Francine Fleischer: Bodies in Rest and Motion

Francine Fleischer, holding one of the 60 photographs she took of ARF’s rescue dogs, is flanked by two images from her series “Swim: The Water in Between,” taken in an underground pool in Mexico. Mark Segal

When the photographer Francine Fleischer was touring the Mayan ruins in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with her husband and daughter in 2010, their guide suggested bringing bathing suits because the tour would stop at a swimming hole. Eight years and four visits later, it’s fair to say it changed her professional life. 

The swimming hole is a cenote, one of many underground pools in the region that can be accessed by caves. “We were going to go swimming, and as soon as I looked down at this particular one, there were all these beautiful little bodies floating around,” Ms. Fleischer recalled. “They looked like minnows, and I just started taking pictures.”

Although she did not know it initially, that particular cenote, now a regular stop for tour buses, had been used by the Mayans for human sacrifices, and some locals refuse to swim there because they believe it is haunted.

“I’m interested in the human subject and bodies in water, so the information about the site’s history isn’t important to me. Every day the light is different and it’s a new cast of characters. I approach it a lot like street photography. I just hang out and wait for something of interest. It could be the choreography of the bodies, the position of the figures, or the colors.”

Most of Ms. Fleischer’s photographs were taken from 100 feet above the water. There is considerable variation among the hundreds of images she has taken at the site. During the first visit there were more lone bodies, and clusters of hanging vines that created a graphic element. On subsequent trips there were more bodies—and more tattoos. 

“When I’d go early in the morning, there would just be one or two people. But I started to like when a busload would come. I find the chaos more interesting, more dynamic. Another thing about the series is that everybody is in a bathing suit. They’re very vulnerable, but they’re happy vulnerable.” 

Many of the compositions have an abstract quality. While the water distorts some of the figures, others have the blunt reality of ordinary bodies. The painterliness of the images becomes more apparent when they are enlarged.

Pictures from the series, which is titled “Swim: The Water in Between,” have been shown in galleries, online, and in magazines, and a monograph of the swimmers will be published in 2019. 

Ms. Fleischer grew up in Queens in a family that encouraged an interest in the arts. Her mother was a piano and language teacher, and her father was a psychologist who drew and sculpted in his spare time. 

Her road to visual art passed through ballet, which she started when she was 6, and continued with studies at the School of American Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. Spinal surgery ended her dance career. She spent a month in the hospital, where she celebrated her 15th birthday, and was in a body cast for a year.

“They had the most amazing volunteers at the hospital, and there was this guy who would come with a camera and teach photography. So I took pictures from the hospital bed.” After being home-schooled for a year, she attended the High School of Art and Design, “and that saved my life.”

She majored in painting there, then in 1977 entered the State University at Purchase, where she dabbled in painting and sculpture before finding her way to photography. “By the time I left, photography was my major, but having that background in painting really informed my photographs.”

In order to make a living after college, she began to assist fashion photographers, which led to world travel during the 1980s and acquaintance with a broad range of people, techniques, and genres. “By 1989 I felt I had learned all I was going to learn from working for other photographers, and then somebody told me about an opening in Annie Liebovitz’s studio. I learned so much from her, and I never worked harder in my life.”

After a year she again felt ready to go out on her own, but the noted Swiss photographer Michel Comte offered her a monthlong job in Paris because she spoke French. “I thought, okay, I can’t turn down a trip to Paris. That lasted four years, and it was such a wild ride.”

She finally went out on her own in 1994. Her commercial work includes advertising, but most of it has been editorial — portraiture, lifestyle, and fashion. House & Garden hired her to photograph houses. “I didn’t have a background doing interiors, so I approached them like portraiture, and it seemed to work.” To this day she alternates commercial work with her personal projects.

She met her husband, Mark Webber, who is a sculptor, while both were at SUNY Purchase, but they didn’t date until 1983, when they met again at an art opening. They just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, and they have a daughter, Madeleine, who is 23.

When they had to sell their loft in SoHo, they found a place in Park Slope. After circling for 45 minutes in search of a parking spot, “Mark turned to me and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. 

I’m done with the city.’ ” In 2000 they bought a house in Sag Harbor with a darkroom in the basement and a separate woodworking shop.

Among her other series is “As Above So Below,” photographs of swans she observed swimming in the dark waters of the Vitava River in Prague. Shot from above on the Charles Bridge, their perspective and compositions suggest water ballet and provide an interesting counterpoint to the cenote images. 

Another series, “Light Frost,” captures stark winter landscapes. “The idea is to go out right after a snowstorm, before the sun comes out, because I want the light to be really flat, ominous.” In certain of the images, tufts of vegetation peek through the snow, some of them “looking like nonspecific body parts. I started seeking out those referential things.”

Her most recent project is a series of photographs of rescue animals from 

the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons. She was approached by Amy Sullivan, an ARF board member, about ARFRESCUELOVE, an initiative conceived with Neil Kraft, a well-known advertising executive and an ARF adopter. 

The ARF conference room was transformed into a makeshift photo studio where Ms. Fleischer photographed 60 animals, most of them dogs. ARF handlers positioned behind her helped draw the animals’ attention to the camera.

“The dogs didn’t know me, they don’t really know anybody because they’re shelter dogs.” Nonetheless, the portraits are powerful in the way they seem to capture each animal’s unique and expressive personality. 

While the project was originally conceived exclusively for social media, Alejandro Saralegui, the executive director of the Madoo Conservancy, offered that venue’s summer studio for an exhibition of the photographs, which were on view there last month.

Francine Fleischer’s experience as a portrait photographer informed her images of the ARF rescue dogs, each of which seems to have a distinctive personality.
While many of her pool photographs are packed with bodies, in others the few swimmers and hanging vines add a graphic quality to the ominous water.