Photographer Jim Westphalen captures Vermont countryside
The beauty of the Vermont landscape is easy to understand, but hard to capture. So when a photographer renders it successfully—when the lone barn’s timeless strength becomes fully realized, when the immensity of the clouds over the mountaintops becomes palpable, and the reflection of a sunset on a forgotten creek becomes mesmeric—that is when the beauty is no longer evanescent, but eternalized.
This is what Jim Westphalen is after.
From an early age, Westphalen had a passion for photography. “I’ve been making pictures for as long as I can remember,” he said in a recent interview. “There are many old photos of me at seven or eight years old with a little plastic 120 film camera strapped around my neck.”
Even in his youth, his lens was aimed at the splendor of Vermont. “I had a great childhood growing up in suburban Long Island, but even then I was drawn to what I perceived as this mystique and timelessness of New England, and Vermont in particular.”
Westphalen started getting into photography seriously in the early ’80s while working in a commercial photo lab. Here, he was able to gain invaluable experience learning about the back end of the photographic process. As Westphalen continued his career as a photographer, he became renowned for his unique process that gives his photographs a painterly effect without them losing their sharp realism.
Westphalen’s process begins before he has even grabbed his camera. When he finds a view he would like to photograph and he has already envisioned what he wants his final print to look like. Thus, he waits for the right light, weather, and time of day he needs to create his intended print before he actually photographs the view. Then, back in his studio, he processes the image in a digital darkroom creating what he calls the “hard/soft” effect. This is what lets his photographs maintain their sharp detail while still having an overall softness. The effect is further enhanced by using pigment inks on watercolor paper.
His process removes the presence of the camera from the finished work, which allows the viewer to be placed into the moment, to feel like they are actually there. “I want the viewer to feel the sun on their shoulders, shiver in the blowing snow, mourn the loneliness of the barn that sits overgrown and abandoned while appreciating the beauty in decay.”
“Sometimes, I also think I was born in the wrong century,” Westphalen said. “I’ve always had an affinity for the character of the rural Vermont landscape… There are so many beautiful places in the state that still look relatively the same as they did over 100 years ago. Whether it be quintessential little villages, mountain vistas, family owned dairy farms, or all the beautiful lakes and rivers.”
Westphalen hopes that what he captures can evoke some sort of emotional response from the viewer, whether or not it is the emotional response he expects. “I might be trying to say something specific with one of my photographs, but if I get get a different response from the viewer that is equally meaningful, their perception and interpretation is no less valid than my own.”
Westphalen looks to painters such as A. Hale Johnson, Andrew Wyeth and the Hudson River painters for inspiration, which can speak to the not only the painterly aspect of his prints, but also the depth of emotion and intentionality of his landscapes, like in his Vanish series which “speaks to the decay of the built landscape in rural America.”
“[The series] is a labor of love and a very time-consuming process: doing research and driving seemingly endless back roads in search of those disappearing icons that are the very fabric of our country,” Westphalen said. He hopes the collection can “be an encouragement to treasure these structures now, for sadly, most will eventually succumb and fold into the soil on which they were built upon, taking their stories with them.”
Images from Westphalen’s Vanish series are featured for the month of September at Edgewater Gallery at the Falls.
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