Summer’s Ark: The Photography of Jen Ervin

Every month an exclusive edition run of a photograph by an artist featured in Don't Take Pictures magazine is made available for sale. Each image is printed by the artist, signed, numbered, and priced below $200.

We believe in the power of affordable art, and we believe in helping artists sustain their careers. The full amount of the sale goes to the artist.

We are pleased to release February's print, Emergence from Jen Ervin. Read more about Ervin's work below.

Purchase this print from our print sale page.

Archival inkjet print from original Polaroid
3.28 x 4.25", signed and numbered edition of 5

Every time it rains in Virginia, I look out the window and imagine the world has suddenly turned into a black and white photograph: low hues of grey draped over bright white highlights and rich black shadows. It was only fitting that the first day I explored Jen Ervin’s work was such a day. Her photographs—familiar with a hint of mystery—quieted my mind. Young girls holding freshly shed snakeskins and untamed vines gently cajoled me into dark waters filled with baby alligators and horseshoe crabs.

The River's Arch

For the last three years Jen Ervin has been exploring the magic of childhood and its ties to nature through the lens of her Polaroid Land Camera. Her images present the freedom of youth as timeless and vibrant, just like the wilderness that grounds them. Ervin’s main subjects consist of her three daughters during summers spent at their family’s rustic vacation home deep in the woods of South Carolina. Built in the 1940s and known as Ark Lodge, the cabin provides a glimpse into the ever-receding wilderness that once ruled the American East. A safe haven for all forms of wildlife, the cabin’s surroundings are an entrancing dream world where the mosquitos reign and the cicadas sing. It is a place where, as Ervin puts it, “Time literally stands still … It hasn’t changed in the last 50 years at all.” Ervin was raised in rural northwestern New Jersey, near the borders of Pennsylvania and New York, a region defined by hills, lakes, and woods. Her parents worked tirelessly to provide their four children with a simple life, surrounded by nature, music, and the freedom of visual expression. With her mother’s influence and encouragement, Ervin knew she wanted to be an artist by the time she was five. “[My mother] taught me how to wonder and appreciate my surroundings—to really look at things,” Ervin says. “We didn’t have a lot money, so I became very resourceful. I would draw on paper bags from the grocery store, try to make my own paint with glue and chalk, and [build] natural sculptures in the yard.”

When she was 16, Ervin’s family relocated to South Carolina where she felt uprooted, shy, and out of place in the unfamiliar southern culture. A year later she met the young man who would become her husband. He invited her to his grandfather’s summer cabin, Ark Lodge, nestled deep in the Southern backcountry. Ervin remembers being amazed with the wildness of the land and river, and surprised by the length and roughness of the dirt road that led there. Until she became familiar with the place, she was frightened by the wilderness: “I found the swamps haunting and I was terrified of snakes and alligators.”

In a Floating World

Ervin’s academic background is in painting, religion, and graphic design. Her images are rooted in tradition, emotion, and an interest in storytelling that she has harbored since childhood. Compositionally, her photographs exhibit a deep understanding of the balance between tonality, texture, and form. Each image independently stands stoic, yet forms a visual poem when paired with another. This is particularly evident in her most recent work. In one photograph, water delicately envelops her daughter’s slow float down the river as bubbles threaten to burst or merge with the water’s surface. Combined with other images depicting the various water textures, the photographs could be the formation of the first sentence to an introspective poem: A young girl in a river, lost in the nature of thought.

Despite their clear freedom to play, Ervin often depicts her children with a serious demeanor. This challenges the dominant stereotypes about children, which portray them as constantly happy, able to turn the most banal moment into a carefree one. “There are a lot of reasons why I look for moments [that run counter to such stereotypes],” Ervin explains. “I think I’m a mother, and there are a lot of ideal expectations of motherhood and what it’s like to raise children and a lot of them are wrong. In fact I didn’t transition into motherhood easily at all … I think we have this idea that children are very innocent and that they’re happy all the time and they’re not. They may not be able to articulate how they feel … especially where my girls are now at their age, they have a lot of conflict and emotions and thoughts and they can’t really articulate it necessarily in words but they do it in expression.” There is a growing movement in contemporary photography for a photographer to document the somber moments of childhood. The pause between smiles represents the composure and introspection of adulthood.

Sycamore Bark

The uncut immediacy of the Polaroid format parallels the immediacy felt in youth. More significantly, Polaroids are closely associated with snapshots made of friends and family, a quality that is accentuated by the small size of Polaroid prints. Their size is an important part of the presentation of Ervin’s work. Scanning and enlarging the Polaroids would undermine the quiet nature of the work. “People want to see big, perfect large format photography, that seems to be the popular thing. I think it’s a challenge to show the small works, and then an even bigger challenge to show small, intimate, subtle work.”

Ervin says that her photographs are “born from my need to create and my daughters’ need to run wild.” This beautiful collaboration between artist and subject makes for images that are subtle yet profound. The series is the result of lives running alongside one another. Her girls are on the brink of their teenage years, but Ervin is unfazed. Her interest in creating a collaborative visual archive of time spent at Ark Lodge may resurface one day when her daughters return to the lodge as adults with their own families, ready to explore the wilderness anew.

This article first appeared in print in Issue 5.

Inga Schunn is the oldest of four girls, thusly fated to be forever focused on the empowerment of the feminine energy. She enjoys writing poetry and photographing her siblings.