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Enchanting Photos from a Cabin in the Woods

Night Swimming, 2017

Zephyranthes (Rain Lilies) at Dusk, Near the Cypress Swamp, Early Spring 2018

Ark Lodge, a cabin tucked away in the woods of South Carolina, has been in Jen Ervin’s family for generations. Built between 1939 and 1940 by her husband’s grandparents, it sits between two rivers, where Ervin, her husband, and their three children have spent countless hot and sticky summer days.

Ervin first visited the cabin when she was seventeen years old, just a few years older than her three daughters are now. Throughout the decades, their ancestors have left behind vintage photographs, many of mysterious origin. In 2012, Ervin picked up where they left off, creating portraits of life at the cabin using an old and compact Polaroid Land Camera.

She continued to document her family and this landscape for six years, culminating in The Arc, a book published this year by Aint-Bad.

Ark Lodge sits on wild, ancient ground; the photographer and her children play in the same waters where their many of their forebears swam before them. Sequestered by miles of dirt roads, it’s also relatively isolated from the outside world; the cabin has no air conditioning, and in summer, the river serves as the family’s only respite from the heat.

But this part of the world is as fragile as it is timeless. In the years Ervin created these pictures, she and her family had to contend with floods and uncertainty. “The last four years of storms and hurricanes have been tough on us,” the artist tells me.

“Hurricane Florence did the most damage to the lodge. The area was flooded with the highest waters, for the longest time (September 2018-May 2019). We lost the guest house, which was older than the main house. It also changed the landscape quite a bit.”

Ervin’s chosen medium, peel-apart pack film, is as delicate as the land itself. The chemistry is changeable and accident-prone, and the prints themselves are unstable, especially when compared to archival prints. Throughout the making of The Arc, the pack-film was also discontinued.

The photographer herself does not make an appearance in the photographs, as there are no self-portraits. In fact, there are no details or hints tethering her memories to the here and now. We know that these are Ervin’s daughters, but they could almost as easily be any number of the children who lived here before–the very same who appeared in those old vintage prints she discovered all those years ago.

In The Arc, memory is hazy and fading, just like an old polaroid. It’s eroded by floods and buried in the sand, and then it resurfaces at mysterious moments. The past and present overlap. In the book itself, all but one of the images are printed small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. No photograph lasts forever, but these tiny pictures seem particularly precious and fleeting. More than once, I’ve found myself half-consciously opening its pages–just to make sure they’re still there.

The Arc includes photographs and text by Jen Ervin, with poetry by Colleen Nial. Find it here. Aint-Bad will be at Boston Art Book Fair from November 8th through 10th and the Chicago Art Book Fair from the 15th to 17th with The Arc. The book is also part of Undercurrents, on view through January 19th, 2020, at Transformer Station in Cleveland.

The River’s Arch, 2012

Sanctuary (for Artemis), 2018

Earth My Body, Water My Blood, 2017

Ark Lodge, Gresham, South Carolina, Early Spring 2018

Ritual (Mud Bath), 2016

Camouflage, 2012

Stretching the Day, 2018

Stories of Yellow Jasmine, 2015

All images © Jen Ervin

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