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Eryn Loeb | Longreads | August 2019 | 14 minutes (3,579 words)
It started with pictures of Alice. She didn’t mind being put in awkward situations or uncomfortable positions for the sake of a photo. That made her a good friend. I put a tangled Rapunzel wig on her head, a plastic gun in her hands. I had her stand in the middle of the road, wearing a plaid bathrobe. Straddle a highway median in a tulle skirt and sneakers. Swan around the woods in a feather boa. She had a classically pretty face that could suggest everyone or no one. I blazed through rolls of black and white film, which I developed in my high school darkroom with clumsy chemistry and a pounding heart.
On the strength of those pictures, I was accepted to a summer photography workshop in Rockport, Maine. A small group of us — mostly but not entirely college students and recent grads — paid reduced tuition in exchange for doing odd jobs: hosing down vans, painting picnic tables, moving furniture. When we were lucky, we got to pay our dues in the darkroom, turning around contact sheets and prints for students who attended the pricey weeklong workshops, many of them taught by famous photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards, and Joyce Tennyson. For those more typical students, relationships and revelations were fast-tracked. We watched their tentative arrival and swift blossoming, the compressed intensity between introductions and teary-eyed goodbyes. Our own seven week stretch wasn’t all that long, really, but measured in units of other people’s personal growth, it felt almost permanent.
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It was summer and I was 19, living with a bunch of other young people who had stepped away from their fledgling lives to devote time to some version of art. Maine was dreamy, with quiet stretches of woods full of swimming holes and rope swings, lobster traps stacked in pleasing geometries. There was a glass-blowing studio in the ground floor of the house where we lived, and an old cemetery just down the road. I liked to walk around and take pictures of elaborately carved headstones memorializing wives and mothers, running my fingers over their names and honorifics. I was never without my camera. I spent hours in the darkroom but still found time to get sunburned.
When I wasn’t out shooting or cooped up printing, one of my favorite places was the library. It was a hot, lofted area in the small campus’ main building. A sign posted at the base of the stairs gave me solemn shivers. “Enter with respect for the knowledge that resides herein and with honor for those who are about to share with you their secrets and wisdom,” it read. “Maintain a serene presence.” I sat on the floor and pored over monographs: Francesca Woodman’s pictures of herself crouching in corners, hanging from window frames, a wild blur in an abandoned house. Nan Goldin’s pictures of herself and her friends all tangled up in each other, the color shots suffused with adulation and danger. Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures, feral despite their polish. Judy Dater organized her images by gender; portfolios of men, of women.
At first it was strange to be taking pictures without Alice, but I was with other women who were happy to alternate being behind the camera and posing in front of it. Cathryne was timelessly lovely in a way that reminded me of Alice: With wavy long blonde hair, light freckles, and full cheeks, she shifted easily between broad smiles and deep scowls. She smoked, irresistibly. The pictures I took of her weren’t subtle: wearing a lacy dress and a desperate expression, standing in a giant puddle after a rainstorm. Standing in front of an austere white church on a foggy morning, wearing a thrifted housecoat, looking straight ahead with a worried look on her face. I took pictures of her in a poufy, high-necked wedding dress purchased at Goodwill one weekend, and pictures of the same dress spread out, empty, on our kitchen floor.
Then there was Erin. Along with what amounted to the same first name, we shared a middle one, lending things an extra sense of kismet. I took pictures of her without any kind of enhancement or disguise: gesturing, whispering secrets, frowning, laughing. Lying in the grass, holding a half-eaten apple. A few of us went to a quarry when the day was dimming and sat with our legs dangling into the void while we gossiped. Those pictures show Erin leaning in close, her eyes wide, sunglasses pushed up on top of her head. Another time we went to a swimming hole in bright daylight. In my favorite shot, you can’t even see Erin’s face. She’s standing in the water far below my lens, the water glittering, a hand up to shield her eyes from the sun as she looks off into the distance.
Some concepts had a higher degree of difficulty. For a series of self-portraits, Cathryne brought a can of black paint out to the construction site behind our house. She sunk her hands into it and smeared it on herself, leaving tacky handprints on her arms and thighs, ominous streaks on her face. The resulting photos show her headless body in a long dark dress, her slender arms outstretched and shiny with the stuff. The paint was stubborn and left a streaky pallor for the next few days.
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As the weeks went on we got more daring and shed more clothes. We cribbed conceits from our idols — tried to take pictures that felt like Francesca Woodman’s and Imogen Cunningham’s and Cindy Sherman’s, but that we could claim as our own. I have a lot of pictures of women acting out ideas about women. A lot of pictures of sections of my body, taken in the bathroom mirror. And a lot of pictures of my new friends taking pictures. All this posing and posturing — for ourselves, and for each other — made us feel beautiful and wild, and maybe a little bit famous.
In our final days together, we exchanged copies of some of our favorites. In a self-portrait of Cathryne’s, she’s thrown her blonde mane into a stream and is kneeling before it, chin to chest, her hands in the mud and locks of hair skimming the surface of the water. In a picture I took of her, she’s squinting at the pages of a bargain bin romance novel and smoking a cigarette, leaning against the worn wood siding of our house. In one of Amanda’s, the focal point is a tiny perfectly symmetrical leaf she’s adhered with water between her breasts, the tips of her fingers and strands of her wet hair bracketing it. In Ann’s, shot from below, her eyes are closed and she holds her hands up to her mouth as if in prayer, the trees bending in a soft swirl above her. Erin’s is an eerie, distorted image of a faceless man gripping a small American flag as he advances toward the camera.
And then our time was up. Cathryne and I had been close, but unlike the fevered connections I’d come to expect after a few weeks of summer camp, we didn’t maintain contact. For awhile, Erin and I kept in touch, writing emails made all the more intense by their infrequency. It turned out that for both of us, life immediately post-Maine had been defined by ambivalence, and a struggle to make work we believed was any good. Our time there had been so consuming and affirming, it made the transition back to the duties that constituted our “real” lives feel like a blow. “I have this really clear picture in my head of me sitting around several years from now with a bunch of people, showing them all the photo work that ‘I used to do,’ and them asking me why I stopped, and me having no answer,” I wrote to her. “I’m terrified for it to ever get to the point where I stop.” Erin understood: “I met a girl who said that she used to be into photography, and I thought she was an idiot, and now I live in fear of becoming her,” she wrote. She actually had access to a darkroom, she said, but that didn’t make things easier: “The stuff that comes out of it is flat and uninspired. You know, gutless.”
Gutless. I hung onto that word. I tried harder. Back in my college town, I took pictures of streetscapes, begged friends to pose for me. I shot self-portraits in the rundown old house I lived in just off campus: standing at the top of the attic stairs, fingers crossed behind my back; on the front porch in a flowered dress, the house number at hip-level next to me. I stayed late in the darkroom and left crushed and forlorn. I spent a lot of time looking at my photos from Maine, as I strained to take new ones and to make sense of why I couldn’t. And the gaps between emails to and from Erin stretched longer, along with the length of time it took me to finish shooting a roll of film.
Other than those occasional emails, I fell out of touch with everyone from Maine almost immediately. Photography’s place in my life became uncertain, fraught. But somehow even in the absence of those two essential elements, the people and the practice, that summer stuck. I had all the pictures, of course, and the fact of their existence solemnized their subjects. With distance, the people became iconic. I thought about them all the time, saw their faces often, and because they were so often on my mind and in my hands, it felt sort of like they were in my life.
* * *
Losing touch is typically a passive process; it happens gradually, without a plan. This thing we have the ability to misplace, “touch”: it fades without intention and often without awareness, until one day we notice that real time has passed — it’s been awhile, and then suddenly, it has been too long. Too long is a real thing; it describes the invisible expiration dates and emotional borders stamped on all kinds of relationships. Usually you can’t see one till you’ve passed it. One day, sending an email or picking up the phone feels easy and even obvious; at some point you recognize that doing it would require a newly awkward amount of effort; and then eventually making contact just feels impossible. Too long is just one degree removed from the ultimate verdict: too late.
The last time Erin and I were actively in touch was nine years ago. My understanding of whether or not that constitutes “a lot of time” changes depending on the day, the light, the season. I know she still takes pictures, though, because I can find them online, mostly on social media. The arc of them is actively unspooling, telling the story of a tender, scenic life in and around Portland, Oregon, filled with friends and animals and nature and making things. Erin’s photographs do all the things I stopped being able to make mine do. They are warm and raw and insistently alive: pictures of friends out in the woods, climbing, swimming, breathing, bending to press their faces to a dog’s flank, lying in the grass or across rock faces with their eyes closed against the sun. She shoots in both color and black and white, sometimes using broken cameras and compromised film. Someone’s hands made these pictures. They have all their guts.
I love looking at them, even knowing it’s creepy, stalker-ish. But if I’m over-invested, I’m also harmless. I just like having this window into how these people, and that part of the country, look through eyes I feel like I can trust. Eyes that know how to deliver an image. Erin herself hardly ever makes an appearance, but the same subjects crop up again and again. Over the years I watch her partner grow a beard, get handsomely gray. Their black lab swells from a puppy in a tote bag to an intrepid hiking companion. Her friends get married on mountain-tops, amid helium balloons; they have babies, raise chickens, cut their hair, wear vintage dresses and destroyed cut-offs, run around the beach in all seasons.
These women in her pictures remind me of the ones who modeled for me years ago in Maine. Their hair blows in the wind, and their skin is beaded with water from floating in forest lakes. They are diving and running and laughing and stretching their bodies out, unguarded. They look like themselves, and like people I want to know.
With so much looking, some of these strangers’ faces have become familiar to me, recurring characters lodged in my head. I clicked backward and forward and watched them change. There was one woman who showed up a lot, and it was clear from the comments that she and Erin were close friends. She had long brown hair she liked to wear up in a messy bun in the summer. She had tortoiseshell glasses and a broad smile and tattoos on her arms of arrows and mountains and a sailing ship. She always wore this one necklace, a flat metal half-circle suspended on a thin chain. I found her on Instagram; I really liked her pictures, too. I liked observing the distinction and overlap between how she and Erin looked at things, what caught their respective eyes.
“Sometimes I remember Rockport the way I remember incredible books,” Erin wrote to me in our last email exchange. “Thanks for reminding me that we are real.” The line stuck in my head like it really was from a novel.
* * *
When I go to Maine now, the summer of 2001 still feels like something I can touch. My husband has a thing for the state, too — having spent many summers as a small boy romanced by its rustic cabins and rocky beaches — and when we first got together, this seemed like a giddy coincidence. Early on, we drove up the coast and I showed him my version of the sights: Here was where our class met, this was where we lived, here was the beach where we took pictures the first day, here was the cemetery where I took the picture of the headstone memorializing the “Wife of John Wesley Oxton.” I’d brought my Nikon SLR, and took pictures of him dwarfed by boulders on the shore. We came back two years later and skipped most of those spots, though I (accompanied by just a small digital camera) was quietly hungry for them. Six years after that I came back by myself for a few days, attached to a work-related trip to Portland. Armed by then with just my iPhone, I visited all the old places, paying my respects. Two years after that, I did the same thing. By then it had been 16 years since that first summer, and I wasn’t sure anymore what I was trying to find, what I was even seeing when I looked around me. There were so many layers to process, sentimental filters blurring my field of vision.
On that most recent trip, in 2017, it struck me that the map of places I’d come to care about, the ones I dwelled on and returned to, consisted almost entirely of places I know because of that first summer. They were places our group was taken to back then, or places we chose to go, all visited and ventured within that context. My interaction with mid-coast Maine stayed locked in a kind of reverent observance, rather than seeing that first time as a starting point, a beginning I could carry forward and make ever more my own.
Out of a similar emotional instinct, for me Oregon is linked with Erin, even though she’s far from the only person I know who lives there — and it’s a stretch to say I know her anymore, anyway. In the absence of a real connection, I reduce her to one of the few things I do know: where she is; where she could, in theory, be found.
So when my friend Emily and I flew into Portland, Oregon before heading to the coast for another friend’s wedding last fall, Erin was on my mind. It was my first time in the state. I thought about getting in touch before the trip and letting her know I was coming her way, but some combination of it having been too long in a big sense and having not enough time in the more immediate one stopped me. I was mostly aware that it would be awkward, out of nowhere, motivated by a deep attachment that is the product of my near-clinical nostalgia and, I recognize, doesn’t really make much sense.
Emily and I drove up and down the coast, pulling the car over and taking out our phones to capture the dramatic sea stacks, patterns in wet sand, and the faint wisps of whale spouts as the sun set off Depoe Bay. We flew a rainbow kite on the beach in Yachats and I snapped a bunch of shots of Emily unfurling it as the waves crashed behind her. One late afternoon on our way back to Portland, we walked a trail through the woods until we reached water, then took pictures of the line where the forest met the beach. I squinted at the other people who were there, savoring the end of the chilly gray day, sitting on rocks and driftwood — couples and friends, many with surfboards, more with dogs — and got the strong sense that Erin could be among them. The context was so clearly hers; I was standing in one of her pictures. These people looked like her, and, I guess, like me: People in their 30s, without kids, wearing sunglasses and plaid, faces to the wind.
The next day, waiting to order brunch at a bright cafe in Portland, I stared hard at the woman behind the counter. She had tortoiseshell glasses and dark, wavy hair, a simple tattoo of three arrows on the front of her low bicep. She looked so very familiar. She felt me staring and met my eyes, giving a patient smile. I ordered coffee and some grits, dazed, and didn’t say anything.
It was Erin’s friend, the one I’d seen so many pictures of. I was as sure of it as I was duty-bound to question that certainty. My face hot, I felt at once exposed and invisible. She had no idea what I saw when I looked at her. It was an accident, a coincidence, but I felt implicated, like I had done something wrong — but also like I had won a prize, cracked a code, solved a puzzle I hadn’t even known I’d been piecing together.
It was a sunny day in Portland, with some spotty showers. After Emily and I left the cafe we spent the day walking around the city, and I kept quiet about that morning’s sighting. It was so on the nose, it was embarrassing. Was it just a strange coincidence, or was the universe trying to tell me something? And either way, what was there to show for it? What did it mean? What are the chances? is a thing people say in these situations. But, the chances of what: of two strangers colliding in the world? Of one of them knowing enough to notice? Of one of them having hung on to something so long, it gave her something to notice in the first place?
Standing at that counter, I had craved recognition, but without much struggle, I had chosen anonymity. This reassured me. It seemed honorable, and made me think of that time travel cliche, where a person visits the past and makes some minor misstep that changes the course of history, rendering their present unrecognizable. Cosmic or otherwise, I didn’t want to be responsible for any kind of collapsing of space or time. I didn’t want to upset any balance, confuse any boundaries, or out myself as knowing more than I comfortably should. It surprised me a little, this clarity: The realization that I really just wanted to observe, get a sense of how things worked and how it might all be connected, the knowing its own kind of satisfaction.
That night Emily and I took the red-eye to JFK, and woke up back where we’d started. And just like that, the relative distances to important points on my mental map were restored to their defaults. I was back in the place where I lived, where I was most real. And I was as far away from Erin, from Maine and the summer of 2001, as I knew myself to be.
I don’t take pictures in any serious way — anymore, still — but for a while now I’ve been collecting vintage photos of women in the act: holding a camera — up to their eye, dangling on straps around their necks or shoulders, or cradled in their laps. Like Erin’s, these are photos of strangers. Still, many of the girls and women in them look familiar. They remind me of people I used to know, or could know, or even find a way to resemble myself if I got the light and angles and ensemble right. I like thinking about who they were and who their friends were, what they might have cared about and paid attention to and gotten hung up on. I wonder if the pictures they took were any good.
* * *
Eryn Loeb is a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica. Her writing about nostalgia, books, and feminism (or some combination of those things) has appeared in Poets & Writers, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, the Awl, the Village Voice, the Rumpus, and the Millions, among other publications.
Editor: Sari Botton