Essay by Aaron Schuman
This essay was originally published in:
Either Limits or Contradictions
by Nick Meyer
Daylight Books, 2017
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 ten 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 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, nearby cliffs 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 heatstroke, fainting, vomiting, broken backs, crack skulls, frantic gulps for breath, and blood trickling 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 photographer – 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 seventeen-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 persuade 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 onto 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 to pursue photography seriously, first studying in New York, Providence and Boston, and then receiving his Masters 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; that 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 first met Meyer in the school’s darkroom, more than fifteen 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 of their complexity. I both envied and marveled at his remarkable eye, which digs deep into the profoundly everyday and finds true poetry and purpose within it; which explores with forthright lyricism the tightly-knit world that he has known practically all his life, and still manages to discover piercingly meaningful reflections of life itself, and the troubling beauty of the lives that we all live.
Throughout the course of the book we unwaveringly bear witness as friendships grow and tighten; as relationships blossom, sour, and strengthen; as children are born; as families are formed; as homes are built; as battles are fought; and as the preciousness of time itself is acutely felt, while at the same time drifting gracefully on by. Photography is often celebrated for its ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary – to bring drama, meaning, attention, and imagination to what might otherwise go unnoticed. But here, the ordinary isn’t so much transformed as it is transfixed, and allowed to shine in all of its intricacy and unassuming glory. Meyer’s vision remains steadfastly focused on the double-edged “realness” and entirety of reality – on both the ups and downs, the pleasures and pains, and the wholeness of life when it is well and truly lived. Burning with a infectious urgency, necessity and desire, Meyer treats his reality itself as if it were that old swimming hole; he rushes towards it at full pace, camera in hand, and dives in – he feels (and then reveals) the shock of its impact, its powerful current, its smooth and slippery surfaces, and its sharp edges, which often scrape against our skin – and it fills both us and him with fear and euphoria at the same time. And as the poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (not so coincidentally, also an alumnus of our former high school, and perhaps once a visitor to that swimming hole himself) wrote:
“The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don't mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
going swimming in rivers
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
'living it up'
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling