The poet and photo historian John Wood once wrote a poem about “the bathers”—all those paintings of young men or young women, nurtured by “summer days and shimmering pools where innocence itself once bathed in embracing lengths of providing light.” He was thinking of Georges Seurat, Frédéric Bazille, Paul Cézanne, and Thomas Eakins who, himself a photographer, bridged the genre into the photographic arts.
Bazille and Eakins rendezvous with their bathers by the shore, where youth awaits them, forever and ever. Raymond Meeks, on the other hand, portrays something just as timeless but almost never painted, and that’s because Halfstory Halflife is less about the “summer days and shimmering pools” and more about the secret of how the bathers got there.
It’s a secret we all knew, at some point. You have to get on your bike and ride until the concrete turns to dirt. Or you have to abandon your car by the roadside. You have to look both ways, to make sure all is clear, before vanishing into the woods. You have to lose your clothes along the path and let the branches scratch across your face. You have to slash through leaves, climb the steep cliffs, descend the muddy banks. The sunlight will not come to you. You have to know behind which trees it’s hiding.
That’s the half of the story not told, the half of youth undisclosed to the timeworn and weary who, themselves, once knew the way to the bathers’ lakes. I imagine it’s for the latter, those for whom youth has come and gone, that Meeks opens the book with this wistful sentiment: “If you could just say I feel lost here and I am going home. For where on earth would you buy that ticket. Who would meet you when you got there. By what sign would they know you.” Here is where you and I sit, looking at these photographs. After all, wherever we are, we’re not with the bathers at the pond. We are lost here, because we have lost there.
In Halfstory Halflife, you can almost hear the branches breaking in the bathers’ wake, the flick of cigarettes being lit, the talk of sex, alcoholic fathers, weekend heroics, maybe even love. There’s plenty of darkness on this path. And the photographs keep secret all that light of summer days and their sempiternal waters. We will never never see them again. I feel a certain sadness about that. It can’t be helped. But more than sadness, I feel the generosity of these images—that they would share, however transient, that exhilarating moment we flung ourselves into the unknowable future.