‘Beauty in decay’: Historian-photographer Jim Westphalen chronicles Vermont’s old barns
Splintered sideboards, milky windowpanes and frayed edges poke through the photograph up on the wall of Jim Westphalen’s studio. It’s a good example of the Shelburne artist’s dedication to creating artistic documents that observe history and its bound on permanence.
Westphalen has increasingly become a known name in Vermont, where he makes photographic subjects of moldering rural scenes. This year he released “Vanish: Disappearing Icons of a Rural America,” a film telling the story of his most recent body of work— elegiac photos of decaying barns and buildings across the state and beyond. It showed at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival this past summer and is set to screen at Burlington’s Contois Auditorium on Feb. 21.
“It’s not just documenting what’s there, you know,” he said on a recent snowy morning at his studio in Shelburne. “I see it as art. The beauty in decay.”
A self proclaimed “old soul,” born and raised on Long Island, Westphalen grew up surrounded by suburbia’s uniform and cookie-cutter landscape. He was always looking for something ever so slightly askew, something that snagged his attention. So it made sense that, after picking up a film camera in childhood and carrying it with him throughout his two years in college, he realized imagemaking was his calling. After years in commercial photography and a move to Shelburne in the 1990s, Westphalen became infatuated with the state’s great green landscape.
He cites as inspiration Andrew Wyeth’s muted watercolors, the geometric shapes and shadows in Edward Hopper’s oil paintings and the detailed work of his late friend and American classic realist painter Hale Johnson.
He wields a large-format camera, jury-rigged for digital use, and has for 35 years. His choice of camera plays a role in the sense of depth you see in a Westphalen gallery show. The large format makeup — he shoots a 4 by 5 inch frame — allows him to manipulate his subjects in the field, resulting in less time spent editing when he gets back to the studio.
The work can feel like a race against the inevitable, he said, when his subjects are often buildings that are sinking into their old foundations more and more each day. He’s trying to capture the life of a structure before it becomes obsolete.
In his mind, that decay ties the present to history, and he wants to give the past a future.
Westphalen’s film “Vanish,” explores his decadeslong effort to observe the landscape and document accordingly, before it’s too late.
His work in photography is not limited to rotting rural scenes, though. He has also found something of a spiritual counterpart in the ocean, especially on the coast of Maine. With images that play with exposure and subject matter, Westphalen tries to capture the contrast of rough, rocky shores and gentle, thrumming seas. He makes his images dreamlike through the use of long exposure, allowing the viewer access to the sea salt–soaked atmosphere.
Westphalen sees life through the viewfinder and never puts the camera down. Traveling on backroads, Westphalen became increasingly aware of the disappearing landscape of rural Vermont. What he was seeing reminded him of times at his grandmother’s in the Poconos, when she’d tell him stories about who lived in each rundown farmhouse nearby. Buildings like that came to symbolize the cultural loss on which he’d become fixated.
“In the various states of disrepair that they’re in — the textures and the patinas — there’s just so much beauty,” he said. “When I do my photography, it’s always with the goal and the mission of sort of honoring the buildings as they are today — to make people notice what we’re losing.”
Crafting images that evince for so many people a sense of mourning and reverence is the result of learning what does and doesn’t work, testing prints and exposures and angles.
Decades into his adventure in trial and error, he’s learned how rotten wood and rusted metal can produce an idealized portrait, a history written in walls. To lose those relics, he said, is to lose a connection to who Vermonters once were.
Others are trying to restore and instill resilience in the state’s landscape and culture. Rural Vermont, a farmer-led nonprofit based in Montpelier that advocates for agrarian communities, has partnered with many art organizations to tell stories and raise awareness about agriculture, an industry that has been shunted out from inside barns not unlike the ones photographed by Westphalen.
“I love thinking about facets of our rural landscape from a lens of art and creativity because I think the level of craftsmanship is often just so striking and tells the story of the landscape that Vermont has and how it’s changed,” said Mollie Wills, grassroots organizing director with Rural Vermont.
Just as art can bring light to culture, culture can inspire art. Without the farms that once ran the majority of the state, Westphalen would not have a decaying barn to photograph.
Westphalen does not consider “Vanish” a work of activism itself. To him, it instead functions as a call to action for those who feel their connection to the past slipping away and want to do something about it.
“‘Vanish’ reminds us that we are living in a dynamic landscape,” said Thomas Denenber, the director of the Shelburne Museum, as part of an interview in the film.
Asked what advice he would give an aspiring photographer, Westphalen had a succinct prescription: “Find something you are passionate about, shoot like crazy, create a cohesive body of work … and make it your own.”
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