Exhibition: Steve Rosenthal—White on White: The Churches of Rural New England

by Paul Mozell

Steve Rosenthal is an architectural photographer based in the Boston area whose work for leading architectural and design firms has earned him numerous awards throughout a long career. In his spare time between commercial shoots, one of his passions has been to record the beauty of rural 18th and 19th century churches in New England. I visited the Manchester Historical Museum in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts which is hosting an exhibit of this work until September 1, 2012.

The photographer has succeeded in honoring the design, simplicity, and details of these icons of the New England landscape. Each of the images conveys its own peaceful countenance, showcasing the geometric shapes of building exteriors, heaven-pointing steeples, and even the crackling white paint. Rosenthal also shows us the curving details of interior ceilings, pews, windows and doorways, illuminated by soft, indirect light. Making black & white prints of white subjects is no easy feat and Rosenthal is a master of his craft. Most of the photographs in his project were made on large format 4×5 inch film with a monorail camera such as his Arca-Swiss model.  He then scanned the film on an Imacon scanner and printed them with an Epson 3800 inkjet printer on Moab paper.

I was lucky to spend a few minutes with Rosenthal at the museum. We talked about his embrace of digital printing in recent years and how the quality of his current inkjet prints exceeds the quality of conventional silver-halide prints he formerly made in his well-equipped studio darkroom. Now retired from commercial assignment work, he owns and occasionally uses Canon DSLRs and perspective-control (PC) lenses.  Yet, he still prefers the full controls of perspective and depth of field provided by the traditional view camera. Rosenthal discussed one photograph of the details of a church steeple and explained that the portability of the DSLR fitted with a long lens made this shot possible. The view camera would have required a very long (and sometimes unwieldy) bellows to get the same shot. Still, “fixing it in Photoshop” often means that you have to sacrifice a lot of image area and plenty of pixels if your goal is to correct the keystone effect that may not be fixed with the PC lens, explained Rosenthal. His hybrid analog-to-digital approach is perfectly suited to this artful and exacting work.

White on White: The Churches of Rural New England is a beautifully printed coffee-table book available from Historic New England. A traveling exhibition of 40 of these photographs, separate from the show in Manchester, is now at the Bruce Museum of Art, Greenwich, Connecticut until September 23. It will then move to the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut—October 6, 2012 to January 27, 2013. The results of Rosenthal’s nearly 40 year exploration of New England’s churches will be appreciated by designers, photographers, and by anyone who admires the peaceful structues that tie our landscape together from town to town.

Steve Rosenthal’s site is steverosenthalphoto.com

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