JTF (just the facts): Published by Image Text Ithaca Press in 2018 (here). Clothbound foil-stamped hardcover, 120 pages, with 60 color photographs. Includes an essay by Laura Wexler. In an edition of 700 copies. Also includes a separately bound companion volume with an essay by Emma Kemp. Design by Elana Schlenker. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Jo Ann Walters grew up in the Midwestern United States, in Alton, Illinois, a small blue-collar town on the Mississippi River. In 1985, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel and photograph the landscape alongside the length of the Mississippi, but she quickly found herself drawn to more personal questions, and that year she started photographing Alton, spending the next several decades visiting similar small towns and villages around that part of the country. Her portraits of the inhabitants of these places depict generations of women and families, always driven by the same central question: “what did it feel like to grow up in a small relatively isolated blue-collar town in Middle America?” Through photography, Walters explores the subtle rhythms of community and family, ultimately looking back to her own memories and upbringing.
Walters has recently published this body of work in a photobook, Wood River Blue Pool. Water is essential to Alton – “wood river” refers to a small inflow of the Mississippi River that runs along the edge of the town, while “blue pool” connects to a watery pool that emerges from a disused quarry site near the river and is haunted by numerous rumors and myths. It is a square clothbound book, with the artist’s name and title appearing in shiny light pink; an embossed rectangle marks the placement of the companion volume. Blue Pool Cecilia is a smaller book with only text, with the image of a woman embossed on the cover.
Wood River Blue Pool opens with a striking image: on the doorstep of a shabby family house, we see a young blond woman in a white blouse and jeans as she looks to her left through the screen door, with a little boy leaning against the door, covering his eyes with his left arm. Flanked by ornate ironwork, their postures and the set up make the image feel like a still from a movie, with something lurking out there in the yard likely offering both excitement and trouble.
Walters primarily captures her subjects in their intimate domestic environments: a boy in pajamas and robe stands in the middle of his living room laughing with a bird on his head; a teenage girl in a dressing gown sits on the kitchen counter with her leg in the sink; a girl brushes her mother’s wet hair; a young girl curls her lashes in the back seat of the car. The photographs give us a glimpse of their everyday lives and their humble surroundings, and what it feels like be a woman growing up there.
Many of the portraits are shot outside – in the garden, the backyard, the park, and on the sidewalk – and we immediately notice Walters’ masterful control of light. One image captures kids playing outside: a young blond girl leans against a handrail looking into the camera, while a boy gently squeezes a fluffy tabby cat and another girl hangs upside down on a rail bar. In another picture, a young girl on a bicycle looks back over her shoulder as she passes a house (perhaps she lives there, or wishes she did), and the next spread shows two little girls playfully dancing barefoot on the sidewalk. These are typical neighborhood moments, but Walters’ attention gives them a sense of outsized importance and grace. A portrait of an elderly woman shot outside, perhaps in the backyard, captures her elegance and confidence, but also offers a hint of uncertainty. Within the boundaries of suburban homogeny, Walters uncovers diversity and complexity in her female characters, showing us moments of introspection and laughter, connection and isolation. Only a few men appear in the photographs, and these shots reinforce their protective roles within the larger community – the real stories here though lie with the women and girls.
In general, there is plenty of sunlight in these pictures, with smiles and touches marking the enduring intimacy between families and friends. The warmth and brightness of the light enhances the sense of tenderness and beauty, yet it also makes the whole setting feel like a fairy tale, a place removed and disconnected from reality.
The text by Laura Wexler puts Walters’s imagery in historical and social context, bringing the racial history of her hometown to the forefront. Illinois was a free state located across from the slave state of Missouri, and Alton became both an important town for abolitionists (it was an active station on the Underground Railroad that transported runaway slaves to the north) and also attracted slave-catchers and pro-slavery activists. We learn about Elijah Parish Lovejoy, an outspoken young publisher, who was murdered in 1837 by a pro-slavery mob. While today Lovejoy is praised as anti-slavery hero and is celebrated by the black community, the white children don’t regularly learn about him at school, and know very little about the violent past of their hometown. During Walters’ childhood, Alton was largely a segregated town with strict boundary lines, and not much has changed today. As we look back at the portraits, we now wonder how well the protected surroundings prepare these girls for the more racially diverse and complex future that lies ahead.
The writer Emma Kemp was sent on an assignment to Alton to write a story which has been published in a companion volume Blue Pool Cecilia. It brings to light the murder of a young white woman named Cecilia – she was drowned in the blue pool. Cecilia’s story is closely interwoven with those of Walters and the many women of Alton, adding more layers to the multi-generational female narrative.
As we get to know these women and imagine their lives though these photographs and stories, Walters ultimately revisits and redefines her own history of growing up in this isolated place. She does it with grace and power, finding beautiful and dramatic reality in “a world to which the daily lives of most of us relate, either by inclusion or exclusion”. Wood River Blue Pool is a solidly good and significant book, where the clever integration of striking photographs and related texts reminds us of the importance of making the overlooked nuances of women’s lives more visible.
Collector’s POV: Jo Ann Walters does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked above).