A conversation with the photographer who created the fine art of spa.
How did you get started in photography?
I was at a college acting workshop at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, when I came down with strep throat and couldn’t play my part, so the director gave me his Rollei camera to keep me involved. I loved it! At the annual luncheon with the painter, I talked to her about her husband’s (Alfred Stieglitz) photographs on the wall. She told me, “Go out into the desert and see what the spirits tell you.” The spirits assured me that I wanted to learn photography.
How long have you been shooting spas?
The first spa I photographed was in Mexico at San Jose Purua in 1976. I was in a breakup from my engagement and went to visit the great Mexican painter, Leonora Carrington in Mexico City. She told me that in Mexico people could have their spirits lifted by taking the mushrooms or waters. I chose the waters and made seminal self-portraits of my healing experience. After that I planned a trip to Japan, and brought back mineral-spring images that editors wanted to publish. Since American spas were then mostly “fat farms,” I headed to Europe to the famed spas — Italy’s Terme di Saturnia, Baden Baden, Germany, and Spa, Belgium — making art images that evoked the atmosphere, mood, and healing.
What do you aim to capture—or release—with your spa photography?
I want to explore the “body and mind” feelings that come through various treatments. I draw from the light, use of movement, blur, and any mysterious reflections, angles to show the mystical nuances in spa environments. I am intrigued by showing the sensation of water, and remain challenged by new locations created by architects, healers, and owners.
What’s your favorite spa to photograph?
I’ve photographed the evolution of all of the Toskana World spas in Germany (Bad Sulza, Bad Shandau, and Bad Orb) since 1994. Their main feature is Liquid Sound, which is based on colored lights, and underwater sound in pools. I was part of the team that helped define their brand and one of my photographs became their key visual identity and still is today 20 years later.
What is your first spa memory?
I was nervous about passing my Master’s exam at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication. I saw an ad in the newspaper for a spa retreat weekend at New Age Health Spa in Tuxedo, New York. The owners at the time, Elsa and Graham Graydon, put me on a juice fast to “cleanse away my fears.” The next day at dinner Elsa opened a trunk of costumes and we each picked one to act in that character during the meal. In that brief stay, I became relaxed.
What do you find so special/intriguing/interesting/alarming about photographing the spa experience?
I’ll start with alarming. I photographed the Spring Inside the Earth, opened once a year for inspection, in Spa, Belgium. The Chernobyl accident had just occurred, and the spa managers were worried the rain clouds from there would travel to them and contaminate the soil, which in turn would affect the purity of the springs.
The most interesting was Hippocrates Health Institute, West Palm Beach, Florida. It’s based on co-founder Ann Wigmore’s ideas around wheat grass that Brian and Anna Maria Clement furthered into a three-week learning and healing spa program. The new dining room has magnets built into the walls. Since guests frequent it three times a day, they can benefit from how magnets maintain vital energy flowing throughout a space.
The most special spa town is Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. The hot mineral water drinking is a kind of ceremony for restoring and enhancing health and digestion. Once a famous haunt of the European aristocracy, it stills provides ambiance as people stroll and fill a “spout cup” from grand fountains in the stone and marble colonnades. And the most intriguing? Medicoreha Spa, near Cologne, which was designed by architect, Ute Ruehrig and incorporates my photographs in mural size.
Anything else you’d like to add . . .
To make my signature images, I’ve learned how to navigate through the spa maze. At some of the springs, the water has potent minerals that freeze up lenses, and a few cameras broke down totally because of the moisture. So I carry plastic bags to protect them now. I have also learned to ask to stay at least few days to see the spa from the spa-goer’s perspective. This also gives me time to learn when the light is beautiful or plentiful, and arrange for staff or a model to get to know me to assist with a good relationship to enhance shooting plans. It’s important for spas managers to understand the value of providing the creative press or artist there an opportunity to reflect on the location and discover a route to provide meaningful and transcendent coverage.
Mary Bemis is Founder & Editorial Director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She is a pioneering spa journalist, most recently honored as one of the "Top 30 Influential Voices Transforming Wellness." She is an inaugural recipient of Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and was honored by ISPA with its distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She is a Global Wellness Day Advisor, and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.
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