Review by Brian O’Neill •
The Devil’s Pool is a roughly 15-foot-deep by 25-foot-wide basin of water tucked within Wissahickon Valley Park located in Northwest Philadelphia, USA. But, if you Google “Devil’s Pool,” the aforementioned pool does not appear. Instead, you will find “Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls.” You will read that it is “a tourist attraction in Zambia.” It is open from 7:30am to 5pm. The first images of this place that appear are of some men in swimming trunks and women in bikinis. Some are looking over falls into the abyss and spray of the 345-foot drop. By contrast, “the falls” at Wissahickon are 15 feet high, at best. It has no “open” hours because it is illegal to swim there.
Who would bother with such an insignificant pool? Sarah Kaufman would, and her new book Devil’s Pool is a testament to the magnetism of the place, the people who visit it, and to the power of the photobook to convey subtleties of mood, environment, and time. Kaufman, Assistant Professor of Art and Art History in Photography at Ursinus College (located about 30 minutes by car from Philadelphia’s Devil’s Pool), thought that this inland body of water was so important that she spent more than seven years of her life (2014-2020) on this book project and untold sums of money on color negative film that she ran through her Rolleiflex. Devil’s Pool, published in 2021 by Daylight Books, is the outcome of this effort.
The book itself is an attractive and comfortable object in the hands at 10×10 inches. It contains 116 pages of 60 color images, printed by Ofset Yapimevi in Turkey. It also runs at an attractive price, as far as photo and art books go – $45 USD retail. The quality of the printing is excellent – white paper of a standard gauge with a slightly glossy finish. The images vary in sizes throughout the book, but all of them feature their original square aspect ratio. The pages are numbered, corresponding to a cataloguing of the images on page 116. Well-known photographic art critic Andy Grundberg (e.g., The Crisis of the Real ) has provided a foreword totaling a neat eight paragraphs. His text provides useful context, as no other text appears in the book.
Certainly, Kaufman’s images evoke escapism. They have some notion of afternoon diversion in them. Golden, dappled light can be seen seeping through the copious oaks and beeches that give just enough light (sometimes supplemented with a flash) to photograph, and just enough shade on a summer afternoon. Indeed, the people that the photographer has plucked from this Eden seem rather carefree. When she does engage her subjects, they are often seen smiling, grinning, and laughing.
Kaufman has done an excellent job with the arrangement and sequencing to alternate moments of quiet and introspection with the certain raucousness of the site as play, danger, and contemplation interact. Additionally, Kaufman’s choice of interspersed blank pages act as breaks in the action to, in effect, allow the reader to “come up for air,” before descending again into the rhythm of Devil’s Pool. Quite interestingly, some of the images, which I would argue are Kaufman’s greatest achievements, are posed group and family photos (e.g., p. 35, 45, 53). These images remind one of the technical skill, sense of timing, and the truly micro-social dimension of photography that certain artists like Bill Owens (1972) worked through, but that documentary photography often eschews.
Some additional comments about the evident techniques and form this project has taken are worth noting. For Kaufman, the square frame seems to liberate. It does not represent an aesthetic tyranny. Her compositions are always thoughtful in terms of the relationships of form she utilizes, as well as with regard to the subjects themselves. Everything is considered. And while the format of the book and the pictures aids unification, the reader is treated to a wonderful variety within these constraints.
The book features portraits at close-range and of the environmental variety. Several images take time to visually digest – the eye takes in the green hues and running water, and then, in the distance a body can be seen struggling up some slimy rocks and out of the pool. The eerie, primordial undertones are palpable. And the use of variable exposures is also significant. On this front, Kaufman illustrates with a comparatively rare species of image – the daylight long-exposure (which are, quite amazingly, the result of handholding the camera in chest high water!). These exposures in particular emphasize the flow of life as people interact with the environment – friends look at once worried and excited as their compatriots take the plunge, aiming for the deep, dark spots in the pool. No need to “stop the action” at 1/250th of a second though.
Overall, the edit of the book makes sense – nothing haphazard here. The sequence pulls the reader into the warm ambiance of the locale. Throughout we see people enjoying this unique part of the greater Philadelphia landscape. The images are a beautiful and refreshing example of a straight photography that achieves richness and variety, aided by its unique subject matter. Is it a book of so-called street photography? Is it fine-art landscape? Is it portraiture? Kaufman’s images resist cliché distinctions.
Ultimately, the book is exceptional in the manner in which it is approachable, but also contains the possibility for rich interpretation upon multiple viewings. It affords a depth of perception and thought in a way that is difficult to achieve. Those interested in photobooks in general or more specific themes like urban green spaces and socially oriented photography will find much to enjoy in Devil’s Pool.
Take the plunge.
Grundberg, Andy. 1999. The Crisis of the Real. New York, NY: Aperture.
Owens, Bill. 1972. Suburbia. San Francisco, CA: Straight Arrow Press.
Brian O’Neill is a photographer and sociologist. His most recent photographic book project is Beach Boulevard.
Devil’s Pool, Sarah Kaufman
Photographer: Sarah Kaufman, born and resides in Philadelphia, PA
Publisher: Daylight Books, North Carolina, USA, 2021
Foreword: Andy Grundberg
Photobook Sequence: Sarah Kaufman
Creative Director: Ursula Damm
Copy Editor: Gabriele Fastman
Hardcover, Uncoated Paper, 10 x 10 in / 116 pages / 60 Color photographs, Printed by Ofset Yapimevi in Turkey, ISBN 9781954119000
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