August 28 2014

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There’s nothing like a sodden week in spring to make a city dweller dream of the beach. The sun. The surf. The salt air. The lifeguards. The appeal of those bronzed, zinc-nosed gods of the shoreline is one photographer Matt Albiani and designer Michael Bastian understand implicitly. Albiani has spent the past four years shooting lifeguards all across America, from Oahu to Nantucket, photos that are now collected in his new book Lifeguard on Duty. Coincidentally, Albiani was wrapping up work on the book just as Bastian was seizing a lifeguard inspiration for his Spring ’09 menswear collection. Great minds think alike, apparently—and now Bastian and Albiani have joined forces, launching Lifeguard on Duty with an event at Bergdorf Goodman’s men’s shop this evening. (Later this month, the duo will be toasting the tome at the Los Angeles boutique Confederacy.) Here, Bastian and Albiani talk to about Baywatch, California dreams, and beauty and the beach.

Most people hear the word “lifeguard” and immediately think: Baywatch. Suffice it to say, that’s not the vibe either of you are conjuring.

Michael Bastian: Well, we all grew up watching Baywatch, it’s true. But my whole lifeguard fixation started with the seventies movie Lifeguard, with Parker Stevenson. It’s about a college kid who works as a lifeguard over the summer…Matt, that was kind of your experience, right?

Matt Albiani: Sort of. I worked at a pool, and I worked at a lake at a camp, but when I got offered a job as an ocean guard, I had to turn it down because I was too poor to house myself for the summer. Now, apparently, they put you up. But that was always the dream—being that ocean guard.

MB: Yeah, I grew up upstate; the only beach was a lake. The lifeguards were still cool, but you definitely felt like there was something junior varsity about the whole thing. Just out of curiosity—did you shoot any of the city guards here?

MA: No. That would have been interesting, though.

MB: It is interesting, because they’re all these urban kids, and yet the attitude is totally the same.

Maybe I should just let you guys talk among yourselves…

MA: Sorry! No, I do want to say one more thing, about pool guards versus ocean guards, because it pertains to the book and to what you were saying about everyone having these Baywatch images in their head…I mean, I did always dream of being an ocean lifeguard, and in a way, working on this book was a fulfillment of that dream. But for me, the fantasy was not at all a Hollywood thing. All my images of lifeguards were formed in New England.

MB: I do think it’s intriguing that neither of us grew up in that California beach scene. Maybe if we had, the whole thing would feel too familiar. I mean, I feel like it’s better for me, as a designer, not to be too literal. The idea is often better than the real thing.

Hear, hear. I say that having grown up in Florida. And having been a lifeguard.

MA: Really? At the beach?

No, pool. But I trained with guys who went to work at Cocoa and Daytona, so…I can attest to the fact that, at the end of the day, they’re just dudes.

MB: I don’t know, though. I mean, that whole getting up on the pedestal, silent, watching, waiting to be a hero thing…There’s an aspect of performance art to it. Men revere the lifeguard. Women swoon. They’re icons.

MA: That’s a very specifically American take. Which is part of what I liked about the idea of doing this book of portraits, in fact—there’s just nothing analogous to the American ideal of the lifeguard in other cultures. When friends of mine from other countries talk about lifeguards, they just don’t feel the same way. To them, it’s a job. Or, you know, it’s Baywatch.

Matt, you shot guards from all over the country for this book. Was there a quality you began to recognize in all of them that cut across all geographic/demographic lines?

MA: One thing I did notice was how unaware the guys were of themselves—not physically, but they didn’t look at themselves the way people looked at them.

MB: Really? But they’re all so good-looking. I mean, did you come across any not-good-looking lifeguards?

MA: No. [Laughs.] But there’s probably a certain amount of self-selection that goes on. It’s like being a model, in a way—

MB: You know one when you see one.

MA: And if you’re that person, you can wear your beauty pretty casually. And even some of the guys who were less by-the-book handsome, there’s just something about the role that’s transformative.

MB: Like celebrity.

MA: Yeah, exactly, that’s exactly right. It’s like, in Amagansett, there was this group of kids kind of hanging out by the tower, waiting for the lifeguard to come down for a minute or two, throw the ball around. You could almost see those kids grooming themselves—one day, I’ll be that guy.

Michael, I feel like that laid-back, easy-in-your-own-skin sensibility Matt talks about was a big influence on your Spring collection.

MB: Totally. You can’t do a whole collection of bathing suits—although I’ll say as an aside that one of my goals with this collection was to convince guys they don’t have to wear a pair of big, baggy trunks every time they go swimming—and it’s not like my guy lives at the beach. But even if he put on a tuxedo, it’s like, that’s where he’d come from. He’d wear a tux with shower slides. It’s an easy, sexy inspiration. And really, isn’t being a lifeguard every American guy’s dream job? Sun, surf…

MA: Yeah, and those guys party as hard as they work.



Photo: Courtesy of Michael Bastian




  1. vvcunha says: