Let there be light!

Enslen's 'Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf', 1839/40
Enslen’s ‘Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf’, 1839/40

Coming up in the middle of June, I will be presenting a paper at the Rethinking Early Photography conference in Lincoln. Below is my abstract for Let There Be Light: Theology and Spirituality in Early Photography:

Largely absent from discourses on the development and context of early photography is an examination of the religious and theological backgrounds of its pioneers. This paper will consider the evidence for a Christian spiritual hermeneutic both in the plates/prints and through the backgrounds of Niépce, Daguerre and Talbot; further, it will discuss the surviving work of Johann Carl Enslen (1759-1848), a largely neglected figure in conventional histories of photography. Enseln’s 15 extant salt prints, including ‘Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf’ (1839-40) will be shown to explore a concept of divine immanence through highly experimental collage techniques. Of critical importance is the argument that the birth of photography was pervaded by a Christian spirituality that manifested itself in both the culture at large (in the popular press and in the background of empirical scientific endeavour) and in the individuals’ inclusion of biblical or theological reference in their images. The manner of such references will be examined, ranging from textual quote to conceptual collage to the reproduction of religious paintings/prints.

Historical discussion of such evidence of spirituality must also challenge the discourses pertaining to photography’s ontology, so this paper further argues that the so-called hegemony of photographic realism is somewhat complicated by its religious affiliation. Considered as a misplaced ideology of the Victorian era from which we have an enlightened critical distance, it will be suggested that such notions of objective realism are helpfully resisted by an understanding of Christian spirituality (rather than vice versa). The tools of contemporary photography criticism are all the richer and sharper for the heritage of theological terminology and concepts, and this paper attempts to bring such a heritage to light with particular reference to the term ‘index’ and its ongoing usage in this field.

Because it’s all about the space, ’bout the space…

'Lenten Spring' installation begins
‘Lenten Spring’ installation begins

This week, as Lent begins, I’ve taken down my visiting See from the college chapel, along with other pictures in there, to bring our habitation of the space into the foreground. Taking things down, and presenting a ‘visual silence’ (thanks, David Baker!) is different to the tradition of veiling icons or statuary in churches during Lent. There, the symbolism stems from a contemplation of our separation from God, a re-enacting of the curtain that veiled the most holy place in the temple – in order to prepare the penitential soul before the dramatic unveiling and curtain-splitting of Easter. Here, I’m more interested in the awareness of how we move and inhabit the space holistically, rather than in the inside/outside symbolic dichotomy of space. There’s still us before God, but it’s pared down – literally flattened to a groundedness and simplicity of relating.

The intention behind this is to raise awareness of the primacy of relating to the chapel space with our bodies – over and above relating to the space with our intellectual assent and engagement. Spiritual life has this plane, and because we’re British and in an educational establishment, we often forget it. But my noticing of college life, of the outworking dimensions of worship and study, is its ‘3D-ness’ : the sensory aspects of eating, walking, talking, singing, sitting, standing. To be spiritual here is to be corporeally involved.

To highlight this, my latest work Lenten Spring, will gradually unfurl in the college corridor outside the canteen (see here for importance of corridor engagement). Currently empty, each day new growth will appear in a photographic sequence of bulbs growing, both at ground level and from above. At a later stage, 4 abstract pieces that celebrate biblical expressions of the elements will appear. Both sequence and stopping points, together with text, are hopefully catalysts for passing viewers to make their own connections and interpretations. Thinking and sense are thus paralleled over time and space to create a new experience which expands both. After the black and white, bring on the colour!

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.

3 good reasons for hanging artwork in a corridor

The New Passage and The Parting of the Severn Sea at Trinity College
The New Passage and The Parting of the Severn Sea at Trinity College

1. Everyone’s going somewhere, so the work is given a chance to join in, and to be part of people’s journeys. This corridor is a central Trinity funnel: everyone passes through this space, from lectures to mealtimes to offices to common rooms. As such, the corridor is a special space for highlighting movement, transition, transformation, change. I’ve always felt this particular space is like a culvert – the stream of people passes in a tighter and more enclosed channel.

2. Corridors focus people’s sight lines on a horizontal plane and accentuate direction or end-points, so even though movement is emphasised, so is, paradoxically, the end of that line. At Trinity, people spend a significant amount of time asking questions about all the movement going on – about the point of the transitions and transformations. And it’s not just that there’s a metaphor in a physical corridor for spiritual change – it’s that geography really is spiritual, that people who come here and pass through here are working out their geography at bigger levels of parish placements and future directions.

3. What you lose in psychological framing and distance (‘Oh there’s an art work I’m looking at), you gain in holistic encounter (‘Something’s following me’). Here, my lenticular piece, The New Passage, does literally change as the viewer walks past – see here for the technique in its creation, when it was shown at the Royal Academy. Both my pieces show the tide changing in the Severn Estuary, and reference the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus – a life-changing crossing in so many ways. Corridors, ultimately, point up the multi-dimensional spaces in which transformation occurs by way of their limitations. That seems an apt reflection of God’s working too.

Following shoals to Birmingham

Gillian Wearing's 'A Real Birmingham Family' (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham
Gillian Wearing’s ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham

After last week’s post on local events in Bristol, this week I went to the Library of Birmingham for GRAIN’s ‘The State of Photography’ Symposium. In marked contrast to last week, this event was, for me, a dip into the larger sphere of photography in this country and abroad – specifically photography as fine art. Neither photography as commercial business nor photography as hobby is, ultimately, the field for me. In some ways, I’m only just realising which hand I’ve been holding onto all this time, and it’s very much a sense of a bigger picture, which I now need to scope.

At this symposium, scoping involved listening to some extremely proficient experts in the fields of photography festivals, photography agency, photography critique as well as photography fine art practice. Respectively, this was Louise Clements, David Birkitt, Tim Clark and Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. I suppose I take interest in these fields in increasing order of enthusiasm: festivals are all well and good for those who can easily travel (thanks to time and cost availability) but are by no means a circuit open to me at the present time; agency is a bit of a photographer’s dream, but in this case involves a commitment to production and to a certain kind of commercial brief-fulfilling capability (which is a second-stage possibility); critique is definitely high on my agenda as a first-stage aim, since the communication and engagement it involves is such as to place my work centre-stage; which is ultimately afforded by the fine art practice platform of Broomberg and Chanarin.

Without this symposium, I might never have discovered their work – and suddenly the trajectory of this event takes a turn towards me that really sings. Because it boils down to the fact that my practice sits alongside my research – and THAT, really, is the job in hand. The PhD into photography and the Bible has just found another chapter’s focus in Broomberg & Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’, which reproduces a KJV with photographs and underlining. I await my signed copy, on order, and in the meantime, keep the percolating practice considerations at bay…