From the book, "A Space for Faith: The Colonial Meetinghouses of New England"
By Paul Wainwright
Atkinson, New Hampshire
For me, photography has always been my passion – my expressive outlet amidst all the cares and frustrations of life.
I had my first darkroom when I was 12, and I was hooked. Seeing a photograph appear in the developing tray was magic. It still is. During high school, I was the photographer for the school paper, and it was a good way for a shy boy with limited athletic ability to become accepted by his peers. Today I would be called a geek, I suppose.
I considered majoring in photography in college, but fell in love with high school physics, too, and physics won out. Nine years later, I received my PhD in physics and went to work at Bell Labs, that fabled research laboratory from the era of the Bell System where the laser and transistor, among other things we take for granted today, were invented.
All the while, photography was my expressive outlet.
As the world began to gravitate toward digital photography, the new technology did not really grab me. It wasn't for lack of technical understanding - I could probably have written many of the early photo editing programs. I suppose I spent too many hours dealing with computers at my day job to feel particularly inspired by digital photography.
In fact, I went in the opposite direction: about 15 years ago, I purchased a 4x5 view camera and the related darkroom equipment needed for large-format black & white photography. I enjoy the slow, Zen-like pace of working with these legacy processes, and I think my photographs are better for it. I know I am.
In 2001, I was handed a surprise: thanks to a downturn in the telecommunications industry, I was downsized out of my job. My philosophy of life has always been this: when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. So I took a leap of faith and pursued my passion for photography full-time.
I find that I am drawn to photograph old buildings here in New England. Sure, I also have a portfolio of landscape photographs (large-format photographers are supposed to photograph landscapes, right?), but as I step back and look at my work, I think my historic architecture work is the strongest, particularly interiors.
In 2004, I happened to stumble across my first Colonial meetinghouse in Fremont, New Hampshire. I was attracted to the simplicity of the architecture and the ways that natural light illuminated the 200+ year old interior. I could feel a presence of the people who built and used this place, and yet all that was left was their building.
I began to do some reading about New England’s meetinghouses - mostly just to find out where I could find more of them - and I began to realize that these places embody an important chapter in American history that is not well known.
Participatory government, one of the foundations of our democracy, was formed and tested in these buildings. The separation of church and state, ratified in 1791 in the First Amendment to the Constitution, was motivated specifically by these buildings, which were built with tax money and used (in part) for Sunday worship. The original Tea Party was organized in one of them (Old South Meetinghouse on Washington Street in Boston). A project began to take shape.
Over the next four years, I hunted down every surviving New England meetinghouse that still exists in relatively unchanged state. I found 30. In almost every case, these are buildings that were built by the Puritans in the 1700s with tax money, and were used for both town business and religious worship.
My definition for which structures to include in the project was mostly artistic. Renovations eliminated most of the approximately 500 existing structures that trace their roots to meetinghouses. Artistically, several non-Puritan structures snuck in – there are four Anglican churches, one Lutheran meetinghouse, and one Quaker meetinghouse.
In my photographs, I try to eliminate any sense of the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries, and plumbing or electrical fixtures definitely turn me off. So do telephone or electrical lines in my exterior work. If I were a digital photographer, I suppose I would remove them, but working with my view camera, I simply had to choose positions that would not include these modern intrusions. I use only natural light. Artificial illumination would kill the wonderful sense of space and light that I experience in these places.
What has resulted is a significant body of work that I hope will bring the story of this important chapter in American history to a wide audience.
Paul Wainwright's first book, "A Space for Faith: The Colonial Meetinghouses of New England" (Randall, $35), has just been published, and a traveling exhibition is being planned. His work has appeared in numerous juried competitions and solo exhibitions, and is included in the permanent collections of both private and corporate collectors, including Fidelity Investments, the Boston Public Library, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.