Picture Perfect

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton is here with some thoughts about Vermont’s beauty and the visual cliches that result from an overuse of that beauty.

(Slayton) Years ago, as a young student at the University of Vermont, I heard many warnings against visual cliches by my art teacher, the late and much-beloved Prof. Francis Colburn.

I can still remember Francis grumbling over what he called the “Sunset Over Lake Champlain” school of lanscape art. “I have always regarded such scenes as fairly wretched,” Francis would say. “Leastways, they have always made me retch!”

Funny about visual cliches. There was a time when all of them — even sunsets over Lake Champlain weren’t cliches, but were fresh images. They became cliches not because the images were bad, but simply because they were overused. (That’s why we avoid the obvious cliche shots in Vermont Life, the magazine I edit — we look for fresh views.) But in fact, any popular image of Vermont – especially an over-popular image of Vermont – has something to tell us about our state and what we think about it.

Take the famous view of the Jenne Farm in Reading — or any well known farm scene. These views show the traditional family farm – tidy farmhouse, pretty red barns, neatly mown fields, and perhaps a few black-and-white cows – in the pastoral countryside. No manure piles, no snarled barb-wire fences, no piles of clutter or junk cars. Beautiful.

What such views really show us is that we love farming – but from a distance. We know how important farming is to our landscape and our heritage. We love the idea of the family farm- But very few of us have chosen to actually live on a working farm or make our living there. Perhaps we even love farming a bit more because we know it’s endangered.

Then there are the classic village scenes that are so much a part of Vermont’s image: Waits River, Peacham, Woodstock, or the most stately and elegant of all – Newfane with its white churches and pillared Court House. These images are the New England village personified, and remind us of all the things we love about small-town life: the small scale, the intimacy of life, the sense of community, and so on.

Of course what gets overlooked in an idealized view like that is the dark side of village life – the inbred hostility, the sense of social suffocation and insularity. Remember that Shirley Jackson wrote her horrifying story “The Lottery” about a Vermont village, and the crabby women of colonial Salem were executed as witches. Yet we still love the image of the small village, and the goodness of small town life is real – at least most of the time. It’s just not the total picture.

Life is complex; it is never what we think it’s going to be. And that’s another reason why visual cliches are interesting. They tell us what we want, what our ideals are. It’s hard to look beyond the surface of a beautiful image, but it’s important. Because from mountaintop to village street, those images always tell us something, quite often something important – about where we live, and about ourselves.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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