Sarah Kaufman’s quiet arcadian photos of Devil’s Pool, closing tomorrow at Allen’s Lane

Photos by Sarah Kaufman of an iconic diving pool in Wissahickon Creek are cinematic, beautiful and bring up thoughts of Thomas Eakins' The Swimming Hole painting from 1854-55. - Artblog editor

From Thomas Eakins’ “The Swimming Hole” (1884-1885) to Sarah Kaufman’s “Devil’s Pool,” (2014-ongoing) there’s something in the Philadelphia water that brings out the artists. Of course the beauty of rock outcroppings and secluded natural settings with water will bring out everybody.  But for artists, the human-nature combination creates narrative potential and metaphorical possibilities that are as seductive as sunrise and sunset.

Sarah Kaufman photo of bathers at Devil's Pool
Sarah Kaufman. Devil’s Pool Bathers #4,, 2015. 20×20″ from medium format film

If you have been to the Wissahickon Creek near Valley Forge in weather warm enough to contemplate swimming, you will have seen the divers and cannonballers in swimming suits or cut off jeans, launching themselves from boulders into the pool of water called Devil’s Pool, which was created by the nearby dam on the Creek.

Thomas Eakins' Swimming Hole painting
“Swimming hole” by Thomas Eakins – Amon Carter Museum: Website Webpage Picture. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Quick Q+A from the Friends of the Wissahickon

Q: Is it okay to swim in the Creek?
A: Swimming in any of Philadelphia’s rivers and streams is illegal and dangerous. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health states that swimming and wading is not permitted due to risks of drowning, injury from submerged objects, strong currents, and other hazards. In the past, swimmers at and near Devil’s Pool have drowned or have been seriously injured. More here.


Not mentioned is the pollution levels of the creek and occasional industrial spillages upstream through the years, but I guess that’s covered in “other hazards.”

People and the Pool

Sarah Kaufman photo diptych of Divers into Devil's Pool
Sarah Kaufman. Devil’s Pool Diptych #4, 2014. images 20×20″ each from medium format film

The people who swim, dive and cavort in Devil’s Pool come anyway, to enjoy the beauty, the cool water, the community of like-minded souls who prefer their swimming Free and a little Risky. It’s a young people’s swimming hole.  College students, young families, and those who might not have the money to join the neighborhood pool, if there is one, come to Devil’s Pool.

For an urbanite, one of the big pluses of Devil’s Pool is that it feels like you’re in the woods, which you are, although this woods is also in a city of 1.5 million people. More than a hundred years have passed, but Devil’s Pool is spiritually more akin to Eakins’ Dove Lake Swimming Hole than we might think.



Sarah Kaufman has been in the Devil’s Pool. Some of her wonderful photos, from an ongoing project now on view at Allen’s Lane Art Center (closes tomorrow, Feb. 5, so get on over there), were shot when the artist was waist-deep in the water. That “you-are-there” immersion is a subtle factor, in works themselves quite subtle. That she takes such crisp shots of the flying bodies with her medium format Rolleiflex camera while standing in the pool, makes you understand the control she has over her medium.

Sarah Kaufman photo of jumper at Devil's Pool
Sarah Kaufman. Devil’s Pool Jumper #3, 2015. 20×20″ from medium format film

Stephen Shore’s 1970s series “Uncommon Places” was a documentary photo series on Americana — roadside diners and gas stations, and one of my favorites, a shot of people standing in a sylvan glen in a pool of water  Shore’s snapshot-like photos could feel somewhat irony-tinged. But Kaufman, who is also documenting Americana, or, Philadelphiana is not in the least bit ironic. There’s an unabashed appreciation of the subject that comes across in the generous treatment of the place and people and the feats of derring do.

The Cinematic Effect of the Work

The square format of Kaufman’s prints imbue the works with a cinematic feel, and to be surrounded in a gallery by the prints on the walls is to feel in the midst of a kind of film strip that’s been un-sprocketed and set before you, frame by frame. There’s no one narrative here but many, from days and nights Kaufman spent photographing at this spot, which is her current obsession.

Sarah Kaufman photo of person jumping into Devil's Pool
Sarah Kaufman. Devil’s Pool Jumper #1, 2015. 20×20″ from medium format film

The nature of Devil’s Pool is truly gorgeous, but what Kaufman’s eye dwells most lovingly on is the people, especially their gestures, the body language of those standing on the rocks, flying through the air, or hanging around in the water. She’s also good with faces.

There have got to be raucous noisy days at Devil’s Pool, but Kaufman’s photos are quiet. The jumping scenes capture the still moment before flesh hits water and water erupts in splash, and voices erupt in cheers.

About the Artist

Kaufman is an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University.  She grew up in the Philadelphia region and teaches now at Ursinus College.  She was juried by Peter Barbarie, the PMA’s Curator of Photography, into a 2009 Onward Exhibition at Project Basho, with photos of people posing nude in their homes.  Here’s my brief mention from the review: “Among the best people photos in the show are two by Sarah Kaufman, including “Untitled Blue Smoke,” which catches a woman, nude, in such an unguarded natural moment you have to wonder how many minutes or shots it took to get to this level.”

Sarah Kaufman‘s series, Devil’s Pool, closes Feb. 5, 2016 at Allen’s Lane Art Center.