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A Brief But Spectacular take on rural America's vanishing structures


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: For more than two decades, Vermont-based photographer Jim Westphalen has documented old farmhouses, barns, churches and homes that have fallen into disrepair. He calls it finding beauty in decay. He's collected his works in a book and a film both called "Vanish: Disappearing Icons of a Rural America."

Tonight, Westphalen shares his Brief but Spectacular take on the vanishing structures of rural America.

Jim Westphalen, Photographer: Just like taking a portrait of a person, when I'm looking right at the face of the building, I feel like it's looking back at me, and I can really look into the soul of the building, looking through the windows or looking into a front door. That's what I'm looking for, to kind of evoke that emotion.

So this structure I happened upon a couple years back down a lonely little dirt road in Vermont here. These vines that are on the outside of the building, they're actually growing from inside, so it looks like the building is weeping.

In 1996, we moved to Vermont. As a photographer, it was just heaven. I'd be out roaming the countryside with my camera, and I realized that a lot of the structures that I was passing, they were starting to decay, fall into disrepair. And as a visual artist, I was drawn to what that meant visually, the rusted patina of a roof, or old barn sides, or faded clapboard on the old farmhouses. And I spent every free moment out there photographing these old structures.

And without knowing it, I was building this body of work. So I loosely started this project about 20 years ago, and it was without intention then. I would just travel the countryside photographing these beautiful old buildings because I was really attracted to them.

And as the body of work grew, I realized there really was this tangible message here. These structures are so fleeting. And we're in this period of history where we're experiencing this profound loss.

It's more than just documenting it. It really is depicting and capturing the soul of the structure in a way that really honors what it once was, and also honors the people who spent their lives there. Of course, I would stop and ask permission to be on somebody's property before I went and photographed it.

Once I told them a little about what I'm doing, they just love to share their stories. They tell me how, you know, their sixth-generation farming on this land, struggling to keep it going now. You know, there was this rich history to be told behind the visual beauty of the structures, you know, as they sit today.

And if I can just ignite a little bit of a spark in people, and maybe ignite a spark in those who can tangibly do something about the loss that we're experiencing, to maybe restore, and if not restore, at least maintain these old structures, then I have done my job, because once the structures are gone, and that generation who are connected to those structures are gone, the stories go with it as if they were never there.

I'm Jim Westphalen, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on the vanishing structures of rural America.

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