BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Center for Photography (VCP) has gone uptown - to the corner of High and Green streets.
The building was formerly known as the Midtown Mall, but since humorist, author, and woodworker Tom Bodett of Dummerston (of “Wait, Wait - Don't Tell Me!” and Motel 6 fame) bought it a few years ago, he has been building an art/craft/skills haven with the handle, “High Street & Green.”
The ground floor of the four story, high-ceilinged, historic building houses Wheelhouse Clay Center and a handful of other creative and entrepreneurial enterprises.
On the fourth floor, one finds several artists' studios; below that is HatchSpace, the woodworking school and maker space set up by Bodett and woodworker Greg Goodman in what was the Brattleboro School of Dance.
On the second floor, accessible by stairs from 22 High Street, or at street level off Green Street, is the stunning new VCP home. Supported by a dynamic, nine-person visionary board, including Phyllis Odessey, president; Mike Smoot, treasurer; and Daimian Lix, (1)marketing/communications; the project was spearheaded and designed by VCP board member, photographer Christine Triebert.
Her imprimatur is clear throughout: the space is (2)simple elegance, much like her photography.
Triebert, a photo-based artist, is well known for shows and collaborations, Rock River Artist Open Studio tours, and her widely published images. She has been involved with VCP since its inception 24 years ago, when photographer Eric Slayton started it in his Flat Street studio that offered a darkroom and a gallery space for local photographers.
Slayton taught there and administered, but by the early 2000s, it was more than he wanted. Many in the community didn't want to see it fold. Thus, a small group of photographers and photo enthusiasts stepped in to save it. Others joined and established it as a nonprofit that thrived, extending its reach well beyond Brattleboro.
A few years ago, though, VCP realized it had outgrown its home. With its many services, facilities, courses, workshops, and events, its old site near the Transportation Center was just too cramped.
The timing was right: as Bodett was piecing together an arts hub at his High Street & Green building, Triebert approached him on behalf of VCP, and Bodett welcomed the idea of a photo center in the building.
A lease was signed for much of the building's second floor - the former Bodhi Fit yoga space - on June 1, 2021. Doors opened to the public on Sept. 1, 2021.
That's remarkable productivity, especially given the limitations the pandemic has placed on construction, and, Triebert says, “it needed a total tear down and buildout; we gutted all but one wall.”
Triebert chaired the renovation committee for the new space and not only designed it, but became general contractor as well. VCP launched a campaign to raise the $100,000 needed, all of which came from individual donors who believed in the project and in VCP.
Triebert took me on a tour: entering from Green Street, one first notes a long corridor, the beginning of which opens to a retail space, PhotoThrift, chock-full of recycled cameras, camera parts, darkroom stuff, and antique curiosities only a diehard photography nut could love.
When the pandemic forced the shut-down of the Flat Street space and they were transitioning to their new home, PhotoThrift kept the nonprofit afloat - online with customers from around the world. Maximizing that opportunity was the brainchild and ongoing effort of VCP Executive Director Joshua Farr.
Farther down that corridor, flanked by large windows on the right, one passes VCP's Bookshop, a set of shelves with a sophisticated, clearly curated selection of photograph collections and books on photography.
At the end, I'm warmly greeted by operations manager Davida Carta - herself a photographer, from Milan, Italy - where I sign the email list. Admission to the galleries and library is free and open to the public.
I then step right into a gallery space - a spacious, well-lit, open-access gallery. The current exhibit is the annual Members' Show, spanning a range of ages, styles, and photographer chops. There's a lot to take in. It's varied, engaging, top shelf.
I take a left into the production area, and there's a digital lab with five 21-inch iMac computers and a large-format printer as big as a gym horse. Beyond that's the darkroom with five enlargers, a 10-foot sink, and ample space for developing prints. Adjacent is a smaller room exclusively for film processing.
Back to the doorless main space, the next large wall on the left is suited with metal, so prints can be hung with magnets. This is the Fred Picker Gallery, named for the late area photographer/educator, which can be rented for two weeks at a time as a print gallery.
Across from that gallery wall, also with spacious access, is the reading library, complete with a long, welcoming table and several chairs that evoke mid-20th century Danish style. There are probably 100 feet of books neatly shelved there, intriguing in the breadth of/depth into the world of photography they reveal.
Beyond that, you'll find Farr tucked away in a naturally lit office from which he tends the business and well-being of the Center. For 10 years, Farr - a photographer, curator, designer, printer, and art-handler - has been curating the center's monthly photographic exhibitions and assisting with the organizing of workshops, artists' talks, publications/catalogues, and portfolio reviews.
A pleasant staff kitchenette is across the way; beyond is a lighting studio loaded with just about everything one could need for a high-end photo shoot. Triebert's enthusiasm, which has been palpable, peaks at this stop.
The capacity for the whole space - 3,000 square feet compared to 2,200 at Flat Street - is 80 persons, which allows ample participants at events and is spacious enough to be conducive to creativity when sparsely populated.
VCP welcomes visitors and continues to sow outreach opportunities. In 2019, for instance, a grant from the Thomas Thompson Trust and donations from many local supporters funded Focus Forward, a program developed in collaboration with Turning Point of Windham County, to teach photography skills to people in recovery.
Led successfully by local photographer Liz LaVorgna, it was soon halted by COVID-19. Talk is underway, though, about restarting Focus Forward this summer. New programs are also in the works to broaden VCP's reach to the community.
“Because photography is an immediate and user-friendly art form, it's the perfect medium to engage people in sharing their stories using a visual language,” Triebert says.
Annually, VCP sees more than 250 members, ranging in age from 18 to 88, from throughout the tri-state area. Many among them feel indebted to the center for a range of reasons.
William Dixon, for instance, began working in alternative printing after retiring from teaching. “When I first began,” he recalls, “VCP provided me with the physical space and equipment to do my work. Once I'd finished my prints, they encouraged me to display my work at membership exhibitions. Through the years, I had the opportunity to interact with local photographers there who, like me, are dedicated and passionate about the visual arts.”
About the new space, Dixon adds, “There's little doubt that [it] is a significant improvement to the image of VCP, both for its members and for the arts community of Brattleboro. There is an (3)'airiness' and 'lightness' to the setting which complements the photographic images presented on the walls.”
Member Robert George adds, “I am an 88-year-old self-taught photographer and began about 1967, doing work for The Experiment in International Living. My wife published a newspaper and books on bicycle racing, which I helped illustrate. I began photographing Brattleboro in 1983 and have continued.”
Among the benefits reaped from his involvement with VCP, he counts, “meeting other photographers, seeing their work, hearing their talks.”
Artist/educator Joan O'Beirne teaches photography at Greenfield Community College and has taught it at Keene State College, Community College of Vermont, Marlboro College, and the University of New Mexico.
A long-standing member of VCP, she moved to Vermont from New Mexico 18 years ago and soon sought a community of photographers. She'd heard about VCP, visited, and encountered photographer John Willis hanging an auction show in the old Flat Street gallery.
That connection was the first of many O'Beirne formed at VCP before she eventually joined the board. A friend and colleague of Triebert's, the two decided several years ago to start a group of critical friends. With photographers Lynne Weinstein, Evie Lovett, and Suzanne Flynt, they gathered regularly to critique each other's work: that established tradition endures today.
VCP's mission is to engage the public in the art and craft of photography through experience, lectures, events, instruction, and open spaces to show and share.
Josh Farr explains VCP's strengths: “I think we thrive because of the diversity of what we offer. We make every effort to stay true to our mission of promoting the photographic arts (and artists). We also offer publicly accessible (and affordable) studio space where artists can produce work.
“Given that photography (both digital and traditional film-based processes) requires some extensive, complex equipment and facilities, it often is prohibitive for folks to create these spaces themselves. Another great strength,” Farr adds, “is our community . . . the unique density of creative-minded folks who call this place home, and also the regional, and even national, photographic community we are part of.
“Being 24 years old now, VCP has settled into this community and created a name for itself - and folks really seem to find a lot of value in what we do. . . . [With other area arts organizations,] I think we have in common the fundamental belief that art of any kind - whether viewed or created - can have a substantial benefit to our communities and ourselves.”
Like Brattleboro's Museum & Art Center, Brattleboro Music Center, Brattleboro School of Dance, Wheelhouse Clay Center and Brattleboro Clayworks, Vermont Jazz Center, New England Youth Theatre, New England Center for Circus Arts, the Windham Philharmonic, River Gallery School - and the list goes on - VCP is a gem on the local arts scene. What a town!
As Triebert says, “name any art form, and Brattleboro has a school, a performing space, a venue, and an audience for it.”
Taught by professionals from greater Brattleboro; some from Northampton, Mass.; and Keene, N.H.; classes this winter/spring include Introduction to Photo Studio Lighting, Design and Print a Photo Book, Fun Film Cameras, and Portraiture. Workshops are offered in Hand Coloring Inkjet Prints, Digital Collage, and Intro to Fine Art Digital Printing.
More information about these, private tutorials, and upcoming events is available at vcphoto.org, as are guidelines and fees for darkroom, gallery, lighting studio, and digital lab rental; and information on scanning, printing, and art documenting services. Prior to renting darkroom, studio, or lab time, the renter must be trained in the field's equipment.
Membership at $100/year gives members access to all classes and rentals at reduced rates. VCP's hours are Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.