Q & A with Linda Troeller
What started you on photographing spas?
My interest began shortly after I got my MFA. Leonora Carrington, a surrealist painter I was visiting in Mexico told me that my sadness over a relationship break-up could be improved if I either took mushrooms in Palenque or a water cure at Ixtapan Spa. She said no one needs to remain sad in Mexico. When I got off the bus in Ixtapan and asked for the "balnario" (Spanish term for ‘spa") I was directed to a local mineral spring. I bathed with the Indians who carefully cupped the water gushing from the spring in their hands and placed it on their heart. I did the same and my lethargy and emotional state improved. Before leaving, I ran into some Americans, who were up at the ‘spa' hotel. I had mistakenly gone to the place for the locals, but it was a gift to learn first hand about the sacredness of water from healers. I made some portraits and self-portraits of the experience in black and white. But it wasn't until the mid-80's that I decided to investigate the topic formally at Beppu Spa, Japan with a project on springs and spas in mind. I spent a few weeks taking the waters, learning how that culture copes with their health and committed there that it would be a long-term project.
How did your project unfold?
I got a grant from the NJ State Council on the Arts, magazine assignments, and sale of prints. I learned ways to deal with the struggles of life, too. When I was photographing at Hippocrates Health Institute, I attended classes and learned that I could improve my blood ph from an acid condition to alkaline healing one with wheat grass. This information has helped me work through a condition of Lyme Disease.
How is health care different in Europe?
In Europe a spa cure lasts a three week cycle providing time for the treatments to act on body, mind and soul. Days might include two hours of treatments, rest, walks in nature, and being removed from daily work pressures. Until recently when bills exploded, the country's health insurance paid. In America, spa treatments are mostly privately paid and focus on such alternative techniques such as acupuncture, massage, yoga, pilates and meditation.
I started to look for ways to harness "recuperation" and "renewal" in these spa shoots. I saw how the body becomes more open in water so the photographer can focus less on skin tone and muscle strength -- rather luminosity and mysterious shapes. The fluidity of water's essence seemed to provide some universal concepts of what a healing image might be. When I got the slides back and saw how color sequencing could enhance sensations of relaxation, I pushed my edits further to include more blur, color and atmosphere. The spa treatment rooms were often dark and unusual spaces, so I experimented with faster films and slower shutter speeds. I asked people to be human tripods in the pools to make portraits as it would have been too intimidating to bring my heavy tripod into their cure. When steam collected on my lens I started to befriend it as dutiful filter rather than a detriment.
Did you publish and show the photographs as you were finishing the project?
Rachel Rosenthal Lafo saw my photograph of "Jacuzzi, Calistoga, Ca." in Life Magazine, published by David Friend, who was an editor there at that time. She came to my studio and made a selection of spa images for one of the first shows presenting approaches taken by contemporary artists on healing. The show "Body and Soul," opened at the De Cordova Museum, in Boston, 1992. Her catalogue essay provided a formal concept for some of visual discoveries I was making at the spas. She wrote, "The personal autobiographical aspects of much healing art celebrates the individual experience and places the person on a par with the political." Her research into how to understand artists as healers is based on her construction of four categories of artists for this show:
1. Art intended to directly heal viewers
2. Art created by artists to facilitate their own healing
3. Art about aspects of the healing process
4. Artist-designed spaces
Vice President Gore awarded me a plaque for "Calistoga Hot Springs, Ca." when it won Pictures of the Year, Pictorial, 1992. Then my monograph, Healing Waters was published in French by Marval, Paris in 1997 and Aperture, in 1998. After the Healing Waters, French edition came out, Grazia Neri secured magazine coverage for it in Lo Specchio. Natalie Emprin, from Galerie Suzal Berna, Paris, at the time secured a series that ran in Homme, Paris for the project. Marcel Saba exhibited the photographs at Saba Gallery, NYC before the book was given the Book Award of Merit Pictures of the Year, 1999. Anne Tucker, Curator of Museum of Fine Arts Houston, purchased one for the museum after having had her own experience with water at Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe, at Fotofest auction in the mid-1990's.
How else did you communicate your ideas on healing images?
My style combined with spiritual, environmental and ethical subjects was not easy to disseminate in general interest magazines in the United States. To learn more how other photojournalists brought their work out, I studied photographers working on health issues like Salgado. That led me to evolve a course "Photography and Healing," using the Healing Waters, Aperture book, as textbook at Stockton College of NJ, 1999. I brought these refined ideas to a Senior Seminar at Parsons, NYC, 2001; and in my workshop "Links to Photography," Summer Academy of Art, Salzburg, 2000 and 2001. Klaus Boehm and Marion Schneider, owners of spas in Germany and collectors of art, helped me take my work to viewers directly through their commission of my Healing Waters images for the walls of their spa in Bad Sulza, Germany. Recently, they commissioned 33 large digital mural size photo-paintings of my archive from spas around the world for their new art spa, Liquidrom, Berlin.
What artists have influenced you on this project?
In the mid-70's I was one of the models at the Ansel Adam's Workshop "Nude in the Landscape" with photographers Eikoh Hosoe, Judy Dater, Jack Welpott, Robert Heineken and Lucien Clergue. Hosoe's shooting style energized and dominated the atmosphere of the scene. His work inspired me to envision my own body's ‘story' sitting for him. His book "Killed by Roses" experiments with a man's evolution. Sally Mann encouraged me to keep exploring the spas/springs to see the powers of her region's hot springs. Her photographs in the south are unforgettable, evocative images that awaken my senses.
What exhibition and publishing opportunities evolved?
"Aquaria," involved 50 artists on the theme of the water archetype with my Healing Waters photographs and opened with most of us attending and sharing ideas at the Landesgalerie Museum, Linz, Austria, and then we all traveled to Chemnitz, Germany. Healing Waters, Aperture book received the Book Award of Merit in 1999. These images have been published in numerous magazines from Life to Oprah Magazine.
What is your intention with this book?
powerHouseBooks and I chose to make this crossover book that draws from both my art photography and my photojournalism to focus attention on the importance of interest in spas today. In its present form it is a synthesis of lifestyle guidebook of particular spas with the addition of some fine art photographic representations of the experience of being there. I hope this book provides an opening for my other deep work on the body, water, pilgrimage, ritual and relationships in my particular style of people engaged in a unconventional treatments, therapies and journeys.
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