By Ellen Barcel
The Port Jefferson Gallery at the Port Jefferson Village Center is currently showing The Barns of the North Fork, a photographic exhibit by Mary Ann Spencer, of the disappearing agricultural heritage of Long Island.
Spencer, who was a board member of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, has long been interested in local history. The exhibit was first shown in SPLIA’s gallery in Cold Spring Harbor.
“I’ve been driving out east since I arrived here 30 years ago,” said Spencer in an interview 10 years ago when she first completed the exhibit. Originally from Wyoming, the East Setauket resident had spent several years documenting these vestiges of Long Island’s agricultural past and present. Most of the photos are from the Southold area.
Spencer became so closely associated with the history of barns that people began to recognize her not by name but as “The Barn Lady.” So, Spencer added, “My husband got me a vanity plate that says, ‘Barn Lady’.”
Now, 10 years later, when asked how many of the barns are now gone, Spencer noted, “That’s an interesting question. I have been out there (recently) and a few are gone, but not a large number. It’s a good thing to hear.”
“The exhibit was inspired by the book [of Spencer’s photos]. It represents the antiquity of the barns which are vanishing. It preserves that important history of Long Island when we were basically farmland,” said Sue Orifici, administrator of Graphic, Archival and Special Projects of the Village Center. While the book and exhibit are not intended to be a detailed history of each barn, basic information is provided such as town, approximate date if known, use and other miscellaneous information.
Noting that this is the last time that the traveling exhibit will be shown, Orifici added, “It’s a great show for cultural reasons. That’s our focus at the gallery. As you go through the exhibit [with the blown-up photos] there is information on the background, the architecture, the names of the types of barns and their purpose … It’s not just a photo essay.”
Spencer, a freelance photographer, added that while she has hung the exhibit many times, “the time that was the most fun was the State Fair in Syracuse because I’m a fan of state fairs,” another part of local history.
All of the photos in the exhibit — there are approximately 70 of them — were taken with film. So, now, 10 years later, how does Spencer feel about digital photography? “I did come into this century. My work is now digital. I started the (barn) survey in 2001, all in film. I had negatives everywhere.” The negatives were specially printed in a custom lab. “Now that I’ve gone digital I do all my own printing, matting and framing.”
Spencer noted that in going digital, she bought a very expensive camera, but added, “I haven’t taken a picture (digitally) that I think is as fine as film,” and that while most people can’t see the difference, “I can see the difference. There’s a depth in a print made from film,” that you just don’t see in digital images. “I used film for 40 years. To my eye it was better.” Now it’s hard to even find film in stores. “Now you have to go into the city to develop color film.”
While this is the last time she plans to show this exhibit, she still does a PowerPoint presentation on the barns. She changes the presentation based on the audience’s interests and locale. She can be reached at [email protected].
Don’t miss this exquisite show, which was partly funded by Suffolk County under the auspices of the Cultural Affairs office and the New York State Council of the Arts. It is open now through Feb. 28. A reception, which is open to the public, will be held on Friday, Jan. 15, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the PJVC. Spencer’s book, “The Barns of the North Fork” (Quantuck Lane Press, 2005), is available locally and online. She will also have copies of the book available for sale at the reception.
The Port Jefferson Village Center, 101-A East Broadway, Port Jefferson, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The center can be reached at 631-802-2160 or go to www.portjeff.com.