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.
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.