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Local gives talk on photo history

MIDDLEBURY — No one knows exactly how town photography began. In the late 1890s, people began ordering large 8” by 10” cameras from the Sears Roebuck mail order catalogue for about $40 (about 10 times the weekly wage of a cobbler). A few entrepreneurial photographers — whose identities are now unknown — began charging for photographs of families posing in front of their homes with the new cameras.
The photographers also made postcards that were mailed around the country. This spread photography as a trade and soon, with the help of the Sears Roebuck catalogue, almost every rural community throughout the country had a town photographer.
In 1999, Forrest Holzapfel took up the century-old practice. He used a traditional 8” by 10” view camera to photograph over 200 families in front of their homes in his hometown of Marlboro, Vt. The product of his work is now on display in the “Deep Look at a Small Town: Marlboro, Vermont” exhibit in the Vermont Folkife Center in Middlebury.
Last Thursday, Holzapfel gave a lecture on both his work and the history of town photography. The Vermont Humanities Council sponsored the event at the Folklife Center.
Holzapfel explained that the practice of having families pose with their prized possessions outside their homes is original; the conventions of town photography have no known antecedents in painting or the media.
This is part of the appeal for Holzapfel. The tradition of people documenting their own communities began mysteriously, and then spread organically throughout the country.
“These are real world pictures,” Holzapfel said. “People are in their Sunday best, no doubt, but this is real life. Things are a little hardscrabble.”
During his lecture, Holzapfel discussed the history of town photography throughout the country. He showed a photograph of a rugged family posing outside a small home in Kansas. An audience member pointed out that the family was in fact reasonably affluent since their home had glass windows.
Holzapfel focused the second half of his lecture on Porter Thayer, a Newfane photographer who also took pictures in the Marlboro area.
Holzapfel modeled much of his own work on Marlboro residents on Thayer’s early 20th century photos, sometimes even taking pictures in the same locations that Thayer had over 100 years before him.
Many of Thayer’s pictures show families with their horses, and Holzapfel followed in the tradition of photographing family animals, which these days, are often dogs. One of Holzapfel’s pictures, however, shows the forty-year-old pony of a Marlboro family that lives “off the grid.”
Holzapfel estimates that he photographed more than two-thirds of the town in a little over a year.
Although most of Holzapfel’s exhibit follows the town photography tradition, he also experimented with his traditional 8” by 10” camera in other ways.
His series called “messages” pays tribute to former Marlboro residents by showing objects or buildings they left behind.
“Message to Ellis Greenwood,” a photograph of a large sawdust pile that remains in Marlboro, honors a longtime town craftsman.
Holzapfel’s exhibit includes audio interviews he took with the various people he photographed. It will be on display until Sept. 6 before it heads to Marlboro College. Holzapfel eventually hopes to display the exhibit in the state capital.
Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected].

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