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White on White

Churches of Rural New England

Afterword by Robert CampbellAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Robert Campbell
Photographed by Steve RosenthalAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Steve Rosenthal
Introduction by Verlyn KlinkenborgAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Verlyn Klinkenborg

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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. Places of worship they were and are, but they are also icons of a particularly American sensibility and artistic vision.

Photographer Steve Rosenthal has traveled throughout the northeast capturing the gems of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and tracing the evolution of church styles from the early, dramatically simple meetinghouse form through the changing patterns of Greek and Gothic revivals. His photographs capture the intrinsic beauty of the architecture while creating a world of rich order and rational light. He has frozen in time the New England buildings that may soon be—or have already been—lost in a chaotic, contemporary world.


From: "Churches of New England"
by Verlyn Klinkenborg

If you’ve ever watched clouds passing over a snow-covered field—especially late in the day—you know how variable white can be. It can possess the excruciating purity of the sun itself. It can average out to gray. It can turn, in shadow, such a dark, dark blue that it’s nearly black. And when the clouds converge and block the sun, the matte white of a snowy field—suddenly without perspective or contour—is nearly the color of invisibility.

Many of the early New England village churches in this book were not originally painted white. The color came into fashion during the Greek revival of the early nineteenth century and was meant to mimic stone. And yet somehow it’s hard to believe that this New England white—which, up close, seems to amplify the grain of the wood beneath it, raising it with shadow and light—was meant to allude to Aegean marble. Like the church designs themselves, white has been conscripted for local use. The proper name of this color should be, simply, “Church.” We recognize the purpose of the building in its form. But we recognize its purpose in this whiteness too, in this consecrated color. White as snow, says the King James Bible, without specifying which white, of all the snow-whites, it means.

In no two lights are these buildings ever the same. In no two seasons are they remotely similar. At some hours, they darken the sky to near opacity. At others, they vanish into it. These churches embody what Melville calls “the incantation of this whiteness.” It’s as if their builders—and their painters—had set a mirror at the heart of the village green, at the base of the mountains, at the bend in the road, knowing that it would absorb every shadow and reflect every glimmer in the landscape. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they set a prism there, for as Newton demonstrated—about fifty years before the first of these churches was built—white light contains all the colors of the rainbow.

A few of these churches still house a parish of worshippers. Some have been decommissioned or, in several cases, lifted, turned in place, and adapted to other, more secular uses. Many of these buildings have been placed on the National Register—a form of recognition, not protection—or adopted by local historical societies. But no matter how they’re used, their most important function now is to continue to exist. To look at them is to look directly into the past. If there’s a spectral quality about their presence, it’s not because they incarnate a deity—the idea would have sounded almost outlandish in those early Congregational parishes. It’s because they incarnate the communities that built them.

. . .

And that’s where Steve Rosenthal’s photographs come in. Each one catches just a single split-second in the life of a building, but the work of photographing them has taken forty-five years. Emotionally speaking, these are composite photographs. They rely upon Rosenthal’s career as an architectural photographer, someone whose job is to capture the fact of a building as well as the intentions that shape it. In a sense, he is a time traveler. He comes upon these churches as if they had just been built and he had been hired to enter them into the architectural record. Part of his work—often the hardest part—has been to avert the camera’s eye from what the intervening years have done.

But these photographs are not just architectural documents. They hide Rosenthal’s virtuosity with a view camera—his ability to manipulate perspective and to balance the horizontal and vertical planes so strongly manifested in these churches. They hide his skill with modern photographic software, which allows him to broaden the lens’s response to light, as though it were a human, not a mechanical eye. On a technical level, these digital prints reproduce more of what the film actually records than would have been possible with conventional darkroom techniques. The effects are subtle. They remind us that the light pouring in through the windows of these churches isn’t a harsh, monochromatic light. It’s a human, prismatic light, the light of the village itself, overshadowed by trees, warmed by the sun, softened by the hills rising behind it.

Table of Contents

Churches of Rural New England
Verlyn Klinkenborg


Robert Campbell

Notes on the Churches

Selected Bibliography

Photographer’s Note


  • White on White by Steve Rosenthal; Introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg; Afterword by Robert Campbell
  • October 20, 2009
  • Photography - Architectural & Industrial
  • The Monacelli Press
  • $85.00
  • 9781580932301

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