Documenting a vanishing landscape: Vt. photographer returns to town where he found inspiration for solo show
MANCHESTER — Ask any artist: Whether they use paintbrushes or a camera, the written word or a musical instrument, inspiration can be waiting around any corner.
For photographer Jim Westphalen, whose landscapes will be exhibited in "Vanish," a solo show opening Feb. 15 at Helmholz Fine Art, inspiration has come in several forms: In a childhood interest in photography, in countryside visits to family in the Poconos and friends in Vermont, and in the lonely landscapes of abandoned farms.
It also came in a chance visit to Tilting at Windmills Gallery on Depot Street more than 20 years ago.
That's when Westphalen encountered the paintings of artist Hale Johnson — and understood how he wanted to present the rapidly disappearing, abandoned landscape of barns, homes and other buildings in rural towns.
"When I first saw his work at that gallery, it was the first emotional experience I had viewing a piece of art," Westphalen recalled. "The way he captured light with his brush and way he rendered detail with structures ... that's the way I see, that's what I try to emulate in a photographic sense."
Westphalen was moved enough that he reached out to Johnson, of Colrain, Mass. The two struck up a friendship that perseveres to this day. Johnson is an invited guest for the opening, set for 4 to 6 p.m. next Saturday at Helmholz Fine Art, on Depot Street in Manchester.
As Johnson recalls, he first heard from Westphalen six years ago, in a letter telling him he was inspired by his treatment of skies in his landscapes. They corresponded over the years, and then Westhphalen and his wife Kendra visited in person in 2017.
"It took no effort on my part to quickly consider them friends. They have enriched my life and my one regret is that our meeting did not occur while my wife was living," Johnson said. "She would have loved them.
"Our choices of subjects and our shared concerns about the ongoing loss of structures and settings in rural America were an immediate match," Johnson added. "I am no longer painting, but if I were, I would seek the subjects Jim photographs. Jim and I found common ground immediately."
In Southern Vermont, the sorts of abandoned homes, churches, barns, train stations and coal sheds that are the focus of Westphalen's lens should be familiar to local viewers. And much like Johnson's work touched Westphalen's heart, he's hoping his large-scale prints of these abandoned buildings and their vast surroundings will make his audience think and feel.
"I want people to be drawn into them, to look carefully at them, to get an emotional response," Westphalen said. "I want them to get them to look at little visual clues at each of the images that might speak of the family that once farmed that land, the guys who would come up in a horse-drawn wagon to get a load of coal from this particular coal shed. I want them to think about the history behind it and the anthropology behind it,too."
Helmholz Fine Art owner and curator Lisa Helmholz-Adams was working at Tilting at Windmills at the time Westphalen met Johnson, and she saw their friendship take root and grow. While she is unfailingly enthusiastic about all of the art and artists she represents, she's especially thrilled about "Vanish."
"When I saw [Westphalen's] new work for the first time, I knew I would represent him," she said. "It had evolved so much and there was such a focus with the large scale of these historical farms, they took my breath away," Helmholz-Adams said. "I wanted to know the people that lived in these farms, some dating back to 1790, that are still standing, and what happened to them? The realism that he is able to capture with an antique camera and a contemporary lens that he invented is really powerful."
Race against time
The wooden boards and slate roofs of abandoned farm buildings, here and throughout the United States, won't last forever.
"Without trying to sound too puffy about it, there is a level of importance" to documenting this rapidly disappearing history before it's gone forever, Westphalen said. "We are seeing the decline of these structures. A lot of them were built at the turn of 19th century, and now that those slate roofs and sills in the structures are starting to fail, that's why we're seeing this loss now," he said. "I am, in fact, in a race against the elements to visually preserve as many of these as I can."
Westphalen, who also cites painters Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hooper as artistic inspirations, took to photography early in life. Growing up in Massapequa, New York, on Long Island, he grew to appreciate rural landscapes when visiting his grandmother in the Poconos during the summer. Back then, he had an Instamatic camera that took cartridge-based film — the "point and shoot" of its day.
"There's so many photos of me that my parents took back in the 1960s I always had a camera strapped around my neck," he said. "And back then, shooting film, you'd send your film out to the camera store and a week later, you'd get pictures it was like magic."
Westphalen continued to pursue photography, joining the camera club in high school, getting his first SLR camera ("an old Minolta ST 201," he recalled) and learning to develop film in the darkroom. But it wasn't until he'd spent two years pursuing a degree in marine biology that he realized photography was his true calling. He began the process of making a living in the field, from working in a commercial photo lab to shooting weddings in New York City.
But Westphalen knew wedding photography wasn't what he wanted. And a visit to East Dorset, and subsequent travels in Vermont, opened new possibilities, leading to work in Burlington in commercial and architectural photography.
That's where the intersection of Westphalen's love of rural landscapes and eye for architectural detail came about. "I'd say it was about 10 years ago when I started this project with intention, and it has grown leaps and bounds," he said.
Westphalen shoots with a tripod-mounted vintage 4-by-5 large format film camera that he has modified with a digital back. The format, which Westphalen had already been using in his professional career as an architecture photographer, allows viewers to see the rich detail he's trying to capture.
"Although it's a 40-pound rig, it's like a point and shoot to me," he said. "It's an extension of my hands."
Westphalen prints his massive images on cotton fiber archival paper with dye pigment, and then coats the surface with a protective varnish. This allows him to display the images without picture frame glass, removing a barrier between the audience and the art.
"It's important to me that the viewer gets sucked into it," he said. "Because there's no glass, the experience becomes a little closer, a little more tactile."
"When you look at it, you think it's a painting. And yet it's a photograph that he prints, which takes four to five weeks to print, and he uses an archival pigment which looks like paint and it's very unique [Westphalen]," Helmholz-Adams said. "You really get to see everything in the character of the farms and the wear and tear over hundreds of years. You are provoked to think about the families that run these farms, even the ones that have been abandoned. "
Because of the depth of field and fine detail available, the prints really need to be seen in person to be appreciated, Westphalen said.
"You can see it on a screen, but these are large scale pieces and you really do have to see it to appreciate it," he said. "Sometimes I'll take an image out in the field, process it, and do what I do to create the final image, and not until I see it as a 4-by-6-foot print do I realize all these details I didn't see before. It really does happen that way and that's part of the fun of it. I even get surprised sometimes."
Greg Sukiennik is editor of Southern Vermont Landscapes. Learn more at @SouthernVermontLandscapes on Facebook.
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