Swimming Hole

At the end of long high school days in May, as the summer dawned and the air became cloying and muggy, we used to pile into someone’s hand-me-down car—often seven or eight of us, sprawled across each other’s laps, all lanky arms and supple thighs, slippery with sweat—and head north across the state border.

The ritual dictated that the windows had to be rolled up all the way, and when the engine started, both the radio and heating system would come on, too— simultaneously and at full blast. Thick warm air with a hint of burnt oil and exhaust fumes would pour from the vents, filling the car with a stifling, suffocating heat.

It was a short drive, only nine or 10 miles— first past the old drive-in, and then past the package store known to be lenient with minors, with its gallery of crooked signs out front, advertising cheap cigarettes and bargain beer—but it always felt like an eternity. By the time we finally parked at the side of the road, we could hardly breathe, hearts thumping, nauseous from the lack of fresh air and back-and-forth bends in the journey. Then, in an instant, the doors were thrown open, and in a panic we’d run through the woods at full speed, strip to our underwear, and dive into the cold rushing river before our desperation dissipated.

After all, that was entirely the point—the moment of relief, of release, but more than that, the euphoria; the icy cut of cold water crashing against our feverish skin. The adrenaline rush was enormous, and in order to extend it once our bodies had acclimatized, some of us would scramble up high cliffs nearby and jump off, optimistically aiming for the deepest pool between the hard granite rocks.

Others would climb to the small waterfall upstream, scraping knees and shins and elbows along the way; they would then fight against its heavy vertical current until they could just squeeze into the small cave behind and finally rest, the thunderous wall of water now protecting rather than battering them.

In retrospect, more than two decades on, my memories of these afternoons are bittersweet, tinged with something palpably uncomfortable and contradictory. Apart from the apparent carefree teenage romanticism of it all, there are always subtle threatening echoes of anxiety and danger at the back of my mind: visions of heat- stroke, fainting, vomiting, broken backs, cracked skulls, frantic gulps for breath, and blood trick- ling from raw, wet wounds, down long limbs, into the crystal-clear water. I remember these moments fondly, but not without trepidation, never able to shake the disquieting undertones of insecurity, apprehension, worry, and outright fear that often accompanied them.

Approximately five years following my first experience of that swimming hole—after moving to New York for college, “living it up,” and then struggling to pay off my student loans after graduation as a sporadically employed photog- rapher—I reluctantly found myself back at my former high school. I’d agreed to teach photography there for a year, full-time, while my former teacher took a sabbatical. That was when I first met Nick Meyer—a skinny 17-year-old skate-kid at the time, with baggy Carhartts, a grubby baseball cap, and a chunky SLR slung over his shoulder— who haunted the darkrooms every chance he could get.

For me it was a low and lonely time, filled with long, heart-wrenching phone calls to my distant girlfriend every night, and even longer midnight drives—away from the all-too-familiar—back down to New York every weekend. But Meyer, along with a handful of other keen photo students like him, kept my spirits afloat—their wide-eyed curiosity and genuine dedication encouraged me to focus on teaching, on feeding and exploring our shared passion (for both their sake and mine), and helped to convince me that at least I might be doing something useful for the time being.

Years later, once I’d left the school for good, moved back to the city, and then gone on to England, where I built a family, a career, and finally a life for myself, I was thrilled to learn that Meyer had also gone on to pursue photography seriously, first studying in New York, Providence, and Boston, and then receiving his master’s in San Francisco under the tutelage of some of my own heroes, including Jim Goldberg and Larry Sultan.

But also, through conversations with old friends and the general social grapevine, I knew that Meyer’s life—like mine, like everyone’s—was not always as perfect as it seemed; he’d been hit hard by the unexpected loss of his mentor (Sultan), as well as by the sudden death of both his best friend and his father in earlier years.

Several months ago, Meyer got in touch with me again and asked me to have a look at an early draft of his new book—Either Limits or Contradictions—explaining: “We moved back up here last spring, right next door to where I grew up. Luke [Meyer’s older brother] and his family live in the house we grew up in, and my sister lives through the woods, on the adjacent street. I really didn’t expect this to be my reality.” The tone of this last sentence seemed wistful, almost apologetic, as if he was self-conscious about the fact that his journey through life had ultimately led him back to where he had started.

I knew this feeling well; I’d experienced it deeply during that year in which I rst met Meyer in the school’s darkroom, more than 15 years ago. But looking through Either Limits or Contradictions, I was overwhelmed by how honest, how focused, how entrenched, and how profoundly in tune Meyer was with this reality—how, despite its daunting familiarity, he was able to evoke the unexpected, capture its particular essence and hidden subtleties, and uncover its layers in all their complexity.

Nick Meyer

Nick Meyer lives and works in Western Massachusetts with his wife, dog and two young daughters. He is the recipient of the Pace Gallery Award and the Barclay Simpson Prize. In 2005 he earned his BFA at Massachusetts College of Art and his MFA from California College of the Arts in 2008. His work has been shown both nationally and internationally and is included in numerous private collections.