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In his exploration of an overlooked American subculture, Utah photographer Mark Hedengren learned a simple but vital skill — the easiest way to find the swimming hole near any small town.

"Go to the local McDonald's and ask people where to find the swimming hole," Hedengren says. "They would always tell me in detail where to find the best places."

Hedengren spent much of two years tracking down homely swimming holes and photographing the youth culture and heedless social life that revolve around them.

"Overwhelmingly, the people there have just graduated from high school or are a few years older," he said. "But when it's really hot, adults, even grandmothers, will join in."

He dispels any bucolic "Andy of Mayberry" image: "It's about idleness. There's a lot of drinking and drunks and that's kind of a big part of it."

More than 30 of Hedengren's images are collected in "The Invincibility Fable," an exhibition that runs through Aug. 18 at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Hedengren, who is also a filmmaker, has a bachelor's degree in fine art from Brigham Young University and a master's degree from the Glasgow School of Art.

Previously, Hedengren spent several years revisiting "Three Mormon Towns," a controversial 1954 Life magazine photo essay by Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams focusing on St. George, Gunlock and Toquerville, which resulted in his 2010 exhibit at Salt Lake City's Rio Gallery.

UMOCA chief curator Aaron Moulton says he was attracted to Hedengren's work because it's an anthropological study of youth that offers a refreshing unself-consciousness that "isn't framed in reality television."

"You find a lot of interest in situations of youth in New York and Los Angeles," Moulton says of such photographic work. "Mark is applying that approach in an interesting way to the Mountain West. It's got a nice balance of danger and nostalgia to it."

Hedengren says he devised a working definition for swimming hole as an informal place to go swimming in nature, because his locations varied from a creek in Tennessee to a lake in Wisconsin to an irrigation ditch in New Mexico.

In fact, the subculture usually disappears when a community grows big enough to have a public pool with lifeguards and adult oversight. "If the town's big enough to have a recreation center, everyone goes there," he says.

In Hedengren's opinion, the best swimming holes have some stunning cliffs and perhaps a college nearby to provide a broader economic demographic to the participants.

One of the best, he says, is Sand Hollow Reservoir outside Hurricane in Washington County, where red cliffs provide a spectacular — and photogenic — diving platform. "That's a great one," the photographer says.

The exhibit's title, "Invincibility Fable," comes from the fearlessness of the swimmers, who dive off cliffs, trees and bridges into uncertain water.

"What they are doing is so insanely dangerous. It's just crazy," Hedengren says. "But they don't see that at all. They have this fearlessness. A sense of invincibility."

Hedengren, who is 30, says he has turned down invitations to join in the diving. At a hole in Lovelock, Colo., a regular tried to talk him to a leap, saying, "Only one person has died."

"Of course, they can pull it off," he says of the terrifying plunges. "They have the perfect athleticism of youth."

That fearlessness, he says, enthralls older viewers. "They're attracted to the possibilities of that early stage — seeing people on the edge of a life of infinite possibilities. They're fun to hang out with because they are so excited about life."

gwarchol@sltrib.com; facebook.com/nowsaltlake —

Young, crazy and wet

Mark Hedengren's "Invincibility Fable" explores a rural youth culture.

When • Through Aug. 17

Where • Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City

Hours • Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday: 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

More • For a guide to swimming holes throughout the West, visit http://www.swimmingholes.org/we.html.

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