Will van Overbeek's camera captures the eternal allure of Austin's favorite swimming hole


At the height of summer, even the tree-studded oasis of Austin can seem like the interior of an industrial blast furnace. The G-type star anchoring our big Texas sky bears down with all the intensity of Wal-Mart impacting a local economy, evaporating the moist, withering the vital, inciting melanoma among unscreened citizenry. One source of refuge from this onslaught, a source that's millennia older than the Homo sapiens who eventually invented air conditioning and the hissing of summer lawns, is the gem of liquid sapphire dazzling this city's violet crown: Barton Springs Pool.

The fourth largest system of natural springs in the state, Barton Springs was created by the same seismic event that brought us the Balcones Fault and who knows what potential for future cataclysm. The pool itself has been around, in almost its present, sidewalk-bordered condition, since the 1930s. It had been a popular swimming spot even before the putative improvements of civilization, though, especially after becoming an official part of Zilker Park in 1917.

It's still a popular swimming spot in these days of wireless laptops, terror levels, and debate about the effects of global warming, and it remains popular because, global shmobal, it's hot here, it's hot now, and how better to soothe one's rotisseried flesh than a swift plunge into the perpetually 68-degrees-cold waters of a natural spring surrounded by century-old pecan trees?

Photographer Will van Overbeek has captured images of Barton Springs Pool for 24 years, framing summer after summer of Austinites at rest and at play in the cool depths and the surrounding shores. Van Overbeek, who studied at UT under master photographers Russell Lee and Garry Winogrand and whose work has been featured in some of the planet's finest glossy magazines (as well as numerous issues of your Austin Chronicle), began his Barton Springs journey with a commission from Rolling Stone in 1983, shooting what was to be part of an article about similar summer escapes around the country. After that, the professional shutterbug returned again and again, of his own accord, drawn to the annual vibrant blossoms of human life, the time-stained narratives of youth and old age playing out among the currents, both aquatic and cultural, of this natural resource.

The Austin Museum of Art, ever canny when it comes to linking the national with the local, has chosen this portion of van Overbeek's bright career to accompany its current "Target Collection of American Photography: A Century in Pictures" exhibition. Two entire rooms of the AMOA are dedicated to the photographer's images. These images are immensely reproduced via digital inkjet pigment on archival paper, as stunning as personal fireworks in their bursts of color, the balances between subject and background, the shock of recognition from our own sojourns, our own plunges, our own nightswims in the inviting waters of Barton Springs Pool. Herewith, a small sampling of that exhibition, to wet as well as whet your appetite for both the current show and the eternal springs nourishing the heart of our ever-changing city.

"24 Summers at Barton Springs Pool: Photographs by Will van Overbeek" is on display through Aug. 12 at the Austin Museum of Art – Downtown, 823 Congress.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum will present a special Austin Responds program, AMOA Celebrates Barton Springs Pool, on Thursday, June 28, 7-8pm, at AMOA – Downtown. The program will feature poems by Susan Bright and Robin Cravey, a reading from the book Barton Springs Eternal by author Turk Pipkin, and selections from the play Keepin' It Weird, performed by actor Tom Green, and the Steve Moore play Nightswim, performed by Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own stories about the pool to share and personal photos from the springs to add to the Austin Responds Photo Wall. Admission proceeds will be donated to the Friends of Barton Springs Pool.

Photographer Will van Overbeek will present a slide lecture of his work on Thursday, July 19, 7pm, at AMOA – Downtown.

For more information, call 495-9224 or visit

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