Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Featured Photographer: Paul Wainwright


First of all, would you please introduce yourself to our readers that might not be familiar with you and your photography.

Featured photographer, Paul Wainwright
Photo courtesy of Jay Goldsmith

I am Paul Wainwright, a large-format black & white photographer based in Atkinson, New Hampshire. I work with a 4x5 inch wooden camera – basically the same technology that was used 100 years ago. This type of camera was very popular with Ansel Adams and many of the other masters of photography from the mid-20th century. If you have ever seen an old movie where there is a photographer with a dark cloth over his head focusing his camera, that’s me under that cloth!

Paul on location with his camera in Rollinsford, New Hampshire. To him, photography is almost a religion. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

I grew up on Long Island, New York. I had my first darkroom when I was 12, and was captivated by the “magic” of making photographs. I still think it is magic. During high school I was the photography editor for the school newspaper, and it was a good way for a shy boy to “fit in” and be accepted by his peers. I considered going to art school to study photography, but in my senior year I tool a physics class, enjoyed it, and was even pretty good at it, so physics won out.

I majored in physics at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where I graduated in 1972. From there I went on to do graduate work at Yale University, where I earned my Ph.D. in physics in 1977. From there I went to work at Bell Laboratories, that fabled but no longer existent research lab famous for such things as fiber optics, the laser, and the transistor. I left this life in the fast lane in 2001 to pursue photography full-time, and I have never been happier.

But what about my photography during all that time? For me, I’ve always considered myself to be a photographer with a “day job.” Photography has been my expressive outlet among all the cares of life. While I’ve studied with several noted artistic photographers such as George Tice, Bruce Barnbaum, and John Sexton, I’ve never been to art school. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who I’m talking to. I don’t recall that Ansel Adams ever went to art school either.

What type of job(s) have you had in the past?

Paul demonstrating his camera at a workshop at Historic New England’s Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Jim Faye.

I have never worked as a commercial photographer. It would be difficult for me to take an assignment from someone else and be too excited about it. I’ve also never photographed a wedding, the most profitable way for photographers to make a living. I hate wedding photographers. I find them intrusive. When Judy and I were married we consciously did not have a photographer.

When, and how did you get interested in black and white large-format photography?

Box Pews, Looking Down, Rocky Hill Meeting House (1785), Amesbury, Massachusetts, 2004. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 65 of the book.

Every photograph is an abstraction of reality. Many people loose sight of this. If I point my camera at a tree and make a photograph, most people would say “that’s a tree” when they see it. They are wrong. I can tear the photograph in half, which is something I could never do with a tree! In actuality, what I have created is my artistic interpretation of a tree. It is a 2-dimensional image on a piece of paper. It is a piece of art. It has line, shape, form, texture, positive and negative space – all of the elements of any work of art.

Pew Bench, Rocky Hill Meeting House (1785), Amesbury, Massachusetts, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 12 of the book.

Color confuses this issue even further. By removing color from my art, I am better able to concentrate on the composition and other artistic qualities.

About 15 years ago I bought the 4x5 camera, for several reasons. First, the large 4x5 inch negative is able to contain an enormous amount of detail that just cannot be contained in smaller film sizes, or most digital cameras for that matter.

Second, the camera “movements” allow me to control such things as the perspective of an image and its plane of focus. The lens and film can be independently moved up or down, side to side, or be tilted or rotated, providing enormous flexibility when creating an image. No other camera, either film or digital, can do this.

Roof Beams, Old Ship Meetinghouse (1681), Hingham, Massachusetts, 2008. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 39 of the book.

And third, the image is upside down on the ground glass when I go under the dark cloth to compose and focus the photograph. I’m seeing exactly what the film is going to see. Having the image upside down helps me to begin to disassociate myself from the scene that is in front of the camera, and begin to see it as lines, shapes, forms, and textures.

I use a method of film exposure and development called the “Zone System,” which allows me to precisely create a density range in the negative that gives the best chance of yielding the desired print. The large-format camera uses sheet film rather than roll film, and each individual negative and be separately developed for a specific length of time.

Paul inspecting a print under safelights in his darkroom.
Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

Paul toning a print in selenium. Selenium is used to enhance the tonal range of a silver gelatin print and to help insure its longevity. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

Paul removing a print from the archival washer. All processing is done to the highest archival standards. Prints made in this way more than 100 years ago are still in excellent condition today. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

Paul spotting a print. Spotting is a manual process done with a very fine artist’s brush to remove small dust spots and other unwanted things. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

You can’t rush when you are making a photograph with a large-format camera, or, for that matter, in a darkroom either. I find the slow pace of working in this way to be a very Zen-like experience, which I really enjoy. I think my photographs are better for it. I know I am.

Currently, what type of job(s) you do besides photographing?

Paul on location with his camera at the Langdon Meetinghouse in Langdon, New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of Carole-Anne Centre. The photograph being made in this picture appears on page 28 of the book.

Essentially all of my work these days is marketing. My book, which I will discuss below, was produced with the help of an independent publisher, Peter Randall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but all of the publicity and marketing for the book are my responsibility. So far I am enjoying it, and the book has received a very positive response so far. But I need to get back into the darkroom, or under the dark cloth, in order to keep my sanity!

What are your thoughts and inspirations behind photographing interior spaces of the historic structures in New England?

I have always been attracted to photograph historic structures. I do not know why. Sure, I do have a collection of landscape photographs, but over the years, as I have looked back over the photographs I have made, the strongest images seem to be the interior spaces of old buildings. That’s a pretty good reason to seek them out.

Steeple, Old South Meeting House (1729), Boston, Massachusetts, 2008. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 25 of the book.

Old German Meeting House (1772), from Graveyard, Waldoboro, Maine, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 77 of the book.

Window, Pews, and Ceiling, Old Narragansett Church (1707), Wickford, Rhode Island, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 74 of the book.

My first meetinghouse was in Fremont, New Hampshire. I fell in love with the weathered wood, the simple (almost austere) lines, and the way that natural light interacts with them. I use only natural light in my photographs. Adding light would only remove the qualities that attract me to make photographs. And besides, most of these buildings do not have electricity!

Box Pews and Windows, Olde Meeting House (1755), Danville, New Hampshire, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 30 of the book.

Box Pews, Olde Meeting House (1755), Danville, New Hampshire, 2004. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 5 of the book.

I feel a sense of wonder about the people who built and used these places. I wonder about all of the hands who have touched the wood, or feet that have worn a set of stairs.
They are no longer here, but their imprint has been left behind in these structures. One viewer of my work has commented that what I have done is make social documentary about the lives of our Puritan ancestors, without ever including a single person in my photographs.

Graffiti, Rocky Hill Meeting House (1785), Amesbury, Massachusetts, 2004. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 34 of the book.

I always seek to go beyond just documenting what these places look like. Every photograph should reveal not only what is in front of the camera, but should also tell something about what is behind it (the photographer) as well.

How do you plan for your shooting sessions for the Colonial Meetinghouses project? What production equipment do you use?

First, I need to strongly correct your terminology. I know it is an often-used expression with photographers, but to “shoot” something is at best a quick, reflexive reaction, and at worst it is an act of violence. Making art is neither of these. I prefer the term “make” to describe my work. Another misused term relating to photography is “take,” as in “take a picture.” Creating a photograph is not a process of taking something away, but it is a process of adding something to the scene on front of the camera. What’s being added? The photographer adds something about him or herself.

Door and Windows, Canaan Meeting House (1793), Canaan, New Hampshire, 2006. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 55 of the book.

Now, to answer your question. The biggest challenge was just to find the meetinghouses in the first place, and to find the person with the key. This was a lot of fun, and took 5 years to complete. A GPS was a great help, not only to find the buildings, but also to find my way home at the end of the day. I would say the GPS was my single most important piece of equipment!

My basic equipment includes the camera, tripod, light meter, film holders, filters, 7 lenses, and about 100 other little miscellaneous things that I cart around in the back of my Volvo station wagon. All this stuff weighs in at about 45 pounds, so I don’t usually venture very far from my car when making photographs.

Paul on his roof platform behind the Rocky Hill meetinghouse in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

From time to time there’s a need for some special piece of equipment. For example, I have a platform that mounts to the roof of my car which allows me to gain some height when composing some of my photographs. Ansel had one of these too. Also, there have been a number of occasions when I have mounted a spare tripod head to the top of a step ladder to gain height inside of a building. Several of my photographs are made either straight up or straight down, and various arrangements of platforms or saw horses are employed to achieve these. If I’ll be traveling any distance, I generally drag all of this stuff along with me in case I need it. Sometimes it looks like the circus is coming to town when I show up!

However, exposing the film is just the first half of the artistic process. When I am working with my camera I usually have a clear vision of what I want the finished print to look like. This is commonly called “previsualization,” and the darkroom manipulation of the image is an important part of the artistic process. I typically need about 5 darkroom sessions before I have fine-tuned the printing controls enough to produce the desired result. For this reason, I do all of my printing myself, and do not rely on commercial labs.

Would you like to tell us about your new book, A Space for Faith: The Colonial Meetinghouses of New England? How does it all start? What is the specific message you strive to convey to your viewers?

I have always seen my meetinghouse photographs as a way to raise awareness of this important yet little-known chapter of American history.

Book cover. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

My projects do not really seem take shape until I’m several years into them. It is only after I have made quite a number of images that I am able to step back and say to myself, “what is it that I see emerging from my work?” I made my first meetinghouse photograph in 2004, but it was not until probably 2006 that I realized I had a significant body of work that was of some interest to people. I came to this realization while looking at my web site traffic reports. I was finding that my meetinghouse photographs had more visitors than the home page, so people were finding them without hitting my home page first. So I entered ‘meetinghouses’ into Google and discovered that my images came up first, and therefore there was considerable interest in them.

Pulpit and Sounding Board, Olde Meeting House (1755), Danville, New Hampshire, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 57 of the book.

View from the Pulpit, Old Meeting House (1773), Sandown, New Hampshire, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 3 of the book.

In order to find additional meetinghouses to photograph, I began to do some research. While reading several books about them, I really fell in love with the rich American history that is embodied in them. I decided to make the book both an art book and a history book so that the history of these places could be included with my art. I partnered with Peter Benes, one of the most respected Colonial-era historians alive today, to write a substantial essay – not common for an art book – so that my photographs can be understood in an historical context.

Interior, Old Meeting House (1773), Sandown, New Hampshire, 2005. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 53 of the book.

William Earle Williams, chair of the Art Department at Haverford College, writes in his commentary about my work that my meetinghouse photographs represent a composite portrait of the New England Meetinghouse. The images are arranged in the book in an artistic way, and not by property, because to me the exact location of each photograph is not important. Paul Strand, in his now classic 1950 book Time in New England, used the same approach. In his book, Strand gives no location information at all with his photographs, unless you look in the index. Strand paints a composite portrait of New England through his images, much the same way that I do for the Meetinghouse.

Door, Olde Meeting House (1755), Danville, New Hampshire, 2004. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 15 of the book.

In producing the manuscript for the book I scanned exhibition prints instead of the negatives, which is what is typically done for photography books. I did this because I wanted the reproductions in the book to resemble my exhibition prints as much as possible.

What is the most interesting comment you have heard from a viewer about your colonial meetinghouses project?

The most memorable comment about my work in general came a few years ago from Deborah Martin Kao, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at Harvard’s Fogg Museum: “You are one of the last of the living dinosaurs.” She smiled when she said this. She likes dinosaurs.

Unidentified visitor at Paul’s solo show at Harvard’s Three Columns Gallery in January of 2008. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

There are many very positive comments from early readers of my book which use words such as “stunning,” “beautiful,” and “fantastic.” Interestingly, most have come from readers not from New England. Perhaps the best comment came from a reader in Fort Collins, Colorado:

"In a world where mega churches with projection screens behind the wealthy pastor have blurred the separation of church and state and where theology has been reduced to political sound bites, those stark silent churches stand to remind us that a more profound and personal version of faith built this nation. Hopefully works like this [book] will continue to draw interest to insure their preservation. Thanks for such a wonderful book of photographs."

Window and Pew, Old Trinity Church (1771), Brooklyn, Connecticut, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 68 of the book.

I have gathered a growing list of comments, which can be viewed here:

Where can our readers get a signed copy of your book? Any upcoming book signings our readers should know about?

Hook on Pew Door, Rocky Hill Meeting House (1785), Amesbury, Massachusetts, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 61 of the book.

Late breaking news, late today, I learned that my book has been nominated for the New England Independent Bookseller’s Association 2010 New England Book Award.

Copies of the book may be purchased both from the web site, as well as from a growing list of retail locations around New England, which can be seen here:

Signed copies may be purchased directly from me – send me an e-mail for details ($35 plus shipping):

Upcoming book signings and presentations can be seen here:

Gravestones and Window, Pelham Town Hall (1743), Pelham, Massachusetts, 2006. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 84 of the book.

There are also two limited editions of the book that may be of some interest to collectors. There are a total of 100 signed, numbered books, presented in an elegant slip case. The first 30 are the Collector’s Edition, and include an original, hand-made limited edition silver gelatin photographic print from the book. The remainder are the Deluxe Edition and do not include a print. Details are on the book’s web site, The Deluxe Edition is $75, and the Collector’s Edition is $400.

Are you currently showing the colonial meetinghouses series? Representing gallery if any?

My long-range plan is to have a traveling exhibition of this work. However, that takes time and funding, and I am still only in the planning stage. I was quite successful in obtaining grant funding for the book from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Mass Humanities, and the New Hampshire State Council for the Arts. I will do the same for the exhibit.

Panoramic view of part of Paul’s two-person show (with sculptor Fielding Brown) at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth in 2007.
Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

I am currently represented by the Afterimage Gallery in Dallas, Texas. However, most of my sales are made directly to both private and corporate collectors, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Boston Public Library.

How have you handled the business side of being a photographer?

Paul on location with his camera at the old Truro Air Force Base on Cape Cod.
Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright.

I am amazed at how much of my time goes into the business side of things. At least half of my time is spent on marketing and promotion, and these days, with the book just being released, it is 100%. I look at promoting my work as being an art too. I take pride in my three web sites – I do them myself, and I like the fact that they do not look “industrial” and glitzy. My periodic newsletters are not done with Constant Contact for the same reason. I want my work to be presented in a very personal way.

I try to project who I am in my promotions. For example, I love music, especially choral singing. In doing the research on meetinghouses I have fallen in love with the music of William Billings (1746 – 1800). Billings, the first American-born composer, lived in Boston and was very instrumental in bringing music back into the Puritan worship. His hymns are especially meaningful to me. Not only have I included verses from his hymns in the book as poetic accompaniment to my images, but I have also had recordings made of piano interpretations of some of his hymns, and these can be heard in several places on my web sites.

Tell us about the awards and recognitions you received in the past years. Would you provide links to articles and reviews about your work?

My work has been included in many juried shows too numerous to mention here. The complete list can be seen here: Reviews and other articles about my work can be seen here:

Window and View of Graveyard, Old Trinity Church (1797), Holderness, New Hampshire, 2006. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 83 of the book.

Is it possible to purchase your prints and, if so, where?

In addition to the Afterimage Gallery in Dallas, my work can be seen and purchased from my studio. Information about acquiring my work can be seen here:

Window Detail, Old Meeting House (1773), Sandown, New Hampshire, 2004. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 33 of the book.

Are you available for commissioned works?

Probably no. Unless the commission happened to be something I was really interested in to begin with, I would not be able to do a good job at it.

Would you like to share your contact info with our readers? Do you have website(s) for interested readers to learn more about your work?

Your readers are welcome to contact me at My three web sites are:

Sun on Window Sill, Old Walpole Meetinghouse (1772), South Bristol, Maine, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 32 of the book.

Any advice or tips would you give to a photographer who has just starting out in photography?

Yes: get a good day job. Learn a skill that people are willing to pay a lot of money for such as engineering or brain surgery, and keep photography as your passion. If you choose to make your living solely from photography you will have to do a lot of weddings, portraits, and commercial work. This is not making art, but it is producing a product that someone else wants. I would probably have lost my love of photography if I also needed to use it to put bread on my table.

Paul gave a juror's talk on a photography exhibit at artSPACE@16 gallery in Malden, Massachusetts in 2006.

I have worked with an excellent marketing consultant, Mary Virginia Swanson. She specializes in helping photographers with the marketing of their work, and I would highly recommend her.

Finally, is there anything else you would like to add about your photography?

Windows, Beams, and View of Graveyard, Olde Meeting House (1755), Danville, New Hampshire, 2007. Photo courtesy of Paul Wainwright. This photograph appears on page 80 of the book.

Live well, laugh often, love much. Do what you enjoy, and you will enjoy what you do. And remember: age improves with wine.