Documentary celebrates the vanishing architecture of rural Vermont and the American West

By Tom Ayres, Senior Staff Writer

Local devotees of fine art photography, documentary film, rural Americana, and oral history are in for an extraordinary treat in early October.

“Vanish: Disappearing Icons of Rural America,” a compelling, visually arresting new documentary film written and directed by Shelburne-based commercial and architectural photographer turned fine artist and filmmaker Jim Westphalen will be screened at the Town Hall Theater in Woodstock on Saturday evening, Oct. 7. 

Redolent with stunning images of beauty and decay, the film — equal parts cultural geography treatise, folk architecture study, and passionate ode to rural America and its people — had its world premiere at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival in May. “Vanish” tells the story of Westphalen’s nomadic and idealistic quest to document quintessential structures that are steadily decaying and disappearing from rural America: the weathered, often dilapidated and collapsing yet powerfully evocative barns, coal sheds, one-room schoolhouses, prairie churches and other architectural ephemera before they disappear from pastoral viewscapes. Area residents may know him from his 2021 exhibit at Billings Farm & Museum titled “Voices from the Land.” 

“I moved to Vermont from Long Island back in 1996,” Westphalen said in a phone interview on Sunday afternoon, speaking of the roots of his love for iconic rural architecture. “Ever since I was a kid, spending summers with my grandmother in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, I was always enamored by old barns, one-room schoolhouses, and old buildings. There was just something there that innately interested me. When I moved to Vermont, I was immediately drawn to the countryside and all those same structures that I had fallen in love with as a kid.

“I was building a commercial photography business at the time, but in between my marketing efforts, I was spending every free moment in the wilds of Vermont, trying to capture these old structures that I loved,” the photographer and nascent documentary filmmaker continued. “I realized that so many of these beautiful structures were just falling into decay and disrepair. There was this sadness about it, but at the same time I realized that there was such incredible beauty in the varying states of decay that the buildings were in. I can’t say that I was intentionally building a body of work at the time, but as time went on, I recognized that there’s a story to be told here. I’d show the images to certain people or I’d display them in galleries and they really struck a chord with people.”

While Westphalen began building the body of work documented in Vanish and in an accompanying, self-published book of his photographs nearly two decades ago, it wasn’t until recent years that the concept of the documentary film began taking shape. He stepped down from his commercial photography business four years ago to do fine art photography full time.

“The still images came first, of course, and as the years passed I was building this body of work. I had great success in the gallery realm, meaning that sales were good,” Westphalen explained. “But there was always something in it that fell a little flat for me. It wasn’t that the images weren’t appreciated, but I was the one who was getting the stories of these structures first hand from the people who owned them or had some connection with them. I wanted to share those stories more broadly. People would sit down with me and they were so happy to tell me the stories of their great-grandparents who settled the land back in the 1800s.

“I never set out to become a filmmaker, but I have this passion for this project,” Westphalen added. “I loosely started this project with intention about 12 years ago. It was all about the aesthetic – looking at the colorful cracked paint or the rusted tin roof on a porch, all those beautiful elements. It was important enough to me to kind of get my message and my mission out there about these old structures and the lives, stories, and histories behind them. The film is sort of a hybrid of what it takes for me to go out and do what I do: the research at first, finding the structures and then getting out there, whether it be here in Vermont and New England or out West, and then capturing the images and creating art around them. You’ve got to track that history down and it takes a little detective work. And when I started collecting these stories, they just became an important part of the total package, so to speak.”

Westphalen crafted the Vanish film with a wealth of other creative artists, including his photography studio manager Bill Killon, who joined Westphalen in the editing suite, and part-time employees and camera operators Lenny Christopher, Ivar Bastress, Nathan Norby, and Kurt Weilland, whose cinematographic skills and deft use of drones for sweeping aerial shots of rural landscapes are breathtaking. A young composer from Burlington who now resides in Philadelphia, Christopher Hawthorn, composed the film’s soundtrack, which brilliantly complements both Westphalen’s richly textured images and the impressive cinematography, thanks especially to Killon’s sensitive sound editing. Members of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra performed Hawthorn’s lush, classically tinged score, often in a quartet format.

Westphalen takes pains to speak about the differing perspectives and aesthetics he brings to bear when taking photographs in rural Vermont or in the wilds of Montana. “As I started amassing this portfolio of work, I realized I was in this race against time and the elements to capture many of these structures,” the veteran architectural photographer and newly minted documentary filmmaker offered. “I was curious if the same thing was happening out West and I wanted to do something with a very different landscape from New England.

“I’d seen plenty of pictures of Big Sky Country out in Montana and Wyoming and I thought I’d find an aesthetic very different from what we know as the New England vernacular of structures. For me, it became all about the prairie and the plains out there. It’s otherworldly. You feel very insignificant and very vulnerable in that Big Sky Country,” Westphalen concluded.