It’s a haunting image. It stays in the mind partly because of the questions it raises: Why is the woman in the water? Why is she wearing an evening gown? Why is she in that semi-rigid pose? At first glance you might think she’s dead, but that outstretched-arm pose shows that she’s not. There’s a somewhat menacing, foreboding quality to the image, due to it’s shadowy blacks, whites, and grays and also to the underwater bottom beneath her which almost appears to be reaching up to drag her down. I first saw this image attached to the Bill Evans/Jim Hall jazz album from 1962 called Undercurrent.
The title added to the mystery and darkness of the image – was she about to be pulled in by an undercurrent? Yet, she doesn’t look especially scared or anxious to me, which tempers the foreboding and adds more depth (no pun intended) to the story in our minds that we might attach to the photo.
In actuality, the picture was taken by photographer Toni Frissell in 1947 at the mermaid attraction Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida, as part of a fashion photography series. According to auction site Christie’s a print sold (no sale date given) for 12,500 British Pounds (approx. $18,000) and a written caption called it “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” though it’s more commonly referred to as “Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida, 1947.”
Knowing the picture’s origins is a bit of a letdown, as it removes some of the mystery (it was taken at a tourist attraction?!). Yet, it’s still a great work of art, and I have a different kind of attachment to it knowing it’s circumstances. Growing up not more than an hour from Weeki Wachee, I have good memories of visiting the Springs as a child. The mermaid shows are still going strong and they still perform in the natural spring, accompanied by local wildlife such as turtles and the occasional manatee.
The original issue of the album was just the straight image, with the back cover naming the artists and the title in undulating font on a watery background. A very effective approach, with the cover sans identifying info making the album more intriguing to the buyer. Other issues and releases in other countries sometimes messed with that approach, though, not able to leave well enough alone:
Solid State, in the late 60s, decided for some reason to have an artist paint the scene instead (which doesn’t look half bad, actually). Spain, though, what were you thinking with some of the CD reissues? Orange letters? And Jim Hall is totally forgotten on one.
A few years ago, an enterprising individual(s) colorized the image. It’s a totally different effect, but still striking:
But the saga of “Weeki Wachi Springs, Florida, 1947” is not quite over. Because Frissell, before her death, relinquished copyright on this and many other of her photos, the picture is fair game for anyone to use without special permission. As a result, other musicians have appropriated it to illustrate their own album covers in the years since Undercurrent. This shows either shameless copying or ignorance of it already being used as a cover before:
Some have shown a bit more creativity and added their own artistic flourishes, either by reversing the image, inverting it, and more:
And it’s not just music covers, book covers have also used the photo, or been inspired by it:
So, what does the music on the recording that first used Frissell’s iconic image sound like? Well, it’s straight ahead jazz. Evans (piano) and Hall (guitar) were considered masters of their instruments and are legends in the jazz world. It’s not an album I listen to much, I think mainly because I wanted the music to sound like the cover and it really doesn’t to me (song titles like “Skating in Central Park” and “Darn That Dream” don’t help). To be fair, it would be hard for anyone to translate such an image to sound. Not to denigrate the music, as I like it on it’s own and it’s well regarded, but I wonder if it would be as well regarded with a less memorable album cover?
[Head over to ye olde Discogs to see details on 51, and counting, releases of Undercurrent)