The Foul and Fabulous Art of Potty Photography
Steve Gottlieb didn't always intend to take pictures of toilets. Before he became a photographer, Gottlieb was a corporate lawyer. Soon, though, photography called. The job runs in the family: Gottlieb's father is William P. Gottlieb, a photographer who made a name for himself with his "Golden Age of Jazz" series, which includes portraits of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, among others. The younger Gottlieb has published a series of photography books, including Washington: Portrait of a City, now in its third edition. His latest book is Flush, a photo book on bathrooms and outhouses around the country, which came out on March 15.
At first, bathrooms didn't seem like like a subject worth an entire book, but Gottlieb was quick to discover how everyone, no matter how sophisticated, has highly developed bathroom sensitivity. I chatted with the artist about Flush and the best bathrooms in the D.C. area.
What got you interested in photographing bathrooms?
I run a photography workshop, and for some reason I decided to put framed photographs of bathrooms… in the bathroom. People would come to my studio, use the restroom, and then remark how they thought the photographs were really cool. I started incorporating these photographs in presentations I’d make, and there’s always a strong reaction to them. During one presentation, I took a poll and asked whether this would be a good subject for a book, and everyone raised their hand. I couldn’t believe it!
How did you find the bathrooms to photograph?
I would mention I’m working on the book in my presentations, and without exception there’d be a few people who’d come up to me afterward with recommendations. They’d show a snapshot, then I’d call a place up and ask whether I could come by to shoot.
What’s the weirdest bathroom you found?
Two stand out, and both of these were suggested by people who knew I was working on the book. There is an artist in northwestern New Jersey who has created the single strangest house I’ve ever been in. Every single room in its house has its own unique style, and it feels like a museum. The bathroom has gigantic walls of tiles – it’s a very big room – and there are odd sculptures everywhere. The shower is in the middle of the room without any enclosure around it, and the shower head is amazing, too.
The other one that stands out is futuristic, almost like a space capsule. This is at Longwood Gardens, outside of Philadelphia. There’s a long hallway with 20 individual toilets; the bathroom is unisex. The only way I could photograph it was with two shots, which I later combined, because there’s this unbelievable glass in the ceiling (not quite a skylight). With these two in particular, you walk in and your heart skips a beat.
Was there any effort in your book to distinguish how bathroom design has evolved over time?
Going back to Roman times, people would often sit in a multi-hole room. Outhouses could have three [or] four holes in them. Now we take it as a given that when you sit on a toilet, you sit alone. People have a lot of cultural sensitivity when they use the bathroom nowadays, and that didn’t use to be the case. When you go to George Washington’s outhouse in Mount Vernon, it has three holes lined up. There’s no divider there, so you could be knee to knee while sitting next to someone. This could be with strangers, too: I photographed what’s called a “two-holer” at a train station in Delaware. If one was available, I’d presume someone would wait once they saw the person inside was the opposite gender. But who knows what could happen when people are desperate?
Has this project given you any insight into how bathrooms might look a generation from now?
Actually, there are major research institutes and universities who are competing for the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They want to develop a toilet that does not need water, plumbing, or electricity. It also has to look in such a way so that they’ll be culturally accepted in places that haven’t seen these things before. My sense is that there is really capable people who are about to crack the code so that more and more people around the world will use sanitary toilets. More people in the world have access to cell phones than toilets.
How has working on this book impacted your day-to-day life?
Prior to this book, I had almost zero conversation about toilets and toilet-related stuff. It’s not a subject I bring up, nor do other people. But once I started working on this project and I’d bring it up to strangers, it would engage them, since the bathroom is such a universal experience. It’s estimated we spend a year of our lives on the toilet.
I was going to say something far less sophisticated: Everybody poops.
I used that book as part of my research! So everyone has experiences and opinions that inform their idea of what makes a good bathroom. Sometimes a trip to the bathroom is an emergency, so these experiences and opinions can be funny. You never hear about a time someone had to make a run for the living room or kitchen. Once you open the door to talk about this topic, it unleashes a torrent of conversation.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my college roommate, who is a world-famous psychotherapist. He said to me, “You know, Steve, I think this is really stupid idea. No one is going to buy this book.” And then he gave me a 20-[minute] monologue about the book, proving that the subject engages people.
What are your plans now that the book is published?
I’m working on a sequel, except this time it’ll have a slightly different geographic slant. I want to look at famous bathrooms all over the world.
You’ll have to hit Japan, then. I have an aunt who just got back from there and she was telling me how the toilets make noise and spray water.
I have learned from my research that the Japanese are at the forefront of what a bathroom can be. If this book does well—fingers crossed—then maybe I’ll have the wherewithal to travel over there and see for myself.
You mentioned Mount Vernon earlier. Are there any other bathrooms in the D.C. area that you visited?
There’s a really fabulous old men’s room in the Library of Congress. It’s just gorgeous!
Where in the Library of Congress?
It’s on the floor immediately below the Great Hall. It’s a series of stand-up urinals, so it harkens back to an older tune. Also, the wooden doors are lovely and well-maintained. The National Building Museum has a really cool line-up of urinals (obviously, I favor men’s rooms over women’s rooms since my access is a little bit easier).
If I get a copy of this book, where should I keep it?
It’s perfect for the coffee table or the toilet tank. I actually designed the book so it’s 7.5 by 9 inches. Not everyone has a magazine rack, so I wanted it to fit perfectly on the tank.
Photos courtesy of Steve Gottlieb