Merewether Beach on a grey and blustery day is more than pretty as a picture, it is utterly compelling.
Little wonder that Brydie Piaf is not at the Merewether Surfhouse cafe, where we have arranged to meet for lunch, but is standing on the promenade, her wavy hair ensnaring the southerly. Her gaze is fixed on Merewether Ocean Baths, just as it has been for the past two years.
For the baths are not only where Piaf swims each weekend, it has been her muse. Piaf is a documentary photographer, and she has been training her camera lens on the baths, particularly those brave and committed souls who plunge into the water daily before the sun has even crept over the horizon.
Yet when Piaf was first drawn to the water it was in search of not photographic subjects but her own place in a city that she had left when she was a teenager and had just returned to. She knew the baths would help her navigate her way back into the rhythm of Newcastle life.
“I spent a large chunk of my childhood here, I’ve got a lot of happy memories of being down there,” Piaf says, gesturing towards the baths. “When we moved back just over two years ago, it was like an automatic homing beacon for me.”
Little did Piaf know that when she returned to Merewether baths, she would connect not only with her past but she would find her future.
SALTWATER may flow through her soul now, but Brydie was born further up the valley, in Merriwa, in 1977. Brydie Woolard was given the middle name Piaf. Her mother was a fan of the French singer Edith Piaf.
Brydie says she doesn’t measure to the French icon’s nickname, “The Little Sparrow” (“I’m not exactly a little sparrow, being five feet 10”), but Piaf has been great for her professional name.
“That’s why I go by Brydie Piaf, because there’s only one of me in the world,” she says. “Claim my name, claim my shadow.”
The family moved to Newcastle when Brydie was about three. What binds her childhood memories is water.
“My Dad was a surfer, my Mum used to like the beach, so we’d always be at Dixon Park, Merewether, and the baths here,” she recalls. “I remember a lot of sandy feet after school, it was a pretty simple childhood. That carefree nature, and watching Dad out in the distance, surfing. I wish he’d taught me to surf. I never did [learn].”
For Christmas 1990, she was given a pink Hanimex camera. Brydie had to be disciplined in what she snapped – “film was expensive” – and she can’t recall what she photographed (“probably pictures of my dog”), but it was the start of seeing life through a lens.
“I’ve always loved photography, I’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always been drawn to photography that I now know is documentary photography and photojournalism,” she says. “But I always thought that was for other people; I didn’t think it was something I could actually do.”
After her parents separated, Brydie moved to the NSW south coast with her mother when she was 14. Unsure what she wanted to do after finishing high school, Brydie returned to Newcastle and enrolled in a travel agents’ course, “which was completely useless”. So, instead of booking trips for others, she went travelling herself.
Brydie worked on Hook Island in the Whitsundays, backpacked around Europe, and moved to Melbourne for a year. She then returned to Europe, working as an au pair in Germany.
She had a camera with her, but the photos she took were mostly “Here I am” snaps, such as “party pictures in Italy. Good times”.
In her early 20s, Brydie returned to Australia and lived in Sydney.
She trained as a nurse: “I couldn’t think of anything else to do; my Dad was a nurse, my grandfather was a doctor. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The good idea turned into a fulfilling job. Brydie was an oncology nurse at Prince of Wales Hospital, before she moved to “the other end of the spectrum” and worked as a doula, or birth assistant.
““It [nursing] just opens your eyes to different people’s experiences,” she explains, “whether it be on the oncology side of things or the birthing side of things.”
In 2006, Brydie became a mother. She and her husband, Pat (she chooses not to reveal her married name – “I just want to keep some sort of anonymity”), had a boy, Jasper. In 2008, a second son, Ruben. Her life became even busier with the birth of their third child, daughter Edie, who is now six. Brydie had left nursing for motherhood, but she could never leave behind her interest in telling stories with words and pictures. To “pour some creativity into the cracks of the day”, she began blogging. Her subjects included parenthood and how to live a more environmentally sustainable life in a two-bedroom unit in Sydney.
“Motherhood allowed me to get into something that I never thought I’d be able to do, and that’s incredibly exciting,” she says.
Brydie’s work began appearing in magazines, and, in 2014, her blog, cityhippyfarmgirl.com, won an award. The prize included camera lenses, “so that allowed me to step up, it allowed me to take better pictures … and that gave me licence to go, ‘Okay, maybe I can go further with this’.”
She enrolled in a six-week course, and the lecturer showed images by the celebrated US photographer Darcy Padilla, who had worked on a long-term documentary project called “Family Love”.
“So in this darkened room we were watching what she’d done and I could feel the tears coming because it was so emotive,” she recalls. “At the end of it, I had to excuse myself to have a quiet sob in the bathroom. It affected me so much, but I was ‘I want that, I want to be a part of that’.”
That opportunity presented itself at Merewether baths. Not that Brydie saw it straight away. The family had moved out of Sydney at the end of 2015, seeking a more affordable life, and one with more space.
Within weeks of arriving, Piaf was taking her children to the baths where she had swum as a kid. She began noticing the range of people rhythmically crossing the pool, and the idea of a documentary project evolved: the sunrise swimmers of Merewether Ocean Baths.
So she took her camera to the pool in the pre-dawn darkness every weekend, no matter the weather.
She captured those small but beautiful moments of life in, and by, the pools. She gradually got to know the swimmers and earned their trust for them to be photo subjects, including Steve and Sylvia, who have been together for half a century, John, who loves a chat, and Barbara, who does her laps wearing lipstick.
“You’re telling stories of people who don’t often get their stories told,” she says of documentary photography.
“These amazing people who swim down at the pool, they’ve all got their own stories behind them, and yet you usually don’t go further than ‘Hello, how are you?’. But every single person there, especially the older ones, have an entire lifetime of stories. And to be able to capture even a tiny part of that, that’s really exciting.”
The dawn swimmers are a Novocastrian subculture and enduring tradition in a vastly changed suburb. These people help make the place. Now they are immortalised and on display, with Piaf organising an exhibition of 27 images at the Newcastle Region Library and self-publishing a book, The Sunrise Swimmers of Merewether Baths.
“I had a responsibility to those swimmers to produce something,” explains Piaf, who has spent about $7400 to realise the project.
More than photograph the swimmers, she has joined them. Piaf has become “addicted” to doing laps at Merewether – “it’s more interesting than meditating on a mat” – and she has achieved what she set out to do: she has reconnected with Newcastle.
“I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” she says. “I absolutely love it. To be able to come down early in the morning on a weekend and to look down at the pool and to see familiar figures who I can identify just from their swimming style, or from a towel or a bag or something, to come down to do laps, and then afterwards to be able to say hello to, at last count, at least 80 people by name… that’s an instant community.”
What’s more, Piaf concludes, “I found out I’m a mermaid who likes to chat.”