Beauty in simplicity: Local photographers keep community connected in quarantine

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BRATTLEBORO — In a photograph by Brattleboro resident Mary White, a handful of cloth masks hang on the knobs of a kitchen cupboard, illuminated by sunlight — a visual, she said, that speaks to life in a pandemic.

The image is one in a series, called "At Home," White started after people began quarantining to curb the spread of COVID-19. Since May 8, she has been taking still life photos inside and outside her home and sharing them daily via her personal social media and in "Brattleboro, Vermont," a public group on Facebook. Her photos include snapshots of life around the house, featuring items such as a book in a lap outdoors, heirlooms, such as her grandmother's wash pitcher, and old toys, such as her adult son's GI Joes that he playfully took out during a recent visit.

"The point of the series is to give you a couple of minutes of something to smile about, even though it can be dark times," said White, 68.

She posts her photos with questions, and requests her viewers to share their own images. During some cold weather, she summoned the motivation to clean and organize her garage, and after some hesitation, posted a picture of the finished job. She recalls with a laugh this being her most popular photograph, inspiring others to share images of their own cleaned garages.

"It's just a nice way to connect with people in the community," she said.

Kris Alden, 72, of Brattleboro, said she looks for White's photos first-thing when she opens social media. She recalled White's image of a "Flower Aquarium," a glass dome containing live flowers, as another popular post that attracted many comments.

"It's just that kind of engagement and that kind of back and forth with people in the comments that really helps at a time like this," Alden said.

She calls individuals like White and Nicole Reisman, a Brattleboro chef who prepares free meals for local residents, the "heroes" of the pandemic.

"Everybody is looking for something that's close to normal because nobody knows what normal is going to look like in a month, or six months or whatever, and I think Mary's photos give that to people," Alden said.

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Joyce Sullivan, 60, White's neighbor across the street, calls herself "not a big Facebook user," but said White's photography is one of the reasons she regularly logs on.

"She makes everything just a tiny bit more whimsical," Sullivan said. "It speaks to all of us, because, right? We all have a basement that could be needing to be cleaned out, or we have our masks gathered somewhere in our houses."

The "At Home" project succeeds "Downtown Reflections," White's series of 100 photos of downtown Brattleboro that ended right around the beginning of the stay-at-home order. Now at almost 50 photos for "At Home," she said she does not expect her current project to reach 100 images.

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"There's no set plan," she said. "We'll just see how it goes, but I think it might be a stretch to have it be 100."

White, a retired librarian, describes herself as an amateur photographer, having "dabbled in photography ever since I was young." Her father was a professional photographer. She took photos for her high school newspaper and had a dark room in her apartment as a young adult.

"I don't take a lot of time taking a photograph, like some photographers might," she said. "I'm more of a snapshot kind of person."

She has taken all of her "At Home" photos on her iPhone.

Elizabeth Ungerleider, of Brattleboro, called White's photos "evocative in a timeless way," noting that none of them appear to show any artificial light.

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"There's nothing super modern looking in the photos, and I think I really like that, being on the older side," said Ungerleider, 59. "That's soothing to me."

Ungerleider has taken a "Pic of the Day" every day for more than a decade, and posts her photos on her personal Facebook. She said her project hasn't been changed by life in quarantine, because her focus has always been on finding beauty close by.

"You know how introverts say, 'I've been training my whole life for this quarantine?' That's how I feel about my photography," she said. "Not being able to go anywhere has not been a problem."

Her recent images include rocks found painted with words like "love," "breathe" and "compassion," a crescent moon and a cat sitting in front of a bouquet.

Sullivan said Ungerleider's photography is another reason she still logs on to Facebook.

"I think she's the goddess of the light because she changes it; she captures it," Sullivan said. "Sometimes I look at her photographs and think, I would love to see the world through her eyes."

She calls Ungerleider and White her "two local heroines."

"What I really appreciate is these two women offer something every day," Sullivan said. "I just think to share your world with other people every single day like that — I feel very grateful, very gifted by these two women."


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