Jo Ann Walters’ Wood River Blue Pool is a collection of her photographs of mostly women and girls, photographed around Alton, IL and all up and down the Mississippi river, mostly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It comes with a companion volume, Emma Kemp’s Blue Pool Cecelia, a wonderful meditation on violence and the Blue Pool of the title. Together, Kemp’s essay-thing, Walters’ photographs, and the afterward by Laura Wexler form a portrait of women’s lives, and the history of racial and sexual violence that surrounds them, in and around Alton, IL, and indeed, all over the United States.
In an interview with Michael Serra at Ahorn Magazine, Walters describes the photographs as self exploration and the women as “surrogate[s] charged with questions of possibility, paths not taken, lives unlived or forgotten.” Serra’s questions are a little bit wordy, overly scholarly, but the discussion is nevertheless revealing.
The project was initially called “Vanity + Consolation,” which seems to more accurately describe what Walters was after with this collection of portraits. The subjects are almost entirely young girls and their young mothers, occasionally a young boy or husband is visible, and there’s one portrait of an older, regal looking woman. Every photograph drips with allegory and allusion. The women glare, look wistful or blank, gaze off into the distance, gaze out at us full of that hard, tender strength that’s common of women, especially in the midwest, full of knowing and judgement, occasionally playful or comforting, but mostly direct, accusatory, implicating. Each one contains a whole life story, grabbed in a fraction of a second, and Walters’ words are worth quoting at length.
In [Wood River Blue Pool], I have tried to show what it felt like to grow up female in a small relatively isolated blue-collar town in Middle America. What did it look like? What did it feel like? What was at stake? Is my experience representative in any way? Does it have relevance for young girls and women today or for the human community at large? The guises of vanity and consolation are deep and insidious, entangled and mutable. What is real? What is feigned or imagined? I’ve tried to show something of this and to render it with all of the ambivalence and contradiction it implies.
… I felt compelled to look closely, ritualistically, again and again, at the nearly impenetrable, seamless construction of stereotypes surrounding childhood, girlhood, motherhood and womanhood. I often found unhurried appearances that veiled diffuse anxiety, disorientation or muffled rage. The ambition to win validation and attention from men, as well as, the settling protections of marriage was paramount. Perfection was demanded at every turn. Nothing must fall out of place, not one’s hair, make up, dishes, garden, children, emotions or desires.
And her subjects show every bit of all of that weight and struggle. Taken alone, the photographs are a masterwork of subtlety and narrative, but add in Wexler’s afterword, “Foreclosures of the Present,” and Kemp’s essay, and you get the whole story.
Wexler starts her piece with a discussion of the racial violence around Alton, IL in the 1800s. Lynchings, race riots were commonplace in Alton, just across the river from slave state of Missouri. Abolitionist elijah Parish Lovejoy was murdered in there in 1837, and while his heroism is largely forgotten, the violence is palpable in Walters’ subjects. And in more current times, Alton is the hometown of Phyllis Schlafly and James Earl Ray. (If you don’t know them, look them up: their activities are instructive examples of the Alton milieu.) Indeed, History rhymes, and while the white women and girls of Walters’ photographs probably know little or nothing of Alton’s history, their lives remain shaped by the same privilege and violence, an American dream “that girls and women in this part of the country, when lucky enough, and white, and protected enough by men, actually do get to live. That is, unless it sours or suffocates or kills.” (Wexler, “Forclosures of the Present” in Jo Ann Walters Wood River Blue Pool. p. VII.)
The companion book, Emma Kemp’s Blue Pool Cecelia, extends the picture. Beginning with a discussion of the 1978 murder of Cecelia Ann Crites, whose mutilated body was found in the Blue Pool of the titles, Kemp wanders around minor histories of Alton, the origins of Blue Pool, going to bars and driving around with Walters, and generally meditating on the experience of women. Each chapter is followed by a photograph, or, rather, a caption or description of a photograph, maybe from Wood River Blue Pool or Walters archive, maybe from Kemp’s mind or iPhone. These purely textual visions are incredible, and Kemp’s use of language is lush, exquisite, and worth the price of admission on its own, just for the brilliant form it takes in Blue Pool Cecelia.
Overall, Wood River Blue Pool/Blue Pool Cecelia earns one of my highest ratings: 4.8 stars.
Wood River Blue Pool was Charcoal Book Club’s selection for October, 2018, and like many other books I’ve received from them, I’m thankful to have a subscription to their excellent service. You can get signed copies from Charcoal, the publisher, Image Text Ithaca Press, and other fine retailers. If I were you, I’d jump on it before they’re all gone. According to the title pages, Blue Pool Cecelia was printed in an edition of 400, and Wood River Blue Pool in an edition of 700. I expect there’s an error in there somewhere, but still: don’t dawdle.