I never went to Summer Camp. Boy Scout camping weekends and that one Jamboree, a couple of weekends with various church groups (one at a summer camp that was closed, because it wasn’t the summer, and so it was only the two vans from the church) and a family trip to (another closed) vacation camp thing was as close as I ever got. So Mark Steinmetz‘s Summer Camp presents something of a foreign land to me. I recognize some of the features, and, of course, I’ve seen many movies and television shows about camp, but it’s still foreign.
Summer Camp was the Charcoal photobook-of-the-month for January, 2020, and, yes, I’m way behind. (In fact, I have almost two full small bookshelves full of unboxed, but unreviewed books; unboxings filmed, uploaded and scheduled to go live a few times per week through the end of June, 2020; and there are about 10 stacked in a corner, awaiting unboxings, with more on the way… it’s a sickness.)
Steinmetz made these photographs between 1986 and 1997 in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, and Georgia, and so if the kids look familiar to me, well, many of them are roughly the same age as me. 1986-1992 or so would’ve been prime summer camp time for me, and 1995-97 would’ve been just-right for me to have been a junior counselor, maybe. So I recognize some of the expressions and all, especially in the single portraits, with no other kids around, and of the singled-out, pensive-looking boy on a bus full of raucous tweens.
I recognize many of the activities: playing chess (I don’t any more, after flipping over a beer-can and overflowing ashtray-covered coffee table on Joe in ~2004 or 05), reading Mad magazine in bed, yawning, sitting or standing around bored out of my skull (before realizing that Boredom is Counterrevolutionary and giving it up in favor of… well, not exactly smashing the system or perpetrating the revolution of everyday life, but also not being bored). But reading Mad on the top bunk, in a large-ish camp hall, with two friends? Sitting bored with 30 or 40 others? Nope.
These kids were at camp together, with other kids, and they’re all having a great time doing it, it seems… even being bored together. What might life, for me, today, be like if I had been bored with a bunch of strange kids soon to become friends for weeks or months every summer? What if I went to camp instead of going to Grandmom & Granddad’s house in the mountains of Northwest Arkansas (where they lived for a few years after they retired, around the same time my parents divorced, and when Mom was working 80 or 90 hours per week)? Sure, in Arkansas, I swam in the lake, fished, played cards, wandered in the forest. But I did it alone or with one or another of my grandparents, and never with 50 or 80 or 100 other kids.
I can’t even imagine… Well, except that I can, kinda.
If Andrew Molitor is correct, and I think he is, or is close anyway, then I might have something of an idea, though my idea may have very little relationship to the actual experience of the kids or of Steinmetz as he photographed them.
According to Molitor,
a photograph brings the subject and viewer together in a real-ish way. The viewer imagines themself (a little) to be there with the subject of the photo, in the photo, there is a sense of presence. The viewer imaginatively “fills in” a world, a world they imagine to be real, to “fit” the picture into. We see a flower and we imagine the garden: a real garden.Molitor, Andrew. “Thoughts on a Framework for Photo Ethics.” retrieved from https://petapixel.com/2021/03/15/thoughts-on-a-framework-for-photo-ethics/ March 18, 2021. Molitor makes this point fairly regularly on his excellent blog, and in his Twitter account, both of which are worth a follow.
So if I see a photo of a young boy being consoled (or scolded) by a camp counselor, well, I know what it’s like to be a young boy, and to be both consoled and scolded by authority figures, and if there’s a slightly older young girl nearby, back turned, holding her hand as if her wrist hurts, well, I can imagine a story… if he’s being scolded, perhaps he jumped without looking and thereby hurt the girl; if he’s being consoled, perhaps the girl punched or shoved him. Maybe he was being an annoying little twerp and she pushed him roughly and he fell into the lake and his dad’s going to whip him for getting his shirt wet.
Or if the photograph shows a group of kids covered in shaving cream (or some other foamy substance), I can imagine how disgusting and uncomfortable and icky that feels. Yuck. Icky Icky. Yuck Yuck Yuck. *shudders*…
Thinking again, I’d really rather just look at these photographs as distant, unknowable worlds, and avoid trying to make them present for me…
Now, Steinmetz is 17 years older than me, so he was more solidly in Camp Counselor role at all stages of shooting for Summer Camp, though the book does open with a scan of a letter he sent home from a New Hampshire camp in 1969. And from the opening bus ride to camp, through the various fun, dull, exciting, mundane activities, to the tearful goodbyes and bus ride home, Summer Camp is a nice reminder of what childhood summers could be, without the axe murderers and teenage pregnancy so often portrayed in film.
The book is beautifully printed by Nazreli, and Steinmetz’s flash-lit black & white is wonderfully descriptive. Overall, I rate it a nice 3.7 stars.
Summer Camp is in its second edition, and can be found direct from Nazreli or at various fine booksellers. If you have fond memories of summer camp, it might be worth your time. Also worth your time is a trip to Steinmetz’s website, where you can view selections of his various projects, including Summer Camp. For me, it’s another case of Charcoal selecting a pretty decent book that I wouldn’t have picked out myself, and that’s why I’ve remained a subscriber for all these years.