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Bear Mountain, New York. Interracial activities at Camp Fern Rock, where children are aided by the Methodist Camp Service, practicing on the archery range. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1943. //

Seeing the Season: Scenes from Summer Camp

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The following is a guest post by Kate Fogle, Assistant Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division.

The solstice has come and gone, and summer has invariably set in. While the temperature is cool in the Prints & Photographs (P&P) Division’s storage spaces —to safeguard our materials from the ravages of heat and humidity—a selection of P&P’s holdings can transport the eye to a place where summer’s bounty appears boundless. The summer camp, humble in its beginnings as a respite from the urban environment, offers an alternative of fresh air, wholesome activities, and the wilds of nature, and remains a youth staple during the warmest months.

Photographer Carol M. Highsmith captures the promise of adventure while away at camp with hanging shoe racks revealing various kinds of footwear. These campers have come prepared for a range of activities in the days ahead. The bunks, with their worn paint, provide seasonal visitors a place to rest and ruminate.

Shoes are stored in transparent racks that hang from bunk beds in a cramped room. The windows are covered with slatted blinds.
A camper’s bunk at Camp Waldemar, one of several summer camps in the Texas Hill Country near the town of Hunt, near Kerrville in Kerr County, Texas. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, June 10, 2014.

Learning to swim and assist others in aquatic pursuits often fills a summer camper’s days. In this image from 1943, a sectioned-off area for beginner swimmers is put to good use while a boy watches from the edge of a dock, its wood wet from splashing and the dripping of soaked swimsuits.

A boy stands on a wet dock above a group of people swimming and splashing in water.
Southfields, New York. Interracial activities at Camp Nathan Hale, where children are aided by the Methodist Camp Service. The crib, a shallow swimming pool for learners. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1943. /

These girls are learning lifesaving techniques taught by a Red Cross instructor at a Y.W.C.A. summer camp in 1924. This archaic form of resuscitation, a version of the Schaefer method, advises keeping rescued people on their stomachs with their arms raised above their heads, while pressure is applied to their backs.

A woman stands near a group of girls straddling the back legs of their prone female partners. Everyone is wearing a bathing suit.
Resuscitation: part of life saving work taught by Miss Elisabeth Lewis, A.R.C. examiner and member of J.R.C. Comm. Demonstration held at Y.W.C.A. summer camp, Sept. 1924. Photo, 1924. //

Mastering techniques and growing skills can be a meaningful camp experience, yet it’s the meeting of new friends that brings out the camp magic. In this image, three girls pose for a photo while seated together on boulders. Their proximity suggests a comfort with one another, friendships formed over warm days. The caption notes that this camp was a joint venture between a chapter of the American Red Cross and the Tuberculosis Association. If these girls were afflicted with the lung condition, spending their summer outdoors together, rather than in isolation, would have brightened an otherwise dismal situation.

Three girls sit perched on boulders and pose for a photographic portrait. One girl holds a doll.
Children in the Kiddies Camp in Santa Margarita Canyon in San Luis Obispo County, California, This camp was inaugurated by the Juniors and the Red Cross Chapter in cooperation with the county and the Tuberculosis Association. Fifty boys and girls were in camp this summer (1920). Photo, ca. 1920. //

Though new relationships are highlights of the time spent at camp, communicating with loved ones remains a reassuring activity when campers miss their families and familiar routines. Here, a girl holds a letter while another checks the mail that’s been sorted and stored in a slotted shelf. This comforting correspondence could have sustained campers who were, as the caption states, away from home for eight weeks.

An older girl holds a letter in her hand while a younger girl looks through mail on a slotted shelf.
Interlochen, Michigan. National music camp where 300 or more young musicians study symphonic music for eight weeks each summer. Mail from home. Photo by Arthur S. Siegel, 1942. //

While the phrase “summer camp” usually connotes enjoyment and encouragement to grow one’s autonomy, the concept has been used alternatively to create structure and to train young people for future pursuits. This group of boys has been steeped in the form and function of the U.S. Navy, all within the span of a summer. Such a large group necessitated a massive photograph, as this panoramic image makes clear.

A large group of uniformed young men pose in formation for an oversized photographic portrait.
Boys summer camp, Naval Training Station, Hampton Roads, Va., Aug. 12, 1920. Photo by G.L. Hall Opt. Co., August 12, 1920. //

But the true spirit of summer camp involves fun, and this trio is certainly partaking. With bows steadied, they aim arrows at an archery target formed out of hay. Though their gazes are fixed, focused on the target’s face, their slight smiles signal the pleasure in their play–joyful recreation in a summer well spent.

Three young kids hold archery bows and point them at a target made of fabric and hay.
Bear Mountain, New York. Interracial activities at Camp Fern Rock, where children are aided by the Methodist Camp Service, practicing on the archery range. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1943. //

Note: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly identified the resuscitation method demonstrated as the Holger Nielsen method when it is, in fact, the Schaefer method.

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  1. Summer camps are still great fun and great for children.

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