Many of the small, white buildings nestled deep within the historic New England landscape are churches—remnants of a fading chapter in American history that provide glimpses into the past.
This week, these structures enter the city through the Boston Society of Architects’ (BSA) presentation of “White on White: Churches of Rural New England.” The exhibit, which was assembled by Historic New England and runs from Nov. 9 until Jan. 31 of 2016, features the photography of Steve Rosenthal, as he captures the haunting beauty of these eye-catching white structures through 40 photographs.
The exhibit, located on the second floor of the BSA Space, sprawls throughout the gallery, with each image carefully hung on pristine white walls. The calm and fluid atmosphere of the exhibition allows each image to fully impact viewers, impressing them not only with the intricacies of Rosenthal’s subjects, but also with the beauty and artistic merit of the photographs on their own terms. Given that the origins of the project began over 50 years ago, the photographs cover an impressive range of structures, some of which have even been lost to time since Rosenthal first took their picture before the project was even defined.
“When I started [shooting] in 1965 I was in the middle of architecture school at Harvard, and the whole time that I was in school I was not sure whether I wanted to go into photography or into architecture,” Rosenthal said in an interview with The Heights. “I was perusing the curriculum … but at the same time I was doing photography. In a way it was kind of therapy … I just wanted to go out and do my own photography … and was photographing whatever interested me, but a lot of the interests that I had at the time were of course in architecture. So I photographed the churches and barns, and wish I’d done more because so many have disappeared in the meantime.”
In 2001, a curator of the Newton Historical Society suggested that Rosenthal organize his photographs into an exhibit. After positive reviews from The Boston Globe, this led to a book published by Monacelli Press in 2009. In order to build up the body of work even more while preparing the book, Rosenthal tracked down more prospective subjects mainly through word of mouth.
“People suggested churches when they saw the exhibit, and I got some good suggestions from people and I got some suggestions that turned out to be duds,” Rosenthal said. “I didn’t photograph any churches that were covered in vinyl … because the siding emasculated the buildings, you couldn’t [see] the detail of the buildings. I was really interested in the craft of the buildings … how they were sited in the towns they were in, their proportions, and that they were built by people that really had no formal training in architecture and design.”
Part of Rosenthal’s exhibition naturally lends itself to the question of preservation. Over the past few decades since Rosenthal began shooting, the number of these old churches in rural New England has rapidly declined. In many instances, the churches fell into disrepair because they were made of wood, a material that can only stand up to the harsh New England winters for so long without attention and maintenance. As many of these churches have also lost congregations over the years, their needs fall on surrounding communities who are sometimes unable to fully shoulder the task. In some cases, however, the communities band together to support and restore these defining landmarks.
“I didn’t even think about it as a project that I was pursuing, I was just photographing them,” he said. “And as I photographed more churches, I was drawn to them as a sort of theme, but I never really thought of it as a body of work that I would put together, I just enjoyed them.”
Rosenthal embraces the aspect of preservation that his work lends itself to, particularly within the context of preserving part of the culture and physical character of New England. Yet he is also very aware of the impact his photographs have as individual pieces of art.
“These photographs are their own way of speaking,” Rosenthal said. “I think that in a lot of ways that photographs are a very powerful instrument for conveying something that you can’t easily put into words. Photographs have a tremendous power in them—an evocative photograph can really reach someone’s heart in a different way than the spoken word can.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Historic New England