Roots and routes of art and theology in Chichester

Plaque marking the site where Bishop William Otter was interred, Chichester Cathedral, 1840.

In my new role as the Bishop Otter Scholar for theology and the arts, I have started to explore the potential avenues for continuing my doctoral research in photography and the Bible. Where my patrons thus far been Bible Society and the University of Gloucestershire, now I am employed by Bishop Martin Warner of the Diocese of Chichester, and will be affiliated with ASK (Centre for Art and the Sacred) at King’s College London. This finds me reflecting on new starts much as I did at the beginning of my artist residency at Trinity College in Bristol: it’s tempting to think of this institutional identity in static terms of association and contracts of exchange – the ‘business’ side of life commonly works by these markers. But just as I reflected on journeys, pilgrimage, and passages at Trinity, I want to begin here with a reflection on this ‘journey’ side of life, now with a changing sense of movement and relation.

Continuing as I am in a role previously occupied by Dr Naomi Billingsley, it is entirely fitting to be guided into Chichester quite literally, in the form of an app she helped to develop, Alight: Art and the Sacred. Free to download, it provides audio commentary for a gentle walking route from the city walls to Chichester Cathedral (approximately 1/2-an-hour), and then around the Cathedral taking in its many artworks by, among others, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Marc Chagall (just over an hour). Interactive and insightful, it naturalises a engagement with the world that is also rich and deep with history, art, meaning, and above all, spirituality. I was entranced during the outside route: peripheral noises of cars and people passing were (at times unnervingly) connected in reality and recording, and thronging crowds on the high street really did bring the sense of pilgrimage to life. The genial commentary provided by Professor Ben Quash weaves a vibrancy and immediacy between tangible, physical connecting (across city wall, street plan, and cathedral edifice) and the retracing of history and heart as centred on the spiritual centre of the city.

Finding a climax in the approach to the cathedral entrance, the sense of arrival is reframed by the vertical dimension, where Bishop Martin comments on the spire’s heavenly orientation. Here indeed is the marker that defies all other markers, the catapulting idea that, as he quotes Augustine, we come to God not by navigation (Chichester Cathedral can be seen from the sea), but by love. Every footstep, every decision, every effort of exploration, and thinking that one might conjure a full-stop achievement of horizontal containment is sprung open by the mystery of being found, already, always. The urgency of every pilgrimage is to somehow re-orient oneself to this dimension, to find ‘thin’ places and ‘slow’ time. In my turning into words, this will be an (all too human) attempt to stay close to wisdom, or a wisdom tradition. As I continue blogging, different directions and focusses will emerge, but I hope to journey in the model of Alight’s app, with photography’s realism and ‘nearness’ to help me along the way.

It’ll be natural enough to stop and stare and discuss things: inside the Cathedral, the works of art are just such a series of stations, and for this part of the app we’re treated to a range of different voices connecting image with symbol and text (from Professor Aaron Rosen on the Chagall window to Head Cathedral Guide Dr Judith Lee on the South Transept window). A long-time favourite of mine, Sutherland’s Noli Me Tangere (1960) is as jewel-like as Canon Dr Anthony Cane evokes. With its bright blocks of red and green, and Jesus zig-zagging across horizontal and vertical dimensions like he owns them, it’s a beautiful and dynamic moment of transformation and revelation. At times the discussions of art works remain self-contained in a way that misses the pilgrimage setting – as no doubt my own of the future will – but on the whole, another’s captivation reveals previously hidden gems, like Karen Coke on the monkey in the Charter panels of Lambert Barnard (1530s). My own viewfinder looked down to the floor, finding a testimony to Bishop Otter himself, as seen in the photograph above. Nearby, the commemorative inscription for his life ends with words from James 3:17, a fitting motto for any following pilgrim:

But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

Launching in Lacock

Thresholds at Lacock Abbey

The season turns, and it’s time to re-emerge again in a more public frame for practice and research. It has been two years to the week since the last blog post, in which I declared a ‘going-to-ground’ period on arrival in Lacock, Wiltshire. The characteristics of such a long withdrawal are far from being blank, though they are a deliberate stance against working modes characterised by visible productivity. What you can do with invisible time and space is enter whole new worlds, as I experienced this week at Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds exhibition at Lacock Abbey.

More on the virtual experience in a moment, but by way of what I’ve been up to in the last two years, 2015/16 initially saw an enforced break on work patterns, firstly in the aftermath of moving and secondly in a family member’s ill health. I spent a lot of time digging, literally turning over soil and dragging out stubborn roses – it felt like a spiritual exercise in identifying and living with ground zero for a while. I came circling back to what it was I wanted to grow in my PhD, while finding footing at the local campus for Bath Spa University in Corsham Court. 2016/2017 then was a solid twelve months’ writing my doctoral thesis, part-time. I worked out the number of words per week that I needed to average, as well as the number of pages I could read in a day. I ploughed. Finally on the 4th August this year, I submitted over 80,000 words to the University of Gloucestershire, and look forward to a viva there next month.

It was absorption, with great intensity. Absorption in a world much like that recreated by Collishaw: the world of original photographic encounter. In his case, he has built a ‘room’ to mirror the setting of one of Talbot’s early photographic exhibitions (in Birmingham, 1839). You are given a headset and backpack, are guided blind into the blank white space, and then experience its sights, sounds and textures through the room’s virtual recreation, complete with wooden display cabinets, mice on the floor, street sounds from outside. I loved this world, and I loved the tangibility of its interpretation – it felt like, in microcosm, a material confirmation of so many academics’ verbal interest in photography. But its absorption was also lacking in intensity, limited by clunkiness, six minutes’ viewing time, and regulated space. It was interesting to experience the incompatibility of presences: my own was not ‘visible’ in the virtual space (others were ghosts, and staff were occasional disembodied voices at your side), yet I did enter a ‘thereness’, physically. Ultimately I found it a gift to visual imagination, and at my own threshold of new forays into word and image, it marks the moment with new, dynamic, possibilities.

Leaves and Lincoln

Prof Larry J Schaaf's revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright
Prof Larry J Schaaf’s revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright

By way of an introduction to the conference Rethinking Early Photography held at Lincoln University earlier this month, Prof Larry Schaaf presented a lecture called ‘The Damned Leaf: Musings on History, Hysteria and Historiography’. In the whirlwind speculation that swirled around this particular photograph, which had come up for auction in 2008 as part of an album, Schaaf’s comments at the time gave rise to unmerited suggestions that it was possibly an earlier photograph than Talbot. The name Wedgwood popped up, since a ‘W’ is found in the bottom left of the negative. In a welcome spirit of openness since the leaf’s quiet retreat from the public spotlight, Schaaf’s lecture gave the photograph its long-due much-deserved critical attention; and the results, while not the tabloid headline so hastily dreamed of, nevertheless open the door on other aspects of early photography.

Of no little interest to me is this early history in Bristol, and the likely female involvement. For Schaaf has discerned in the scrawled lettering on the back of the negative the initials ‘SAB’, standing for Sarah Anne Bright, the daughter of the Bristol MP Henry Bright (1784 – 1869) whose residence was in Ham Green. That the image is printed on paper produced by William West (of the Clifton camera obscura and the Bristol School of Artists) is highly probable – the ‘W’ is a likely link to the blindstamp identifying the paper with the stationer Lancaster, who was selling to West in Bristol at the time. I have written about West in the past (in my book Bristol Through the Lens), as his camera obscura was key to the tradition of landscape composition and view that developed in the South West – a particularly Romantic and photographic view, especially in the area around the River Avon and its Gorge, which includes Ham Green. That the leaf has been treated as a photogram, in the manner of a specimen, is not as far from this Romantic view as we might think.

In my paper for the conference ‘Let There Be Light: Theology and Spirituality in Early Photography’, I consider the vocabulary, context and direct evocation of biblical themes in and around early photographs. Leaves had something of an emblematic status, whether for biological perfection and detail (Talbot), for monogram experimentation (Herschel), or for revelatory apparitions (Enslen); at times, they come close to bearing the immanence of God through the way people saw them, with the action of divine light on the photo-sensitive surface. I argue that when we examine so many leaves, our view should not thereby forget that there was once a forest – that background milieu of religious or spiritual understanding. Nor need we suppose that we have ‘clear’ sight now, rather that we are grafting new philosophical perspectives into early photography.

Two things pointed this up to me mostly clearly at the conference: the first was the final question put to a panel at the end of the last day, a question that sought an answer to our persistent search for photographic origins, for photographic ‘firsts’. Amidst the general replies that questioned points on a historical line rather than the existence of the line itself, I found myself offering the comparison of linear photographic perspective: within its system, we can continue to plot and map our direction and position – but beyond this, surely we have all already woken up to its system-like nature, to the limitations of it, indeed to the falseness of it? And isn’t it in fact photography itself that has done this – in our increasing awareness of its subversion of normative perspective? So the question of origins needs a rather more radical a-historical discussion.

Secondly, 36 of the 52 speakers at the conference were women. In a varied programme that crossed several disciplines internationally, from geography to history, from literature studies to conservation, this high representation of women to me suggests the lack of entrenched patriarchy in what is still a relatively young subject. It bears the mark of the social eclecticism which was undoubtedly a contributing factor to Sarah Bright’s involvement in photography, though here it’s rather more an academic eclecticism. Practicing or studying photography, it is remarkable that so many women are telling the story, which volunteers another radically new, still unrecognised perspective.

Seeing in Green in Westbury-on-Trym

Winning entries
Winning entries

A total of 30 entries were submitted to the Seeing in Green photography competition, and displayed as part of Westbury-on-Trym’s Community Fair on 9th May 2015. The junior and youth categories were merged to form one young people category of under-18s, in which there were two winners: Annie Clough-Hillman’s unmanipulated print of a view through a window, and Edward Smith’s digitally-created circular composition. Both images concentrate the eye in a layered process of looking: Annie’s framing segments the view of house and garden with precision, while nevertheless softening the exterior/interior boundary across the sunlit glass. Her image is atmospheric, quiet and pays attention to the mark-making process of light’s action on a surface. Edward’s centrifugal collage has a intriguing balance of image references, which alternate between the softness of a green leaf/surrounding trees and the hardness of metal/turbine sculpture. The suggestion of movement brings a dynamic life to the image.

In the adult category, Simon Smith’s similarly centrifugal composition of a magnolia flower wins the unmanipulated print category. The magnolia stands out like a beacon in a sea of concentrated blur, a brilliant technical accomplishment with a zoom lens, but also a singularly iconic choice of imagery. The blossom has all the clean, bright beauty of spring, which is focussed so that we might see it more clearly in the midst of the whirling world. Of the smaller selection of digitally created entries, Christopher Richards wins with his entry of Bristol bicycles. A suggestion of bicycle overload is created with the mass of wheels, frames and metal all pushing up against a bank of green – the parked up transport visually has nowhere to go, despite Bristol’s efforts to promote cycling, this seems an apt depiction.

Congratulations to the winners, and thank you to everyone who took part, and to the prize-givers (Photographique, Lee Spencer-Fleet, and ICVL).

The gilding of photography

Niépce's 'Christ Carrying His Cross', 1827; heliograph on pewter
Niépce’s ‘Christ Carrying His Cross’, 1827; heliograph on pewter

It comes to something when 7 hours of travelling effort was required to go a photography exhibition – and when that effort was supremely worth it just to see this photograph. Despite coaches not turning up and trains being cancelled, I made it to London to see Drawn by Light at the Science Museum’s Media Space. It was a fantastic collection, with over 200 photographs from the RPS, including Emerson, Rejlander, Stieglitz, Holland Day, Frith, Fenton, Käsebier and Brigman.

But the highlight by far was seeing this image, one of 4 heliographs created by Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) in 1827, the first photographs in the world. This one, and its two accompanying plates, are less well-known than the View from the Window at Le Gras, which captures a view from Niépce’s window. The three exhibited here are contact prints from other artwork, which, having been made translucent (by wax), impress their ‘shadow’ on the pewter plate and its coating of bitumen of Judea.

A reproduction of an artwork about which nothing is known, Christ Carrying the Cross, like the other reproductions, is sharp in its delineation, but nevertheless hard to see on account of the highly polished surface of the pewter plate, the shallowness of the etching and its limited tonal grey scale. Yet it is highly significant because it marks the birth of photography with religious possibility as much as with scientific possibility. Niépce’s own upbringing (including the priestly schooling and later teaching at the Society of the Oratory of Jesus) and written thankfulness to God for successful experiments is behind this image. Holding it together is a certain type of culturally-accepted and pictorially-conventional Christ, who takes up his cross and beckons ‘Come, follow me’ into the divine light, which in this image has echoes of Old Testament cloud and fire.

But the image’s story also belongs to photography’s medium, which takes up the unwieldy mechanics of its discovery and bids ‘Come and follow me’ to anyone who will listen. The road might be uphill, on rocky ground, but is consumed by a luminously real, captured yet elusive, light. This isn’t a Passion image, it’s a calling straight from Matthew 16:24. There’s nothing like a strident mysticism to help get the medium going.