(HOST) Photographers often publish collected images of small town life, but commentator Tom Slayton says that a new book of photographs is a stand-out in the genre.
(SLAYTON) The late Neil Rappaport confined his photography al- most exclusively to the Town of Pawlet. Rappaport was a natural – a self-taught photographer who used his camera carefully, precise- ly, yet in a deeply expressive way, to record the people, places and activities of the town.
Now, as the newly published book Messages from a Small Town makes clear, in photographing his Pawlet neighbors, Rappaport has, in all probability, immortalized them. That’s because his pho- tographs are considerably more than mere documentary. They are poetic images, deeply insightful in a way that only the best art can be.
Rappaport died, tragically young, in 1998 at the age of 56. He had been photographing the people of the Mettawee Valley for nearly 30 years and, at the time of his death, was conducting a visual census of Pawlet – taking photos, “for the record,” of every person in town. He had literally thousands of photographs completed when he died.
He was comfortable with a 35-millimeter camera, but for most of his Pawlet photos he used a large-format view camera. It takes a while to set up a photo using such a big camera, and for Rappa- port that was just fine. It gave him and his subjects time to unwind, time to get familiar with one another, time to establish honest communication and trust.
And that was important. Because he made respect and insight essential parts of the photo-making process. Neil’s images ex- press, not only the appearance, but also the worth and dignity of each of his subjects. In addition, most of his Pawlet neighbors pose with a certain appealing formality that belies the work clothes and jeans they often wear.
His photo of young Richard Hulett, part of the farm crew on his family farm, shows a boy of about 10 or 12 in workboots, torn jeans and a T-shirt. But not your typical suburban lad: Young Hulett’s strong, balanced stance, muscular neck and hands reveal that he already knows the reality of hard physical work. And his steady gaze carries a weight that belies his years.
The portrait of Lonnie Loveland, probably in his 50s or 60s, with his pet chicken is both droll and sweet – and captures the simplicity and goodness of both the man and the life he was leading.
Lois Lathrop’s portrait shows both the beauty and the anxiety of age as she leans aprehensively toward the camera. And there are many more such photographs in this book, all telling, some very beautiful. It is a portrait in time of a farming community that, even as Rappaport photographed, was changing.
William Carlos Williams wrote that “the local is the only thing that is universal.” Neil Rappaport knew that aphorism and the truth behind it. His work exemplifies it.
The townspeople, slate quarriers and farmers of this small Vermont town, will live forever in Neil’s work. This book is documentary photography as art in the truest sense.
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.