Jack Rowell, photo maker: The “cultural documentarianof Vermont"


Article published July 6, 2014

Beads of perspiration are forming on his forehead, and some are dripping down his cheeks, and occasionally he swats a mosquito, but Jack Rowell is in his zone now, concentrating on the teenage girl before him, judging the light, the background, looking for that perfect fraction of a second when an aspect of her personality shines through. His Nikon D700 clicks away as he speaks words of encouragement and gives direction to the young lady, whose mother, standing under the canopy of tall maples, smiles with approval.

“Weight on your back foot. Chin down a bit. Shoulders toward me. That’s beautiful!” says Rowell, who is working on a “Sweet 16” (birthday) assignment in the dappled light of late afternoon on Braintree Hill. He and his subject are standing in a patch of bracken ferns on property belonging to the Braintree Fish and Game Club, a spot he has used in the past for portraiture. It’s just a short way up from his house. 

“Don’t tell the tree huggers,” Rowell mutters in his gravelly voice as he bends a sapling to accommodate his tripod. To get a rise from others, he often uses phrases like “tree-huggers,” “flatlanders” or “trust funders.” It’s his shtick to poke anyone who flaunts privilege or tries to impose values. There’s a streak of contrariness in Jack Rowell, and you have to like him for it.

Rowell would make a great portrait himself, but you would want him holding the camera, because few have a better eye. Photographically speaking, he gets the best from people.

Balding, with a bushy mustache, hair reaching to his shoulders, he may even resemble some of the characters he shot at the Tunbridge World’s Fair in the 1960s ‘70s and 80s, back in the days of black and white photos, back in the days of the girlie shows, the “cussin,’” the fisticuffs on the midway, and the “whisky-drinking” with which he admits some familiarity, though he has gotten through those years as has the fair itself, which now bills itself as family entertainment.

Rowell began his photographic career at the fairgrounds with a borrowed 35-millimeter Petri that a friend brought back from Vietnam during the war. He shot ride scenes, and cows and fruit pies with blue ribbons, but mostly people, capturing expressions that ran the gamut. In his portfolio are guys who looked like they belong in jail and grandmothers sweet as can be. His own grandmother lived just across from the fairgrounds, and his father worked in town as a logger and designer and builder of coffee tables. The fairgrounds is where Rowell spent a good chunk of his boyhood when he wasn’t fishing. 

One of his favorite shots, in fact, was taken at the fair. It’s of a farmer wearing a broad-brimmed hat and sitting in a rocking chair in front of corn stalks, with a sign boldly asserting: “The reasons politicians are crooked is because YOU are! Repent today!”

That photo appeared in a book titled “Tunbridge Fair: Photographs by Jack Rowell,” published in 1980 by the Herald of Randolph, where Rowell back in the day worked for $1 a photo. “I also worked as a dishwasher, gravedigger and flagman,” Rowell says. 

There’s another fair shot of guys playing a roulette game with a live mouse that is released and expected to run into a numbered hole of its choosing, an endeavor PETA might frown upon today. And a poignant shot of a man with his Labrador, the fellow looking like a dog’s best friend.“

Oh, for sure, he’s an artist,” says John O’Brien the filmmaker, emphasizing the obvious. Rowell worked with O’Brien in the ‘90s on the Vermont cult classic, “Man With A Plan,” the political spoof starring now-deceased Tunbridge farmer Fred Tuttle, who after the movie went on to actually run for office, winning the GOP primary against a carpetbagger, then endorsing Democrat Patrick Leahy. O’Brien, Tuttle and Rowell traveled together everywhere, to New York, Boston, Washington D.C., to promote the movie. Rowell recorded it all photographically. His shots of Fred Tuttle became iconic.“

He’s a great photographer, and it’s been fascinating to see his work evolve from the rough street photographs of the fair to his studio and other work. He shows professionalism without losing the human touch,” says O’Brien, who admits Rowell’s demeanor might appear more consistent with that of a “deer-jacker” than a talented photographer.

“He likes his subjects animated, and he encourages them to be expressive,” says Sara Tucker of Randolph, who teamed with Rowell on the “Hale Street Gang Portraits and Writing” project, the acclaimed endeavor that has made the rounds of galleries and exhibit halls in the state. 

Tucker, who attended high school with Rowell before going off to New York for work in writing and editing, returned for family reasons and wound up helping a dozen people at the Greater Randolph Senior Center write their memoirs. Rowell took the photographs, evocative 17-by-22-inch black-and-white portraits. 

“It’s sort of magic the way he puts people at ease,” says Tucker. “He is so just so laid back, and natural, but he can be a bit of a clown, when necessary. … 

“And you can tell right away if he likes you,” emphasizes Tucker. “I don’t think he takes many pictures of people he doesn’t like.” 

Rowell’s studio in Randolph, with the mounted 35-pound king salmon that he caught on Lake Ontario looking down from a wall, is jammed with tripods, camera cases, strobes, light-mods, and posters with his photos, including one of Fred Tuttle standing at the U.S. Capitol. He shows photos of a gal with a tattoo, a couple on a motorcycle, Little Leaguers, participants in fishing derbies, and Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster performing at the Lebanon, N.H. Opera House and at Chandler Music Hall in Randolph. One of his photos graces the cover of a MacMaster CD. 

He shoots for the Lake Champlain International Fishing Derby, and last month photographed Miss Vermont posing as though she were about to kiss a big but not adorable smallmouth bass. Someone encouraged her to do that, but Rowell denies it was he. 

“I am a cultural documentarian,” says Jack Rowell, when pressed to describe himself. He says that with an ironic smile, because to Rowell that probably sounds pretentious.

Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais, Vermont freelance reporter and editor.

Editor’s Note:Photographs by Jack Rowell can be seen at the following galleries:

“The Hale Street Gang Portraits in Writing” Now through Oct. 10.The Great Hall 100 River St.Springfield, VT

State of Beings (Group exhibition) July 22 –Aug. 30. Studio Place Arts Gallery, 201 N. Main St. Barre, VT 

Kimball House at the White River Craft Center, Randolph Avenue, Randolph VT

Or online at http://www.jackrowell.com