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Picturing the NEK

State of the Arts


Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom boasts sweeping, gothic vistas unlike those of the rest of the state. And, like an aging beauty, it shows evidence of decline — collapsing barns and abandoned houses that suggest economic as well as structural entropy.

Danville photographer Matthew W. Payeur, 33, captures both these aspects of the region in his recent book Backroads. Its color and black-and-white images were shot over a year as Payeur wandered rural roads — though a local, he sometimes got lost, he says. The unpeopled images are specifically about place.

Backroads is not another touristy, Vermont-in-four-seasons tome. For starters, it’s just 10 by 8 inches and is self-published (available in hardcover or paperback). But, more to the point, the lighting in these pictures is almost ominous, because of Payeur’s thing for clouds. His skies are practically roiling, so that perfectly innocent scenes — say, a red barn in a field of mature corn — have a sense of foreboding. Even in a tightly cropped shot of an antique Chrysler pickup, the rusted grille glows in this unsettling light.

Payeur isn’t trying to make some kind of statement — not even about Vermont’s mercurial weather. He can’t explain why, but “I’ve just always preferred overcast days, all my life,” Payeur says. He can explain his technique, though. First, he picks cloudy days on which to shoot, generally early or late, and ups the contrast: “I’ll expose the clouds exactly how I want and adjust the image in the foreground accordingly,” Payeur says. In post-production, “all I do is boost the saturation of color and adjust the contrast a bit [more]. Mainly,” he stresses, “I want to keep it as is.”

Though he didn’t always plan to make it his profession, Payeur’s had a lifelong interest in photography. “My mom had books of photos, and I looked at them constantly,” he recalls. “It didn’t click until I did a lot of shooting on a trip out West after high school and realized, I could do this.” Payeur acquired his skills in a 10-month intensive course at the Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turners Falls, Mass., where he earned numerous honors and graduated in the top 10 of his class. After a stint working for commercial photographers, “I missed the mountains and dirt roads of Vermont, so I packed up and moved back,” he says.

Payeur has a day job in an optical shop, an occupation that allows him to pursue his passion. As he puts it, photography isn’t about putting food on the table — “Instead, I can shoot to feed the soul.”

He does take portrait commissions, but as the idiosyncratic work on his website reveals, making pictures is a highly personal pursuit. Payeur suggests he’ll consider exhibiting at some point, though. And for his next book? “I might do people down the road.”