Monday, November 4, 2013
November 4, 2013: Berkshire Stories: Vincentini’s Photos
[Last month, I had the chance to visit the beautiful Berkshires of Western Massachusetts for the first time. The area’s as full of American history as it is of gorgeous fall foliage, and so in this week’s series I’ll highlight five such Berkshire stories, leading up to a special weekend post!]
On the photos that represent a unique American story, and the photographer who does as well.
In 1936, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project sent photographer Noel Vincentini to take pictures of the Shaker villages in New York and Massachusetts. One of the Federal Art Project’s principal goals—most famously exemplified by the Southern journey that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—was to document and help preserve unique communities and cultures across the United States, and the Shaker villages, the populations of which had dwindled substantially by this period, represented a perfect candidate for such efforts. Vincentini took more than 200 black and white photographs of the villages and their inhabitants, and as part of the WPA’s Index of American Design they were displayed in libraries and department stores around the country, bringing these complex communities to widespread national audiences.
As I discovered when I visited Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, the story of the Shakers combines the ideal and the real in ways that feel distinctly and powerfully American. On the one hand, the rule in Shaker communities was that all members would be entirely celibate, dedicating themselves solely to God and to the daily practices and customs through which they embodied that faith; it’s hard to think of a more utopian goal, given that if achieved it would literally threaten the community’s future existence. Yet on the other hand, and due in part to the population struggles produced by that rule, the community at Hancock Village (like, I would imagine, all Shaker communities) consistently employed outside laborers, non-Shaker young men whose presence represented a necessary but very complicated contrast to the Shakers’ coherent community and worldview. Vincentini’s photos include both Shakers and outside laborers, documenting the distinct work and worlds of these two communities yet also, inevitably, their overlapping and interconnected, and I would argue very American, shared presence within the Shaker villages.
If Vincentini’s photos thus captured a complicated American history, so too did his life—uncertain as many of its details are, in part because his name was sometimes spelled “Vicentini”—represent an equally multi-part American story. Apparently (most of these facts are, again, uncertain) a 1923 immigrant from Trinidad, the son of a Trinidadian father and a French mother, Vincentini then shows up on the 1930 census in New York City, working as a “manufacturer of cameras”; he subsequently went to work for the WPA from 1935 until 1942, when he enlisted in the Army and served in World War II (becoming a sergeant). Little else is known of him until his 1963 death—but given those first two decades in America, it’s hard to imagine he didn’t have an eventful last two. And honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine anything more American than a French Trinidadian immigrant photographing the multiple sides to Shaker villages for a WPA project that would showcase these communal images in Depression-era department stores, y’know?
Next Berkshire story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?