FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 01 / MAR / 2021
WATER BABIES
A Book about Igor Tjarkovsky and his Method for Delivering and Training Children in Water
by Erik Sidenbladh
A&C Black: London, 1983
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen

The record sleeve for Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind, of a baby swimming underwater after a dollar bank note, has achieved iconic status. Posed in a Californian pool, Kirk Weddle’s photograph was apparently inspired by a documentary that the band’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, had watched about water births. Images of infants swimming underwater unassisted have long captivated: the cover and end papers of the 1983 book, Water Babies, feature very similar photographs.

Water Babies is ostensibly a study of the philosophies of Igor Tjarkovsky, a Russian experimental midwife who, since the 1960s, has sought to develop "a new kind of people, the children of the Ocean". Tjarkovsky, a one-time boat-builder and athletics coach, holds mystical ideas about the importance of water for healing but, as the book’s blurb notes, he has "created a sensation around the world with his photographs of swimming and diving babies". These photographs, as the first line of the first chapter attests, inspired Swedish journalist Erik Sidenbladh to visit Tjarkovsky at his Moscow research lab in the All-Union Scientific Institute for Physical Culture and produce the book.

The photos certainly have a strong draw. Throughout, babies are pictured sitting among fish in tanks, breastfeeding underwater or floating free in swimming pairs. Older children read illustrated books held against the transparent sides of pools. A culture of bravado, underpinned by ‘visionary’ ideas about children’s health and strength more broadly, depicts tiny children standing tall on Tjarkovsky’s outstretched hands or being tossed high into trees in performances of enormous risk as well as visual spectacle. Perhaps the most compelling images of all are the sequence of grainy colour stills taken from amateur films of water births; these zoom in on the concentrating faces of birthing mothers in the act of labour, culminating in a double-page spread of subaquatic delivery.

While the photographs feature children and mothers centrally, Tjarkovsky is also pictured regularly. A good-looking man with dark hair and eyes, he cuts a striking figure. His claims are similarly eye-catching. He outlines his belief in the healing power of water and his ambition to prolong "the uterine condition" and notes his own experiments in living underwater: "I spent a month in a shallow swimming pool, where I ate, slept and worked on a scientific thesis. I only left the water to go to the lavatory." Other portraits include photographs of Soviet ‘sensitives’ who worked alongside Tjarkovsky on parapsychological theories of ‘bio-energy’, the psychic field that Kirlian photography claims to capture. One such figure, Djuna Davitashvily, is photographed in monochrome in a transcendent pose with the palms of both hands held aloft, illustrating her trade in ‘feeling’ disease. The remaining photographs are of bathing kittens and other animals; Tjarkovsky-inspired experiments with dolphin-assisted childbirth continue to this day.

While the pain-relieving effects of water in labour are clinically proven and birthing pools are now available as part of general NHS care, Water Babies is far from a how-to book. For this we might be thankful. Tjarkovsky’s claims are wildly eccentric and sometimes deeply dangerous. The book offers a warm appraisal of the possible benefits of his propositions but the last word is given to sceptical Swedish physicians who note that his methods are unethical according to their guidelines. The gynaecologist notes the serious risk of brain damage if Tjarkovsky’s recommendations for the deprivation of oxygen in babies are followed.

The book, as a whole, then, is a source of both horror and fascination. It illustrates the early founding of birthing and baby-swim practices that have achieved near-orthodoxy in the succeeding decades but it also documents the wilder fringes of the human potential movement of the period. Sidenbladh’s text is rich in written images: a new-born swaddled in blankets is "like the Christ Child in fresco"; an underwater mother is "like a water goddess of ancient mythology". Water Babies’ message is powered by the otherworldly photographs of underwater children. The narrative might provide a sense of elemental ancient wisdom, with water the universal origin of life, but it is more recent political history that is most strongly visually evoked. The physical culture origins of Tjarkovsky’s ideas are figured in the heroic imagery of children as submerged Soviet super humans.

Other articles in the ‘Flea Market Photobooks’ series:

Other articles by Annebella Pollen: