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Kathryn Gordon Bernstein photography exhibition

Part of two photography exhibitions - 6 April to 4 May

The Long Street Baths

Cape-based photographer Kathryn Gordon Bernstein finds solace in an old childhood haunt.

“This is a personal journey steeped in nostalgia yet relevant today. I was an asthmatic child and my father didn’t believe in coddling me, as was the fashion in the 60’s. Instead, he took me swimming. Swimming became a critical part of my life and a deep love for public swimming and tidal pools began as far back as I can remember. It started at the Pavilion Swimming Pool in Sea Point, Cape Town, where I grew up. After swimming lengths in the salty water, my biggest treat was to then go to the tidal pool just down the road at Saunders Rocks Beach where we would meet my father’s cronies and I would listen to their stories and paddle around in the cold water.

I soon began school and continued swimming, now at the Camps Bay Public Pool. It was around this time that I discovered the mystical Long Street Baths in an historic building dating back to 1908, tucked away at the top of Long Street. I wasn’t a competitive swimmer but the water, the light and the patterns on the mosaics captivated me.

The building houses a heated swimming pool, a sauna, a hot room and a steam room that alternate days between male and female bathers. The unassuming entrance can easily be missed and doesn’t give a hint of the magic that lies beyond its portals. Once you pass through the original wrought iron turnstiles you find yourself in a deeply serene space. Even with the sounds of children learning to swim and adults methodically training, stroke after stroke, everything feels muted and peaceful.

The Baths were originally known as “the slipper baths” - there were many blocks of flats in the area at the time and they had no washing facilities for the residents. Each morning, people would trudge over to the Baths in their slippers to have a shower, hence the name “the slipper baths”.

Standing on the granite steps today, one sees a church across the road, a mosque further down and the Gardens Synagogue in walking distance. Throw in the McDonald's, Mount Nelson Hotel and sex emporia for good measure, and you have a vivid picture of the merging of Cape Town cultures.

The interior is like a cathedral that comes alive as people pass through it all day. Up until 1986 the complex was proclaimed a whites-only area but now it’s a melting pot of different races, cultures, ages and professions. The early mornings are quiet and placid, with the glass-like pool reflecting the natural light. Later the regular patrons arrive: Jewish and Muslim men, talking about the olden days give way to children from affluent areas and from the townships, swimming together, their laughter reverberating from the high ceiling.”

Sitting on a bench at the end of a day, I watched the swimmers leave the pool as a life guard blew the whistle. The laughter of the children was a sound of joy which quickly subsided as the last stragglers reluctantly climbed out of the pool. I noticed a young boy wrapped in a towel as his mom hugged him, handing an inhaler to him. He took two deep puffs as he ran into the changing room.

I’m sure he will outgrow is asthma as I have. I think of my dad as I do every day, thanking him for his unconditional love. His persistence paid off in so many ways. I remember the first camera he bought me and over the years saving all the old National Geographic magazines for me from the weekly charity book stall that he ran. He was a man among men who devoted his life charity, helping others without wanting praise or publicity for himself. I thank him for the love of photography and swimming he passed on to me.

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Posted: 2019/04/06 (09:05:00 AM)


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