Karin Rosenthal looked out the airplane window down onto the Greek island of Santorini. There, partially emerging from the water, was a woman’s nude form. She did a double take, and then she got it: from that height, the afternoon sunlight glowed on the edges of the island the same way it did on the bodies of nudes she’d photographed in that same sea.
“I realized the body and the land were one and the same,” recalls Rosenthal. It was 1979, and she had just spent a year on the islands of Crete and Lesbos on an alumna fellowship from Wellesley College. Though she’d been photographing nudes in water since 1975, she says, “The biggest breakthrough for me was that fellowship. I was able to fail for a couple of months until I finally stumbled on the way I wanted to work, and then it all fell into place.” The result was her Greek Nudes in Water series, which she expanded during two more visits in the summers of 1980 and 1981.
For over 40 years, the human figure in water has been the focus of Rosenthal’s work, which is largely black-and-white. It was water that inspired her to photograph nudes in the first place. In 1971, she and her friends began renting summer houses in the New England countryside. She swam so much in the lakes and ponds that she was dubbed “the mermaid.” She observes, “Warm, satiny water is very sensual. And swimming is a meditation. It’s also like being in a womb, touched all over by water.” When she wasn’t in the water, she was often sitting on docks gazing at reflections of reeds and grasses. “I could look at them forever. Still water calms me. I’m drawn to it in a way I can’t explain.”
The human figure in water has been the focus of Rosenthal’s work, which is largely black-and-white.
But when it came to photographing water, initially bathtubs interested her more. In self-portraits, she liked the way the twodimensional plane of the water cut through her three-dimensional form and reflected the bathroom window on its surface, fusing two different realities. At a summer rental in New Hampshire, in 1975, Rosenthal tried to capture that effect with one of her friends, but it didn’t work the way she envisioned. Another woman suggested the nearby lake and offered to model.
In the resulting black-and-white photo, “Flying-Floating Nude” (1977), the floating woman looked deathlike to Rosenthal — but, when she turned the image upside down, the figure “was flying, empowered.” She enjoyed the paradox of the same image having opposite meanings, one of life and the other of death. The equivalent visual density of flesh and water evoked the sense that water is the cauldron of all creation, with the body as the core of existence. “Since that photograph, the cycle of life, paradox and water as primordial soup have remained fundamental to my work. These themes keep returning with every series I shoot, but without my thinking about it.”
Rosenthal finds black-and-white intrinsically less literal and more abstract than color. She says, “Being direct has never been my intention with the nude. I’m not interested in the specifics of a person’s body, but rather the human concepts evoked in the photograph — the psychological, metaphysical and spiritual.” Independent gallerist and curator Nicky Akehurst, of Akehurst Creative Management, has represented Rosenthal’s work since the nineties. Akehurt says, “I think once you’ve been introduced to her work, you would recognize one of her images if you saw it out of context. She has a unique visual signature, something only a small proportion of photographers can claim. She has never allowed current influences or market forces to interfere with her vision.”
In her photos from the fellowship in Greece…