In the late ’60s, the photographer Linda Troeller went, as a student, to Ghost Ranch, the New Mexico retreat and education center where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted. Troeller was not a serious photographer at that point, but happened to be carrying a camera when she met O’Keeffe herself, one day, indoors at a luncheon.
O’Keeffe spotted the camera. ” ‘What are you doing in here?’ ” Troeller remembers O’Keeffe asking her in an interview segment of “Healing Waters,” a new documentary about Troeller that will be shown at the New Jersey International Film Festival in New Brunswick, June 10. ” ‘Here, let me open the door. Go out and see what the spirits tell you.’ ”
Troeller took that advice to heart. She found herself drawn to photography and — particularly, in many of her projects — the healing qualities of waters. She had been interested in water since she was a girl living in Point Pleasant and would accompany her father, who had suffered a major foot injury in World War II, to the Manasquan Inlet. She would unwrap his gauze bandages for him, and then he would hobble into the water, and soak his foot, and feel better. This was a “big emotional experience” for Troeller, she remembers in the film.
This, and other scenes from Troeller’s life, are dramatized by actors in the film, though most of “Healing Waters” — which shares its name with a 1997 book by her — is devoted to interviews with her and various friends, supporters and photography experts, and displays of her often striking work.
Troeller has traveled to spas all around the world to document the subject of healing waters and the people who use them as part of the healing process. (Troeller and others in the movie note that many cultures have a long history of healing via water, even though it may not be a mainstream American belief). And she also has undertaken photographic projects on other subjects, including the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where she has lived; tuberculosis and AIDS patients; and “The Erotic Lives of Women” (the title of a 1998 book by her).
Seattle filmmakers Derek Johnson and Ali Scattergood co-directed the film, whose artful style — with a cello-dominated score that adds intensity to many of the scenes and stories — suits its subject well. Johnson and Scattergod proceed, more or less chronologically, through Troeller’s life, touching on her early years, when she worked simultaneously as a model and a photographer; how she has healed herself, with water; her late 30s, when she resurrected herself as a photographer after a period when she dropped out of that world to work in public relations, in order to help her husband pay for law school; and the 2016 fire at her house in Lakewood that destroyed most of her photography equipment and 70 percent of her archives.
Johnson and Scattergood also interview Troeller about living through the pandemic. And the film ends, just like it starts, with her at the Manasquan Inlet. (She herself, and not an actress, is filmed there in the present).
Troeller, who turns 74 later this month, thought that she had taken her final photograph — a photo of herself, lying down, as if in a coffin — but has continued to work after that, anyway.
“I love it, because I believe in it,” she says. “I liked being a photographer. I liked being a bohemian. Healing is a process that is ongoing. I think it’s a life process, like breathing.”
“Healing Waters” will be shown at 5 p.m. June 10 at the New Jersey International Film Festival at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, followed by a Q&A session with Troeller and Johnson. And it also will be available online all day June 10. Visit njfilmfest.com.
Here is the film’s trailer:
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