On Merewether Baths with Brydie Piaf

With its ancient sandstone cliffs and pristine azure waters, the Newcastle coastline is a photographer’s dream. Brydie Piaf is not only capturing the natural beauty of this place, but the stories of the people whose lives are intimately connected to it.

It is the combined interests of everyday human stories and the eternal beauty of the ocean that drives the work of Newcastle-based photographer Brydie Piaf. But it is not just the subject matter that makes her images special. Over the years, she says she has learned to let the environment and the people who spend time in it direct her, letting the truth of the image speak to her rather than forcing a preconceived idea upon it. By allowing the variables of weather, light, and chance encounters to be part of her process, she finds the inherent magic in the moment.

As a professional, Brydie is sought after for a range of commercial projects, but it’s clear that the alluring quality of the sea is a real passion. Whether her images show an oncoming storm or a body suspended in cool green water, you can see a desire to capture every mood, every colour, every feeling that occurs in this place that is somehow the same yet different every day.

Through her narrative projects, Brydie has shown particular interest in swimmers, both the physical movement and as the distinctive culture of swimming in Newcastle. I spoke with Brydie about where her connection to the ocean comes from, why her passion for it never wavers, and asked her to share some of the stories of the beachgoers she has met out there in the daybreak and twilight hours.

What are your earliest memories of the water?

My dad was a surfer and mum loved the beach, so my childhood was one of consistently sandy feet. Whether it was watching the waves at Dixon Park, playing with friends at Merewether Baths, or going on day trips to Port Stephens, those formative, early memories are a gentle entanglement of happy, salt-infused experiences. 

It’s now a signature theme of your work, one that you return to from different perspectives. When did you begin to photograph the sea?

Sunrise has always been a favourite time of day. Living on the east coast means watching the sun coming up over the water, so it happened quite naturally for me. While I’ve often taken pictures that might have incorporated the coastline, it’s really been in the last six years I started creating sea-related images in earnest. I started experimenting with my first underwater camera — an Olympus Tough — which is an incredibly versatile little beast for its compact size. More recently I have been using an underwater housing unit for my main camera, but for day-to-day use in the water, the little camera wins every time.

What are some of the challenges you’ve come up against in capturing a good shot?

I try and keep any pre-set ideas of what I would like to photograph to an absolute minimum, if at all. When I do have a shot list, it must be a flexible one. I find that it’s all about being patient, throwing time frames out the window. This method works for me, as a lot of my personal work is the product of long-term projects. The sea is a muse, but it’s ever-changing, which means that every day and every time slot is completely different. There are always different weather, surf, and light conditions, and these all present inherent challenges. I try and roll with them.

What attracts you to the beaches of Newcastle over any other?

The proximity of Newcastle’s fabulous beaches is surely hard to beat. We’re pretty lucky here, everything within a stone’s throw. Our ocean pools are special. I know that every coastal community has its dedicated salty regulars jumping into the water at different times, but Newcastle’s beaches are just quite uniquely glorious. Even on the busiest day, at the busiest time, it’s still not that busy, not really. And I just don’t think I’ll ever tire of looking out over the ocean here.

A Sunrise Swimmer

One of your projects, The Sunrise Swimmers, focuses on the swimmers of a very particular place, Merewether Baths. What makes this place and its visitors special?

Merewether Baths is one Newcastle’s two iconic ocean pools. Opening in 1935 as a depression-era economic boost, the pool remains a major feature of the coastline. It’s also where I spent a large chunk of my childhood and when I moved back with my own family, it felt a natural place to start reconnecting to the city. Initially, looking about, surrounded by all the different swimmers, the idea of a documentary project began to grow. Each weekend I would take my camera down to the pool before dawn, slowly getting to know both the saltwater community and the environment.

The Sunrise Swimmers of Merewether Baths

Who is this saltwater community and what did you discover about them through the project?

The Sunrise Swimmers is a collection of portraits, seascapes, and stories of the early morning swimmers of Merewether Baths. For this sea-loving community, swimming is a beautiful tonic, an elixir for a good life. Doing a long-term project like this allowed me to gently sink into the swimming community, settling back into an area that I hadn’t called home for a few decades. 

I found that if you turn up at the same place at the same time over a long period, you slowly get to know who the regulars are. Paying attention to the details surrounding you allows you to strike up a conversation and make a connection. Talking to these people and earning a level of trust was incredibly important to me. I didn’t want to just barrel in, take pictures, and leave. By spending that time, I was able to meet people like Steve and Sylvia who have been together for over 50 years and always kiss before starting their laps. Barbara, who swims with lipstick on. Hilary, a fabulous opera singer. And larrikin Lance who always makes me chuckle. Every person there has their own story and it was a privilege to be able to capture some of them. I now consider a lot of these people to be dear friends.

It was also through this project that I started regularly swimming laps throughout the year. Before then I couldn’t even swim 50 metres! I figured if a 90-year-old woman could drop into the water in the middle of winter at sunrise without flinching, then I should be able to as well. I wanted to be that brave person. Through the project, I met an entire community that in countless ways, encouraged me to be the person I wanted to be. A person that I perhaps, hadn’t quite had the courage yet to become.

A Sunrise Swimmer

What is your advice to someone wanting to embark on a similar photography project? How does one go about getting the best practical results?

Long-term photography projects are wonderful, giving you time to truly engage with a theme or subject, taking in all those delicious smaller, often overlooked details, delving deep. The only problem, in my case anyway, with these passion projects is the tendency to get distracted, either by other creative options or life in general. Project ideas come and go all the time, so you need to be strongly committed to stay on track, really knuckling down when thoughts begin to excitedly dance elsewhere. A deadline helps greatly. If there’s no deadline, even a self-imposed one, I do find it difficult to keep on task.

For someone that wanted to start out with a similar long-term personal project, I would say: just start. Turn up, talk to people, make connections. Regularly take pictures and see what evolves from that simple consistent process. Some people have clear cut ideas of how they want their project to pan out, and that may be a lot faster, more streamlined than my approach, but I do try to leave myself open to other ideas, new conversations, other possibilities for a project to twist, turn, and evolve.

Importantly too, I think if you start with a subject that you already love, you’re already halfway there.

Another similar project of yours, in that it focuses on Newcastle and the sea, is A Woman of Water. What was the idea behind this series?

A Woman of Water is a documentary project, exploring Newcastle’s contemporary women and their connectivity to water. This is a city that was built and continues to build its identity around the sea. I wanted to look deeper into that quality through its people. This project is a slow, long-term one, and through these conversations, other smaller projects have been created, branched off, such as my new work, which is called Take me to the water.

You also have an ongoing water-based series called Thalassotherapy, which is more elemental and less focused on people.

Thalassotherapy is all about textures, light play, and fun. The way the slightest shift can create a completely different visual effect. It’s less about working towards a completed project and more of an ongoing study of water as an element. For me, it’s a moving meditation of sorts, a regular mindfulness activity, a study of light and texture, and importantly, it’s a joy to do. A good proportion of the time, I’m just playing underwater, watching the way water moves, just taking it all in.

As someone so close to the water in both your professional and personal life, what does it mean to you now, at this moment?

Water continues to play a big part in my every day, whether it’s through my photography, my writing, or just the act of swimming. It’s a place for spending time with friends, exercising, and a place for quiet contemplation. Can there ever be enough ocean in your life?

With all that we know about the ongoing threats to our oceans, not to mention the damage already done, what is your outlook towards the future like?

We must do whatever we can to step up and protect what we have. I want my children to know and love this coastline, along with generations after them. Education, understanding, embracing a diversity of ideas, while continuing to support and encouraging people to do whatever they can within their ability. Our beautiful oceans need everyone standing up and being accountable. That’s our responsibility. We’re all custodians of these waters. 

Do you have a special spot or feature of our local coastline that you think gets overlooked?

While I certainly have my favourite go-to regular spots in Newcastle, I actually think most of Newcastle’s coastline is well utilised by our local community. With countless little nooks and places to access water, essentially anywhere east-facing is pretty darn special. With that being said, I do have a soft spot for Merewether Baths, Bar Beach, and the Bogey Hole. Here in Newcastle, we’re lucky enough not to have to choose just one favourite — we can have so many!

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Categorized as Seafolk
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.