The country church is a familiar image in the rural landscape. It is often sought out for picturesque paintings and photographs, and it is frequently used as a symbol of our ideals. This image is the subject of Wooden Churches: Columbia County Legacy in which Arthur A. Baker presents a portfolio of sixty-three photographs of churches in Columbia County. The portfolio is limited to one building material, wood (as indicated by its title), and is a complete catalog of all of the remaining wooden churches located inside the county’s borders. The photographs are accompanied by a wonderful essay by Ruth Piwonka that chronicles the development of the area through religion, and by an appendix of historical data keyed to a county map.
The book begins with a forward by Baker in which he very clearly lays out his thoughts and goals. He asserts that the variety of architectural styles and various religious denominations represented by the wooden churches in Columbia County reflect the nation’s architectural and religious development in microcosm. Baker establishes that the main goal of his project is to create a complete documentation of the county’s wooden churches. It is an interesting admission on his part that the project’s content is secondary to this goal. The resulting content of the photographic contribution is largely a visual comparison and contrast of the churches, and has been confined by limitations on the catalog and by formatting decisions. Most of the historical and architectural content of the book relies upon its written contributions.
Baker anticipates questions about the limitations of the project by writing “Quaker and Shaker meeting places (there are no wooden synagogues) are included because of their importance within the context of the book.” Although the inclusion of only one building material makes the parameters of the project neat and simple, the incomplete catalog of denominations coupled with the inclusion of the Quakers and Shakers causes such parameters to seem arbitrary. The architecture of the meeting houses differs conspicuously from the rest of the portfolio, and their sequencing as the last three images in the book causes them to seem as if they were an afterthought. The Quakers and Shakers are important to the context of Piwonka’s essay, but denominational differences are downplayed by Baker. Otherwise, why exclude Judaism, which Piwonka includes with Catholicism as a late comer to the region (1860) and refers to as an “unexpected omission” from the portfolio? Finally, one parameter that Baker does not address in his forward (and which is not addressed historically in Piwonka’s essay) is “why wood?”
The historical, religious, and even architectural content of the work is subjugated to the visual by the sequencing of the images. Baker acknowledges this by stating his intention to emphasize “the church massing and silhouette rather than its religious identity, its location, period or architectural style.” The churches are not ordered chronologically to heighten the historical content of the book and parallel the area’s development. Neither are the churches sorted by religion to facilitate a comparison of the structural or decorative predilections of a certain denomination. Instead, churches of similar structure, and often of similar architectural classification, are paired such that visual similarities and differences can be studied. To this goal, one great strength of the portfolio is the care and consideration given to the parings of similar church facades. Numerous differences arise even in churches of identical structure. St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Stuyvesant Falls and Hudson’s Emanuel Lutheran Church provide a surprising mirror image of one another when displayed side by side, but there is still great diversity in their details. The two photographic elements that lessen these comparisons, and unfortunately so, are Baker’s use of light and printing.
In his forward, Baker expresses his admiration for the work of Walker Evans and the Bechers, and his work combines elements from each. The use of typology as a comparative method, the frontal vantage point, and the isolation of the subject from its environment is born of the Bechers. The lighting and the subject matter is more of Walker Evans. This synthesis creates individually beautiful photographs but lessens the comparative potential within the pairings. Too often the sharp contrast between sunlight and tree shadow distracts from the comparison of window placement and porch design. Two of the worst offenders are the First Presbyterian Church in Ancramdale and the United Methodist Church in Styvesant Falls. Another difference between the work of the Bechers and Baker that lessens comparative analysis is the photographs’ printing. The highly stylized printing owes a great deal to perhaps a third influence, Ansel Adams. Unfortunately, Baker fails to replicate two of the hallmarks of the Bechers, rigorous working method: their use of flat light and neutral printing. Without these qualities, Baker fails to realize fully his goal to facilitate comparative analysis. Instead, he achieves his goal of comprehensive documentation and the creation of many individually compelling images.
As for the historical data and architectural classification presented in Wooden Churches, it, too, is subjugated to the typology. One feature of the Bechers’ books is a simple explanation of the structural components and functions of the subject. No such explanation is given here of the parts that constitute a church. There also is no explanation of the architectural styles loosely applied to the churches in the section of historical data. The fact that the historical data is arranged by town, not by image sequence, and is segregated from the portfolio reinforces its secondary nature. For those who are knowledgeable of architecture, this collection of photographs is a valuable study in microcosm of the variations in wooden church facades, but for those who are not, the delight is in the purely visual.
Although Baker’s photography compromises some of his visual goals, the project achieves a valuable visual record of wooden churches for the Columbia County Historical Society and for all those interested in the simple beauty and variation of church architecture. As a whole,
Wooden Churches: Columbia County Legacy touches upon a variety of interests centered around the documentation of the country church. The book preserves and compiles historical information about the churches for comparison—such as the establishment date of the congregations, the date the churches were constructed, the latest denominations, and a loose architectural classification. Finally, this information and the church facades are given greater significance by Ruth Piwonka’s interesting and informative essay, which is the glue for the project. Her essay establishes the roles religion and the physical structure of the church have played in the history of Columbia County, and the importance these churches possess as symbols connecting decades of change. One of the most individually compelling images of Baker’s portfolio encapsulates the history these structures have endured. Created by the perhaps undesirable effects of the long rays of the sun, the shadow of a telephone pole falls across the front of the Philmont Reformed Church. Its presence combines the stark beauty of a simple wooden church in the full sun and the passage of time and change.
—Laura Gail Tyler