are two opposing and competing forces, always with and within us. Chaos, in religious terms, was seen as simply a formless matter before creation. In Greek mythology, Chaos was the first created being and the origin of everything that followed. The seeming chaos found in these images represents darkness, disorder, and formlessness, while the more elegant movements, aligned with the light, represent harmony, goodness, peace, and ultimate acceptance.

Fleischer offers us a window into this ancient watery dreamlike world, layered with allegorical stories and myth. These images transport us through time and alternate worlds, and they are—like all compelling art—continually open to interpretation.

This article first appeared in Issue 6.

Diana H. Bloomfield, a native North Carolinian, is a photographer, independent curator, and writer. She lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina.