In Conversation: Jen Ervin on her book “The Arc (of Summer)”

Jen Ervin (b.1971) is an American artist currently working in the medium of photography. She currently resides in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, Francis and their three daughters.

Jen’s intimate photographs of her family at Ark Lodge offer us more than a portrait of people or places but delves into universal themes on the delicacy of memory, beauty, and time. Mysterious and hypnotic, the images transport us to an ineffable dreamlike realm where time stands still – if only for a moment. In this interview, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jen about her publication “The ARC of Summer” and how it came to be. This title is available now through the Aint-Bad shop.

The Little Pee Dee River, South Carolina, Late Summer 2019, Reprise of “The Arc”

Night Swimming, 2017

Vintage family photos: Somewhere Along the Little Pee Dee River, 1940s; Floramay Holliday (Matriarch of Ark Lodge), Galivant’s Ferry, South Carolina, early 1900s.

Kyra Schmidt: Can you start off by telling us about your photographic series The Arc (of Summer)?

Jen Ervin: The Arc, bridges unique polaroid prints, measured in seasons and repetition, with experimental films to create a rhythmic exploration of place. It was born out of time spent with my family near our historic cabin set deep in the woods of South Carolina, and continued over a period of six years, 2012-2018. The work ritualizes the waxing and waxing of summer and the longing to remain in its embrace. It centers on everything fleeting: beauty, time and memory.

The endurance of my project was fueled by polaroid’s ability to evoke chance encounters with imperfection and describe a vulnerability relatable to both the human condition and the transformation of memory over time. It was initially inspired by a mysterious, fragmented collection of vintage family photographs left at Ark Lodge by our ancestors over several generations. The stories behind these photographs remain untold and led me to we weave our present into our past to create our own mythology. Over time the collection grew to include conceptual films that draw on archetypes and sensations of timelessness. Presented together in an aesthetic narrative, they work to transcend the personal to the universal, demonstrating how one person’s private world has the capacity to reveal the collective experience, particularly through the ephemeral world of childhood.

KS: Describe Ark Lodge

JE: Ark Lodge is a place where time stands still, in both an uncomfortable and calming way.

The lodge was built in 1940 by my husband’s grandparents on property that has been in their family for more than 90 years. It remains equipped with only basic amenities (no air conditioning), and rests between two black rivers in a hauntingly beautiful landscape that has somehow managed to escape modernization for centuries. Miles of dirt road must be traveled in order to arrive.

The land tells a story rich in American history. During the American Revolution, between 1780-81, Brigadier General Francis Marion established a camp not far from our cabin on Snow’s Island. Known as the “Swamp Fox”, General Marion would hide in the nearby swamps, surprise and defeat any British troops that passed nearby. Then, he would quickly disappear into its mystical atmosphere.

Ark Lodge, Gresham, South Carolina, Early Spring 2018

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

The Road, Early Spring, 2016

KS: What inspiration, event, or image led you to conceive of the title?

JE: The title was inspired by an early polaroid I created called, “The River’s Arch” (see below). It’s a photograph that spotlights a dark silhouette of my daughter’s body being raised high above the black river; her arched back gracefully outlined by an arc of light against a tree line of ancient cypress. Immediately after capture, it became a visual reference of illumination‑—one that described both the tangible and intangible qualities I was seeking. It also marked a pivotal moment of project; when collaboration met chance under the most unlikely of circumstances.

The word “arc” is liberal with meaning. Its literal definition points directly to the word “arch” or curved path —it also alludes to of the stories of sainthood like Joan of Arc and myths such as Noah’s Ark. I eventually shortened the title to “The Arc” to punctuate the play on words between “Ark Lodge” (the work’s place of origin) and the story “arc” of its principal theme.

The River’s Arch, 2012

Sanctuary (for Artemis), 2018

KS: Why did you decide on using direct positive Polaroid as medium for this project? What led you to pairing these polaroid prints with experimental films?

JE: My art practice has always strived for a certain level and quality of intimacy. Polaroid offered me an opportunity to create one-of-a-kind photographs that evoked a familiar and nostalgic vulnerability. I was courted by their darkroom smell, their size…even the white borders. Within the parameters of the medium I found limitless possibilities. When taken in hand with full awareness, a polaroid becomes a viewer’s world for moment, a place to be still and rest.

I tend to work in series—slowly—with great attention to subtle details of and between the works I create, one from another. As I continued to work with polaroid, my concentration shifted focus from the single image and began to investigate how a sense of momentum could be communicated through a group of images. My interest in filmmaking grew from those studies.

KS: Can you tell us a little about the two poems that accompany the beginning and end of the book? The text offers up an enigmatic yet somewhat ambiguous narrative. How did you decide to weave them into the book?

JE: Both poems were written by my friend/writer, Colleen Nial. The poems were Colleen’s response to a collection of pre-sequenced images I sent her for an entirely different project. Both poems poignantly described the atmosphere of our summers spent along the river while honoring the unsayable aspects of the place. One poem was an evolution of the other. Colleen allowed me the choice of which to use for publication.

The Arc book’s design was inspired during the editing process; the final concept leaned in the project’s heavy emphasis on ritual. The a-ha moment came when my mind relayed back to the poems evolution; they were created from a prescribed order, one from the other. They exemplified ritual in written form. Placing Colleen’s poems at the beginning of the book and end of was a purposeful way to extend another layer of meaning.

Stretching the Day, 2018

Camouflage, 2012

KS: On the topic of poetics, your titles (much like your imagery) flux between fact and fiction. What brought about this decision? 

JE: With The Arc series, titling the work was an opportunity to offer insight to the viewer and/or direct meaning on how it may be perceived. Both the titles and the work aim to bridge a liminal setting of mind with the physical setting; together they create a realm of hovering between the past and present and reality and dream.

With that in mind, the documentary style work was often given abstract phrases and the more ethereal work with concrete descriptions. Describing the work with this approach could influence the viewer’s perception to remain open, not fixed.

KS: While The Arc gives us narrative clues – some ripe with symbolism – it seems to offer an open chronology that comments on the duality of time by illustrating stillness, fleeting moments, ritual, meditation. When you set out to sequence this book, were you concerned with its storytelling aspects? 

JE: Yes. Polaroid as a medium lends itself well to the formulation of a story. Early in my creative process I noticed an oscillation in the imagery between the familiar (a documentation of reality) and a strange otherworldliness (abstraction). As I traced time through the seasons with repetition, my story began to unfold in an unconventional way. Suddenly, polaroids elevated in meaning from snapshots to objects of experience. Through this new way of seeing I found my own voice. Overtime I realized that the symbolic language I was creating, translated into an ambiguous narrative ––one with no fixed beginning, middle and end.

Time was certainly central to The Arc, but the photographs and films lent themselves towards the spiritual–to stillness—where I was not living by time but rather in consideration to the land, my family and my inner state of being. Through the work, I developed awareness of impermanence and the transience of all things. I learned silence to not be the absence of sound, but as something you can actually hear. Ultimately, the work guided me to the final edit of two flowing sequences aimed to mimic a slow-moving river. With that, came the decision to boldly define them with an open, full-spread of the “The River’s Arch”.

As Long as the River Flows, Little Pee River, Summer 2018

The Little Pee Dee River, 2017

Twin Swim, 2017

Earth My Body, Water My Blood, 2017

Summer’s Unbroken Spell, 2016

 KS: How has your use of the direct positive Polaroid influenced this series and your book?

JE: The compactness of the land camera invited inspiration to find me in the strangest of places, at the most unsuspecting times. It appeared when my guard was down, sleep deprived or quietly enveloped in nature. The medium sparked a curious relationship with imperfection and chance. For me, it opened poetry’s door of irrelevance.

 Polaroids are to be held. They offer pause, a time to reflect. Yet, they are not archival and remain susceptible to wide-variety of environmental factors. The closest way to maintain these intimate and tactile qualities seemed to be in book format. Both are invitations to sit in silence, observe and consider. Sharing The Arc this way preserved the integrity of the work; it also made it accessible to a larger, wider audience.

KS: What did this work teach you about making images? Or better, what has making these images taught you about the/your world?

JE: Susan Sontag wrote, “All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” The more I became practiced in the art of polaroid, the more I found the medium to be related to the human condition, imperfect and changeable like our memory.

The work came out of a deep need to connect with the world and myself. A great revelation never did come; the river remained, but the water was always different. In response, I became a huntress of stillness behind the lens. The Arc challenged me to become more comfortable with uncertainty. My commitment was met with many obstacles: the discontinuation of pack-film and the impact of several hurricanes and unprecedented floods to Ark Lodge. What inspired me to continue so long, was a personal revelation–with every peel of this (now obscure) pack-film, I removed a layer of covering over my vulnerable, summer heart.

Grace and Sienna, 2017

To view more of Jen Ervin’s work please visit her website.