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Photo Synthesis

State of the Arts


Published August 31, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Art is where you find it. One day in the late 1960s, a car broke down beside a slate quarry in West Pawlet, Vermont. When the driver climbed out, he heard an Italian aria coming from the pit. A worker was listening to Saturday afternoon opera while he shoveled slate rubbish. The scene inspired the driver, photographer Neil Rappaport, to spend two years documenting the quarrymen and their old-time techniques. And it launched a larger project that would last Rappaport the rest of his life.

For nearly three decades, Rappaport focused his lens -- first a 35mm Nikon and later a large-negative view camera -- on the people and places of Pawlet and West Pawlet. His stunning, black-and-white images are richly informative and deeply respectful of their subjects: slate splitters, deer hunters, farmers, families and the natural and manmade landscape in which they all live.

Rappaport, a New York City native, taught photography at Bennington College from 1970 until his death in 1998. His work has been shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. When he died, at 56 -- just a month after being diagnosed with lung cancer -- he left thousands of photos. Many of them are still unprinted negatives.

The Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury is showing a retrospective of Rappaport's work through mid-November. His wife Susanne collected oral histories of many of her husband's subjects, and has donated those tapes to the center. She gives a gallery talk there September 16. Susanne Rappaport has also assembled about 100 of her late husband's photos in Messages From a Small Town: Photographs Inside Pawlet, Vermont.

The book juxtaposes Rappaport's works with photographs taken around the town in the early 20th century by Nellie Bushee and Ella Clark. Bushee's view of West Pawlet village is remarkably similar to Rappaport's. Rachel Alexander Waite appears in "before and after" pictures. She's a sturdy teenager in Bushee's "Spanktown school group" and a wizened woman in a Rappaport portrait. In an interview excerpted at the back of the book, Waite recalls her Spanktown days. "It was like we were all brothers and sisters," she says. "We all went to the brick schoolhouse down here. And that's where I got my education, what I got."

Most of the images speak for themselves, though. Their message is at once unblinking and tender. Floyd Troumbley's bedroom is cluttered with fishing rods, guns and an electric Christmas tree. Quarryman Vincent Covino steadies his hand on the rock, one finger bloodied and bandaged. Light falls softly on elderly Lonnie Loveland as he carefully cradles his pet chicken.

"I have met men and women as devoted to their . . . lives as I am to mine," Rappaport wrote in 1975, "and that devotion itself establishes a bond between us." The wealth of images he left as a legacy extends that bond to the rest of us.

Drive time doesn't have to be a drag if your traveling companion tells a good story. And no one does that better than Charles Dickens. Burlington writer, activist and cellist Marc Estrin figured that out when he started listening to unabridged classics on cassette on long drives. The practice doesn't just keep him awake, but also "fills in all these gaps in my stupid, illiterate education," he says, adding, "The only free time I have is in the car . . . I don't think I'm alone in feeling totally guilt-ridden at all the things I haven't read and am supposed to have read."

Estrin looked to feed his lit fix through Burlington's Fletcher Free Library, but found that the audio collection didn't have the weighty tomes he desired. Then he ran into Peter Burns and discovered the local storyteller and performance artist shared his frustration. Their biblio bond gave birth to "First-Friday Classics." Brown baggers can hear a local luminary read from a piece of great literature, then pitch in to purchase a complete, commercially recorded version of the work for the library. A single multi-CD set might run from $50 to $100.

Library Co-Director Robert Resnik says the Fletcher has about 400 unabridged recorded books, but most of them are usually checked out. The selections lean toward titles such as David Sedaris' ironic essays, the Harry Potter books and Clinton's biography -- the sorts of reads most patrons want. But not Estrin and Burns.

Their 10-part program kicks off this Friday with architect Mannie Lionni offering selections from George Eliot's Silas Marner. Never read it? Neither had Lionni. When he signed up for it, he thought he was picking Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Estrin reveals. October's installment is Burlington College film prof Barry Snyder showcasing Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. In November, Unitarian minister Gary Kowalski presents Homer's The Odyssey. Now, there's a road read.

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