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n the photograph the church appears almost like an animal shot with a tranquilizer dart. The structure sags, as if on sun-soaked haunches, unable to move from the asphalt veldt. Were it not for the presence of a white van in the foreground, the image might have been captured by a Farm Security Administration photographer roaming the Deep South in the 1930's.
Appearances deceive. The photograph of Mount Moriah Primitive Baptist Church was taken just last year. And although Elsmere, the town in which the church stands, once bore the biscuits-and-gravy name of Eighty Acres, it is in New Jersey and lies not much farther south than Philadelphia. Yet one almost expects to see cotton growing nearby.
The languid image is part of a revealing online exhibition, "Small Towns, Black Lives," created by the New Jersey photographer Wendel A. White. Over the past 13 years Mr. White has been toting his camera through the state's southern reaches, documenting the existence of a handful of small all-black communities that still survive there. In his back road travels, he has also unearthed the rich African-American history of several towns that are now largely populated by whites.
Mr. White's online photographs depict little-known aspects of the nation's past: communities formed by blacks in the 19th and early 20th centuries as havens from racism. Many of these enclaves, where African-Americans could raise families and build careers, were in New Jersey. For Mr. White there has been some urgency to document these insular towns before they change even further or disappear completely. "Even if they don't physically go away, the nature of the communities is disappearing," Mr. White said. "What we're seeing is the last bit of the 19th century."
On Saturday Mr. White, 46, put a newly expanded version of his Web site online at blacktowns.org. The timing coincides with the opening of his photography exhibition, also called "Small Towns, Black Lives," at the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, N.J. The exhibition runs through April 27.
In the museum's galleries of course the black-and-white images are larger and more detailed than when viewed on a computer screen. But it is on the Internet that Mr. White's project leaps to life. He has augmented its 50 images with digital reproductions of historical materials like a real estate map from 1872, and he has bolstered the site with evocative audio and video clips and 360-degree panoramic photographs.
For instance, one video, filmed in 2000 during the rededication ceremony for a Civil War veterans cemetery, shows black men in Union uniforms marching through a town. The collision of past and present is startling. Elsewhere a photographic portrait of the storyteller Michelle Washington Wilson, sitting amid the ruins of her childhood home, is accompanied by an amusing audio clip that softens the sad scene. In a delighted voice, she recalls how a Halloween visit to a mean neighbor's house quickly became a disaster. Exit, pursued by a hog.
The panoramic photographs, which let a viewer make a complete circular turn within an online image, are most effective in conveying a sense of place. One taken in the former African-American resort community of Morris Beach, N.J., focuses on a desolate intersection where the only traffic is a lone chicken.
For Mr. White incorporating these multimedia elements into his site was a natural step. He began to visit the towns in the late 80's. The residents would often share their stories and family artifacts with him. Just as he was seeking ways to illuminate his images with their mementos, the Web arrived. He created a site for the Civil War cemetery in 1995, followed by an early version of the Black Towns site in 1999.
Mr. White said he was unconcerned that he might be forsaking his commitment to photography: "I didn't feel that I was going into another discipline as I started to use different materials and, in a sense, create a collage." It was the mix of information that mattered, not the materials. "It's not that the photographs are inadequate," he said. "It's that there were other things going on."
But few photographers have embraced the Web to the extent that Mr. White has. Many sites are devoted to documentary photography, but they rarely amount to more than a slide show. It's like going to the movies and finding the projectionist making bunny silhouettes on the screen. With its mix of media, the new Black Towns site is an impressionistic experience. Those seeking an academic account of the black-settlement movement should look elsewhere. Mr. White said: "I don't feel that I'm writing history here. I encounter it, and I want to bring it into what I'm doing as an artist.'
What Mr. White is doing as an artist is rooted in what Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and other Farm Security Administration photographers were doing from 1935 to 1945: turning documentary photography into a fine art. And his starkly lighted landscapes, building exteriors and workers remind one of those taken in the rural South by those earlier photographers. (The Library of Congress has put those images online at memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html.)
Mr. White said the resemblance was not accidental. Emancipated slaves and black Civil War veterans flocked to southern New Jersey precisely because its landscape and climate were similar to their hometowns. He said, "As you drive through these towns, you can't help feeling whether you're in a white community or a black community that it's very Southern.'
Perhaps this Southern sensibility also explains the formal elegance of Mr. White's work. His images are restrained rather than theatrical. Charles Stainback, the director of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who is the curator of Mr. White's museum exhibition, said: "So much of photojournalism today is about the dynamic, gritty, shocking picture. These aren't that. He's taken the time to look at these lives.'
For instance, for a recent portrait of Laura Aldridge, Mr. White posed her in the middle of a church in Springtown, N.J. At first glance the image appears ordinary. Eventually, though, it becomes obvious that all the lines in the photograph are at odd angles. In the center sits Ms. Aldridge, defiantly upright in a world gone askew.