Summer is for many a season of youth and dreams, of lighthearted moments we have longed for, as sunbeams and shadows stretch on hot sidewalks and a nightly breeze, along with crickets’ chirping, serenades our dreamy thoughts.
“Many of us as kids wait endlessly for summer to come,” says Cheryle St. Onge, an American photographer and photography teacher, as she introduces her body of work Young Summer Love, a black-and-white essay that celebrates sweet youthful moments captured in a summer camp in the late 1980s. The recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009 for her work Natural Findings, St. Onge has treasured this unpublished body of work for many years.
Shot over two summers (1987-1988), Young Summer Love depicts scene of a summer camp in Raymond, a small, rural, working-class town in the middle of New Hampshire, blending together playful moments with an intimate nostalgia. “No school, running through the fields, fireflies, sleeping in a tent,” is how St. Onge describes the carefree, suspended time that permeates her delicate aesthetic.
With a masters degree from the Massachusetts College of Art and a previous experience teaching photography to middle school students in Prescott Park, N.H., at 26, St. Onge was fresh out of college when she started working as the art director at the camp.
As she planned the facility’s day-to-day activities, she couldn’t refrain from capturing the joyful moments unfolding before her. Wandering around the camp or hanging out at the Pawtuckaway State Lake Park, she would look through the viewfinder of her Hasselblad and Rollei cameras, in the same playful way we would today with iPhones, she says.
“Just looking down, you see things coming out of that square, and you’re kind of always playing games: somebody’s arm is coming in, [or] how do you fill that area… It was fun! Everybody does this with Instagram [today]: you wonder around with your phone, you compose that square...That was happening a lot with that body of work,” St. Onge explains.
Nicholas Nixon, Barbara Bosworth and Abelardo Morell, who have been her teachers during the college years, were also her sources of inspiration. To some extent, Young Summer Love is the result of that.
“These pictures are just me having been out of grad school not very long and taking those ideas about composition and practicing every day,” she says. “Some of these pictures pay a little homage to [what] I took from Nick [Nixon] in his early pictures: he would often cut off an arm on one side and kind of give you an arm and a leg on the other side,” she explains.
St. Onge already had some experience photographing children. At 21, she photographed young students coming home from school in the streets of Worcester, Mass. That project - along with a lengthy work focused on horses, Well Below the Withers - earned her the admission to college.
Still, Young Summer Love has remained under the radar until these days. A busy mother of three, St. Onge, now 54, has focused predominantly on her family and her academic career, teaching photography at Clark University, Maine College of Art and the University of New Hampshire where she still works as an adjunct professor.
However, she has never put her camera down. Inspired by the nature and landscape around her, playing with the light and engaging her children in the making of her projects, St. Onge has produced a poetic body of work, Natural Findings, which earned her the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009.
“We’d go out walking and they’d catch tadpoles and frogs and fishes and things like that. And the only thing I could think to have some fun was to start making pictures. That’s what became the Natural Findings.” The fellowship marked a turning point in her career, as she started attending photo festivals and showing her work around, which resulted in several photo exhibitions and a soon-to-be-published book. She is now working on a new project, Offshore with N.O.A.A., a photography documentation about sailing off the New England coast with her family.
Still, she dearly remembers those lighthearted days of summer in Raymond.
“When I look at Young Summer Love now, with my Instagram feed, my hectic schedule, and my own children now near adults, I am reminded of the bliss I felt to be young myself, welcomed by these kids and able to share my art-making with them under sunny skies and quiet landscape at far slower pace than my current days.” Still some of her older photographs moved beyond a simple documentation of summer days, she says: “These people were offering you something, they were giving you a bit of a glimpse into what their hour was like, day in, day out, all summer long.”
Cheryle St. Onge is a photographer, artist and photography teacher who lives and works between Durham, N. H. and coastal Maine. For more of her work visit her website or follow her on Instagram. Natural Findings will be exhibited at the UNM Art Museum, Albuquerque, N.M., June 5 to August 8, 2015, and at the Schick Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Spring, N.Y., Sept. 17 to Oct. 25, 2015.