By Annette Hinkle
Looking at the Sayre Barn today, you wouldn’t guess that a year or so ago the barn, which dates back to 1825, was in serious danger of completely collapsing in on itself.
But that, in fact, was the case.
The old barn had originally been built on the corner of Main Street and Hampton Road in Southampton and in the 1950s, was moved to its current location on Meeting House Lane, site of the Southampton Historical Museum.
It is one of several historic buildings on view at the museum, but the barn had become so unstable in recent years it had not been open to the public for quite some time. Recognizing that something had to be done with the dilapidated structure, the museum brought in Strada Baxter Design/Build, an Amagansett-based firm which first deconstructed the barn by taking it down to it’s skeletal supports, and then completely rebuilt it using the original wood when possible and new wood when not.
Work was completed this past spring and today, the barn is solid, bright and fragrant with the smell of pine. There’s still ample evidence of the old Sayre Barn, however, not only in the form of some of the original beams that were repurposed in the restoration, but by way of a series of giant photographs that currently adorn the walls.
“Deconstructing The Sayre Barn: Ulf Skogsbergh” is an exhibition featuring photographs by Mr. Skogsbergh highlighting the farm tools and implements which were removed from the barn in advance of its reconstruction.
Shot on stark white backgrounds that highlight the object’s form and printed extremely large — in many cases, larger than life — the photographs speak of the barn’s long history. The images are a visual documentation of bygone rural life, and offer an intriguing exploration of what went before. This past is defined not by words, but rather the quiet, elegant and often simple objects that once were vitally important to the work at hand — work that is no longer part of most of our daily lives.
For Mr. Skogsbergh, the objects have long been a source of artistic interest. Years before there were plans (and funds) to restore Sayre Barn, museum director Tom Edmonds invited Skogsbergh to stop by and have a peek inside.
Mr. Skogsbergh was intrigued by what he saw.
“Tom had just started working here and he said, ‘Come see the barn,’” recalls Mr. Skogsbergh. “It was in shambles and he said he didn’t know what to do with it.”
“I said, ‘I’d like to make photographs of the objects,’” he adds. “Then years went by.”
But last year, when the time came to clear out the barn in preparation for reconstruction, Mr. Skogsbergh was invited to borrow the objects and take them back to his Hampton Bays studio to photograph them.
“I work in a garage that is painted all white,” says Mr. Skogsbergh. “When you put something down, things like rust and grime fall off. Rust is oxidation – once something rusts, it doesn’t go any further and it almost protects it. It gives objects that patina. Time has to be an element, you can’t fake that.”
Which is why those flecks of rust and grime were intentionally included and evident in the background of many of Mr. Skogsbergh’s photographs now hanging in the barn. At one point he even noticed the presence of a couple small spiders that had taken up residence on the edge of a wooden wagon wheel he photographed. Those little spiders are part of the image and now the story behind it.
Many other iconic tools of the farming and fishing trade are also represented in the work — horseshoes, a rusted saw, a giant anchor. But there are other objects on view that that have little or no relevance to those of us living in the modern age. Among these are machines that look as if they might have been used to grind something, clean something or shred something. Because of our lack of understanding of their original purpose, even something like a scythe, which we may recognize but likely have never held and certainly have never swung, takes on a beauty based more on form than function. It’s a beauty defined not only by the sort of history found in the flaking of rust, but by the very shape of the objects themselves.
“I saw them mostly as sculpture and approached it as minimalist photography,” explains Mr. Skogsbergh. “They’re not intended to totally be documentation. I’ve exaggerated textures and colors …so it’s interpretive.”
One of the most intriguing images in the show is a view of the structure’s skeletal trusses overhead which is suspended from the ceiling of the barn. The photograph was taken on a clear October night in the midst of the reconstruction process and the sky is studded with the same stars that have been looking down on that old barn for hundreds of years and will continue to look down on the new Sayre Barn for years to come.
“When they took the shingles and the lathe off, I liked seeing the bones so I photographed it,” says Mr. Skogsbergh. “This is a panoramic view, from one end of the barn to the other. I used wide angle views and took a lot of frames that I stitched together on the computer.”
“I think I’ve taken it to extremes, but that’s not unusual,” he says.
The largest photograph in the show measures four by 12 feet and is a life size image of a piece of Sayre Barn itself — a massive support beam.
“I’m interested in the iconography of objects,” says Mr. Skogsbergh in explaining why he photographed the beam. “That’s also why I have the horseshoes — it’s about transportation. And the big saw… that’s what they used to build this damn thing.”
“Deconstructing The Sayre Barn: Ulf Skogsbergh” is on view at the Southampton Historical Museum, 17 Meeting House Lane, Southampton, through October 18. For more information call (631) 283-2494.