Sarah Kaufman: Devil's Pool

Published on 08/31/ 2021

Foreword by Andy Grundberg

Sarah Kaufman's forthcoming title Devil's Pool gives a personal glimpse into Philadelphia's Wissahickon Park, one of the few wild areas left in the city. The moments experienced here provide an example of how vital green spaces are in an urban environment.
Let us now praise Philadelphia, city named Brotherly Love, birthplace of American democracy, erstwhile capital of the United States yet the subject of endless calumnies, blighted and benighted in equal measure, lately a star of an epic fantasy of a stolen election. How is it that you keep on keeping on? Is there something in the water?

Resilient seems the word most suited to Philadelphians, and that is what shines through most clearly to me in this collection of Sarah Kaufman’s photographs of city dwellers enjoying themselves at a local swimming spot known as Devil’s Pool, in a stream that feeds into the Wissahickon Creek. These pictures are remarkable for their lack of pretense and for their inclusion of human behaviors that are easily recognizable but somehow, here, elevated to seem paradigmatic. Brotherly—and sisterly—love reigns. As does the restorative energy of youth.

Devil’s Pool is said to have been named by the Leni Lenape people, whose language also supplies the name Wissahickon. It also is said they believed it was a meeting place of good and evil, an aperture to another world. It is now part of the Philadelphia park system, and controversial: swimming and diving are officially illegal, and overuse has prompted calls to fill it in with rocks.

None of this sense of prohibition figures in Kaufman’s account of what goes on there; instead, we see an uninhibited, arcadian meeting place of races, ethnicities, ages, genders, and physiques that speaks to the glorious diversity of the American population and to the commonalities of human beings when their most conscious goal is to beat the heat. To feel, that is to say, the touch of warm air and cool water on the skin, and thus alive.

The images are the result of seven years of work undertaken by an artist whose focus has long been on the body’s relationship to its environs and the skin’s relationship to self. To make them she and her bulky square-format film camera clambered across rocks and waded into water, becoming subject herself to the lure and lore of the Devil’s Pool. She seems to have fit herself into that other world beyond good and evil so well that she is seldom recognized as the narrator of its dramas.

Read the full foreword by Andy Grundberg in Sarah Kaufman's forthcoming title Devil's Pool.