Photographer Stephanie Lister’s new book, East to El Rancho, West to Walt Disney, is perfectly titled. In the opening pages, the Florida-grown, but Oakland-based artist begins to explain what it means: “It’s a mnemonic device my mother handed me when I started driving to help remember directions on the Interstate.” But by the end of the 136-page compilation, the phrase feels soaked with meaning — heavy, like wet locks emerging from a pool on a humid afternoon in Orlando.
The El Rancho was a motel near Orlando owned by Lister’s grandparents. When she was born, her parents moved there from Palm Springs. For a few years, Lister’s father ran the office, and her mother cleaned the rooms. Meanwhile, she forged short-lived friendships with tourists by the pool, rode along with the towels in the cleaning cart, and helped her mother stretch clean sheets across cheap mattresses. Spending her early childhood living in a motel seemed typical to Lister at the time. “It didn’t really sink in until I got older,” she said in an interview. “It was pretty normal, but then everything seems normal when you’re living it.”
The titular Disney reference is more easily deciphered. In Orlando, Disney World is “always there in the background,” said Lister. It wasn’t merely a landmark, but a setting saturated with artificial colors that stained everything it touched. Even Lister has Disney ink on her, albeit an unholy tattoo of an upside-down Mickey Mouse. “Disney has always been such a weird, pervasive, evil shadow in my life,” she said.
Neither the El Rancho nor Disney World make it into the book explicitly, but the aesthetics of those places loom over its contents, which are mostly the product of Lister’s compulsion to process her surroundings photographically. Almost entirely shot between 2006 and 2013, the photos range from when Lister first started taking photographs in high school, to after she had graduated with an associate’s in photography from a community college in Daytona, to when she and her sister decided to move to Oakland on a whim two years ago. Collectively, the mostly candid images amount to a romantic portrait of central Florida that feels somehow both authentic and artificial — like when you’ve been immersed in an amusement park for so long that the illusion begins to look like reality.
In one photo, Lister’s feet emerge from the bottom of the frame holding her sister, in a floral bathing suit, up into the air. With the sun behind her head, the girl’s golden hair glows in the light, but her face is counterintuitively lit up, too. A fill-flash illuminates her freckles, also causing the necklace that she’s holding to create a confusing shadow on her chest. It’s visually alienating, as if she’s superimposed into the sky, yet also utterly intimate. On the following page, Lister’s mother stands in the sun with a bright orange tan, mouth agape, wearing a visor and fake floral lei. It’s as if she’s inhabiting an amusement park version of her own life, performing an outsider’s idea of what Florida is like. She was dressed up for a tourist-themed party, Lister told me, but the viewer doesn’t know that. “[In Orlando], you’re a tourist in your own town,” said Lister. “That was always kind of isolating.”
About a year later, Megan Mirro of the Oakland publisher Mirro Editions, asked Lister to put together a book of her work after seeing her present a slideshow as part of artist and archivist Justin Clifford Rhody’s monthly series Vernacular Visions. It was a welcome request, especially since Lister hasn’t shown her photography in the Bay Area since she moved (lately, she’s mostly focused on the performance practice she maintains with her sister under the moniker Oracle Plus). So she began sifting through her personal “archive,” which she said consists largely of long ribbons of negatives draped on hangers around her bedroom. During that time, Lister came to realize that she was finally far enough away from Florida that she could look back at her experiences there — a process familiar to anyone who has moved away from their childhood home. It’s that complicated distance that makes her book feel relatable, even to those who may have never been to the swamplands.
In this way, the book serves as both a portrait of growing up in Florida and a visual metaphor for memory. As Lister depicts it, the act of remembering is like trying to gain access to a dream that grows increasingly alienating as you age. Eventually, the distance is so great that you feel like a tourist taking a trip to your own past.
Alongside the perfect title, Lister’s book has a pleasingly apt photo on its cover. In what looks like a drab hotel room, two neon lamps shaped like pink flamingos adorn a bedside table. Within the collection, the photo is an anomaly — Lister took it last year during a trip to Oregon. She described it as a shot of her looking at Florida from afar, similar to how she describes the book as a whole: “It’s me understanding where I’m from now that I’ve left.”