Author’s Note: Devil’s Pool in Wissahickon Valley Park has been a popular spot for sunbathing and swimming for centuries. In the past few decades the site has become the focus of much handwringing, endless Philadelphia Inquirer op-eds, neighborhood organizing, and trash pick-ups. Devil’s Pool is often described as suffering from overuse. During the summer of 2020, when public pools across the city closed due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, people flooded into the Wissahickon. The City briefly introduced “social distancing ambassadors” there and placed a ban on bringing food. City Councilmember Curtis Jones even announced his support of filling Devil’s Pool with gravel to end the trash problem and illegal swimming.
Although the number of visitors to Devil’s Pool and the Wissahickon have somewhat decreased since the height of the pandemic, the fight between neighbors, naturalists, and the thousands of people who use the area for leisure has continued.
None of this contention and controversy is evident in Sarah Kaufman’s monograph of 60 photographs taken over the course of seven years at Devil’s Pool. The photographs sing in praise of summer, a lyrical call to enjoy it while it is here. The subjects of Kaufman’s photographs gossip, lounge, swim, leap, and kiss in celebration of this urban oasis. Although it is often erroneously described as a “hidden gem,” Devil’s Pool is one of the most popular and widely accessible natural spots in Philadelphia. Looking through Kaufman’s photographs, it is hard not to read a class analysis into the joyful pastime of all backgrounds depicted there.
On the first hot spring day this year I took a walk through the Wissahickon with Kaufman that ended at Devil’s Pool. There she talked about her childhood, the pool, and the process of making her book. This interview, in Kaufman’s words, has been edited for clarity.
I grew up in Germantown on Knox Street. My parents moved to the suburbs against my will when I was in high school. I went to college, then grad school, then lived in Brooklyn for three years. When I was in New York I ended up commuting back to Philadelphia to teach as an adjunct at Ursinus College.
I really wanted to end up in Germantown and I did, about a mile and a half away from my childhood home. That is when I rediscovered the Wissahickon, which I’d grown up hiking in. I’d been back a few times, but it wasn’t the center of my world. Immediately after moving back to Germantown, I fell in love with it again.
I was doing a different photography project at the time, but I would hike up and down the valley with my camera taking pictures of how people were engaging with the landscape. I didn’t really know why. My studiomate, who is also a photographer, kept pointing to the images I had made at Devil’s Pool saying, “This is what you love.”
The project I was working on before this was photographing mostly strangers in their homes and asking them to strip down their clothes and show me their daily routine that involves their bodies. I think that’s what drew me to Devil’s Pool. Clothes are stripped down. People are really in their skin, in space, engaging with the landscape and just being true in a way. I don’t think most people would want to pose naked or semi-naked for a camera in just any situation, but here it just feels right. You are in harmony with the landscape and it is so fundamentally human.
I use a Rolleiflex medium format film camera. It is very slow. I only get 12 negatives per roll, and there is a lot of switching film. I would come to Devil’s Pool and just hang out and take in the scene for a while. Then I would get my camera ready and start wandering around and talking to people. I always asked If I could photograph them, even if it’s just getting eye contact or a gesture from far away.
It was important to me to be with the scene, to feel like I am part of the place and what is going on. At the height of the project I was here every weekend in the summer and maybe one weekday in the middle. The repeated visits were really interesting to me because every time it was a different scene, different music, and a different smell. It really felt like it was always rotating. Devil’s Pool almost feels like a theater to me, with the hikers coming through, seeing it as a scene, and passing on. There were always separate groups of people that appear from different neighborhoods and different worlds, but they all seemed to interact with one another. I once met a group of 12-year-old boys who had ridden their BMX bicycles to Devil’s Pool all the way from Gray’s Ferry.
There is this very communal cheering on of the jumpers. In one image in the book someone is jumping from the bridge over Devil’s Pool that I took on a July 4th weekend. I counted how many people there were right before the moment. It was about 120. Folks were screaming at this guy, “No, don’t do it!” or “You’re going to kill yourself!” Then there were others cheering him on. It was this clash of what people wanted from it. When he finally jumped everyone just stopped, dead silent, to watch. He came up from the water and everybody cheered.
The jumping at Devil’s Pool is an interesting release. There is visceral fear. You don’t know exactly what is going to happen. No matter how high you are jumping from, even if it is not that high, it’s like, “What is under the water?” It’s mysterious, it’s dark, and then you emerge again.
This project was seven years of shooting there, so I took thousands of photographs. I would look at them as 5×5 prints, sift through, and reject a whole bunch. I did that a couple times. Three years before the book was finished I looked at what I had and got a sense of what else I wanted or needed to round it out in different ways.
Towards the end, I started looking more at making classic portraits, engaging one on one with the person. What initially captured me were these little figures draped across the landscape, really romantically. Other kinds of photos were always happening too, but I wasn’t as conscious of them. Group portraits were also really interesting to me.
It took six months to get the sequence of the photos right. Once I decided that these 60-ish photographs were the ones, then how do I structure the sequence? That was really a fun process, and it helped me realize that I had finished a project. The photographing was done, and I could play with what I had and come up with.
Growing up in Germantown, it was really violent in my neighborhood. I knew people who had terrible things happen to them. I think maybe looking back and putting it all together, I revisited Devil’s Pool because it is a place in the city where people feel safe. It is a communal escape from the often dangerous and unpredictable nature of living in Philadelphia. I’m not a sociologist so I don’t want to say too much about that kind of thing. But, on a personal level, I think my work relates to that.
I have new ideas percolating about work that captures the visceral moments of connection within the city’s landscape that may begin in the Wissihickon. I don’t know yet, but I think I am going to start out by coming back to Devil’s Pool with my camera and see what it generates.
Yes, the folks seem to be having fun. What could be wrong with that? Take photos of the trash, public urination, and illegal parking higher up the hill.
Why do social justice warriors tend to graduate from expensive, small “liberal” arts colleges, like Haverford (current tuition $63,000 not including room and board)?
Thank you for a wonderful reminder that so much beauty and serenity exists around us, even in an urban area.
Love this story. So glad Sarah came back and you wrote about her book! Philly has so many wonders to explore.
I really enjoyed your article and the photography was simply Philadelphia!Beautiful yet honest.
Sadly, tragically, Valley Green, my playground as a child and running course as an adult(I am an original native of Mt. Airy) is becoming a weekend amusement park, and Devils pool has become a trashy, noisy disrupter compared to what once was a sanctuary of solitude. Respect for the beauty of the outdoors has been replaced with loud radios, swimming despite signage, etc. Breaks my heart how disrespectful people can be and how this one time pristine park has devolved through overpopulation into just another no charge Six Flags.
This is a ridiculous exaggeration. The park is a lot bigger than devil’s pool, and is hardly a ‘six flags.’
You had the good fortune of growing up in the neighborhood. Most of the city lacks such amenities and these days even basic services (including public pools) are a challenge. So, you have to share. You’ll get used to it.
Kind observation and so true. thank you
Agreed. I use to love hiking to devil’s pool and continue over to fingerspan,pass by the Livezy home/dam, then cross over the bridge and back towards Valley Green Inn. It used to be so peaceful. I don’t go that route anymore because i hate to see the way people are (mis)treating such a lovely place (also including by magarge dam). You never know what unrulyness you’re going to encounter… And the drugs…smh…weed and others. 😔☹Sad so sad. I do commend all the volunteers that do their best to clean up and preserve what they can.
The population of Philadelphia peaked at 2 million in 1950. The population is now 3/4 of that. Overpopulation is not the problem. The problem is disrespect for others which is a cultural touchstone within certain groups.
Based on the photographs in this article, I will visit this area only during blizzards.
I’ve been taking photos at Devil’s Pool since I moved from Old City to Chestnut Hill almost 4 years ago. Yes it suffers from a trash and graffiti problem but I have yet to encounter problems with the people themselves and have found most of them very friendly. I’ve seen plenty users carry out their own as well as well as trash of others but honestly carrying trash to the trail head at Valley Green has gotten difficult because of the trails condition. Yesterday I was there for over two hours and watched a couple of the rock jumpers fish out all the garbage and broken glass from the pool so no one would get hurt. Judging by all the fire pits I seeI have a feeling that most of the trash is happening at night.
Great post, and amazing pictures. I’m glad I came here.
I used to take my 2 children to Valley Green in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s. I hadn’t been back there until this past summer of 2022. It was still a wonderful and peaceful place to be for me. Wish I hadn’t waited so long to go back. I have pictures of my children feeding the ducks. So glad I have that memory on pictures. They remember those trips fondly.