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White on White: Churches of Rural New England

October 5, 2012 - January 27, 2013


From October 5, 2012 through January 27, 2013, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, hosts White on White: Churches of Rural New England. Organized by Historic New England, White on White presents over forty photographs by renowned architectural photographer Steve Rosenthal depicting iconic New England meetinghouses and churches. To complement the images of churches in Brooklyn and Old Lyme, Connecticut, that were part of the original exhibition, Florence Griswold Museum Curator Amy Kurtz Lansing asked the artist to photograph additional churches for this exhibition. Images of churches in Madison, Lyme, and East Haddam, and a new photo of the Old Lyme First Congregational Church celebrate these buildings that give New England towns and villages a unique sense of place and define, in many minds, the New England character. An introductory video about the White on White project accompanies the exhibition. (right: Steve Rosenthal, Rocky Hill Meetinghouse, Amesbury, Massachusetts, 1785)

When Rosenthal, a trained architect, began photographing these structures in the 1960s, the project became a personal quest to document these remarkable buildings with an eye to their beauty and to encourage their preservation. Built in a variety of styles, these spare and elegant structures serve as centers of the region's villages and towns. Rosenthal's luminous black and white photographs capture the effect of light on three-dimensional forms and the abstract patterns of shingles and shutters. The images underscore the intrinsic beauty of the architecture.

The early churches of New England hold a special place in the American consciousness, revered for their physical beauty, simplicity, and elegance and for their role in the early history of this country. "Few buildings are more closely identified with New England than its meetinghouses clad in radiant whitewashed clapboards," explains Rosenthal. "Collectively, they are as important to the cultural and architectural history of these villages as are the great cathedrals to the cities of Europe." While some of the churches have been restored and remain houses of worship, others have been decommissioned and put to new uses. Rosenthal's photographs reveal surprising variety among the interpretations of 18th and 19th century architecture. These remarkable small-town, white country structures were erected by local builders, joiners, and occasionally by itinerant master carpenters. Examining the serene façades and interiors, Rosenthal draws our eyes to the unique details that distinguish each building. 

Rosenthal used a hybrid method to produce the images in this exhibition. He photographed the meetinghouses and churches with a large format camera and 4 x 5 inch film that he later scanned in order to print the images digitally. He uses a computer to maximize the potential of the information present in the original negative, but does not remove content or alter the context. His final photographs render these evocative survivors of the New England landscape with quiet dignity and a reverence for detail. 


White on White Publication

White on White is accompanied by a book published by The Monacelli Press The 136 page, hard cover book, White on White: Churches of Rural New England, features 80 large black-and-white photographs by Steve Rosenthal, an essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg, and an afterword by Robert Campbell. It is available in the Museum Shop.


Related Events

To complement this exhibition, various lectures and workshops have been developed, including two presentations by Steve Rosenthal. On Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 2pm and again on Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 2pm, the photographer discusses his process in taking meetinghouse and church photographs over a period of 45 years. He will emphasize the urgency of preserving these structures that are threatened by the ravages of time, shrinking congregations, and increasing maintenance costs. Please go to florencegriswoldmuseum.org for more information or to register.

The Florence Griswold Museum's Annual Thorne Lecture will be held on Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 5pm. Peter Benes, Director of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife at Historic Deerfield, will speak on The Meetinghouses of Early New England. Although they were built primarily for public religious exercises, meetinghouses fulfilled multiple secular purposes. As the only municipal building in the community, the structures provided locations for town and parish meetings. They also hosted criminal trials, public punishments and executions, and political and religious protests, and on occasion they served as defensive forts, barracks, hospitals, and places to store gunpowder. Benes' new book, Meetinghouses of Early New England, is the definitive study of this hallmark of early American vernacular architecture.  A book signing and light reception follows the presentation. The lecture will take place at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme at 2 Ferry Road. Although this is a free event, reservations are required and can be made at florencegriswoldmuseum.org or by calling 860-434-5542, x 111.


About Historic New England

Historic New England is the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation, bringing history to life while preserving the past for everyone interested in exploring the New England experience from the seventeenth century to today. Historic New England owns and operates thirty-six historic homes and landscapes spanning five states, sharing the region's history through vast collections, publications, programs, museum properties, archives, and family stories that document more than 400 years of life in New England.


(above: Steve Rosenthal, First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Old Lyme Connecticut, 1817)

Resource Library editor's note:

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and images of New England churches by a TFAO volunteer

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