A flurry of Frith photographs

The Holy Bible, illustrated with photographs by Francis Frith, 1861

This month I’ll be speaking at the University of Oxford’s seminar series ‘The Bible in Art, Music, and Literature’, with a talk entitled ‘Pick & Mix: the non-linear Bible as modern artists visualise it’. I’ll be exploring a few artists discussed in my recent journal articles, but also introducing some thoughts on Francis Frith. Frith’s albumen prints were the first to illustrate a Bible in 1861, as seen above. In many ways, what he did with photographs of Palestine anticipated the range and breadth of new, modern ways to visualise the Bible. I’ve called this a pick & mix approach, not to be derogatory, but to argue that for him and for others something positive is going on with respect to the interpretation of the Bible in visual culture – the recasting of its language and stories as essentially non-linear. Here, I expand on what this meant in Frith’s case.

Frith travelled to Egypt and Palestine three times between 1856 and 1860; during and immediately after the trips, he published at least eight titled works, including this and a following two-volume ‘Queen’s Bible’ – the first photographically illustrated Bibles. These were undoubtedly at the more formal, exclusive end of his commercial printing enterprises, which also included serial travel books, sets of stereoviews, illuminated visual presentations, and card- and glass-mounted views sold separately. Frith delighted in the immersive effects of photography – his were not the typical wall-mounted print set for exhibition in societies. In his hands photography had different work to do, conjuring up the travel experience and imaginatively engaging the viewer to transport them to another world.

More than this, Frith was a Quaker (later a minister), and the idea of transport had a lot to do with seeing and experiencing something true – in this case, with a lens on the landscape of Egypt and Palestine, it was exposure to its meta-truth as read in the Bible. Frith’s Bibles are inserted with topographical views of particular places (such as Bethlehem, Mount Sinai, and Jerusalem) on separate pages. They interrupt the seamless verbal script, offering a conceptual junction with the real world. It isn’t simply a case of illustrating the text, it’s the alignment of another space with, alongside, through, the text. It’s a new epistemological venture. Truthfulness as it might be read has now a spatial dimension as something that might be inhabited. Frith found that the photographic image made immediate, spiritual claims on the viewer:

We can scarcely avoid moralizing in connection with this subject; since truth is a divine quality, at the very foundation of everything that is lovely in earth and heaven; and it is, we argue, quite impossible that this quality can so obviously and largely pervade a popular art, without exercising the happiest and most important influence, both upon the tastes and the morals of the people. … We protest there is, in this new spiritual quality of Art, a charm of wonderful freshness and power, which is quite independent of general or artistic effect, and which appeals instinctively to our readiest sympathies. 

Francis Frith writing in ‘The Art of Photography’ in 1859 (emphasis original).

Such a charm of wonderful freshness and power becomes, in contemplating biblical sites, a matter closely related to faith. The past is realised in order to enliven a theological imagination. The reader-viewer may well connect with the romanticism of the picturesque view, may indeed connect with the factual visual information pertaining to ancient biblical sites, but the trump card was really that they might connect with the living truth of God’s activity in the world (as much present as past). The facingness of the world exerts its non-linearity on biblical reading here. And in so doing, Frith I think sees in miniature the effect of big screen photographic representation – that catapulting of realistic spectacle and immersion which has rendered the Bible extra-textual in so much of our modern visual culture.

More at the seminar… And for those that can’t, some of these ideas are being worked into an essay for an edited volume, to be published with Routledge later this year (Transforming Christian Thought in the Visual Arts: Theology, Aesthetics, and Practice).

Lenses on the Bible: recent article publications

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s Holy Bible, 2013; David Mach’s Adam & Eve, 2011

2019 has been a year of article publications for me, the first fruits from completion of my PhD in 2017. In that labour of blood, sweat and tears, I considered four photographers as case-studies for new kinds of image/text relations between photography and the Bible. I’ve already introduced Revd Alexander Keith in a previous post, he saw the light of day in the History of Photography 42:4, published earlier this year. Here I’ll introduce Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin briefly, and David Mach in more detail. For another time is that seminal photographer in regard to biblical themes, Julia Margaret Cameron.

Broomberg & Chanarin’s Holy Bible (2013) is a publication I’m very fond of: a Bible with photographs from the Archive of Modern Conflict covering the pages. I’ve written about it twice now, in the Visual Commentary on Scripture as part of my commentary ‘Scaping Sin: Leviticus 15-18‘, and a couple of months ago in ‘Engaging with the Bible in Visual Culture: Hermeneutics between Word and Image, with Broomberg and Chanarin’s Holy BibleReligion and the Arts, 23:4. They present what I call artistic ways of exploding the Bible, with photographs of catastrophe. It’s quite a provocative hermeneutic in which they imagine a de-centering and deconstructing effect of war reportage, in which the Bible holds its own with a de-centred and deconstructive theology of God beyond words, God as rupture.

I’ve also been a long-time admirer of David Mach’s photo-collages – large-format composites assembled by hand from magazine and newspaper images. Mach produced over forty of them for an exhibition in 2011 called ‘Precious Light’ (which I reviewed at the time here), all with biblical subjects in celebration of 400 years since the King James Version of the Bible was published. In ‘The Bible as Photo-collage and Tableau: David Mach’s Precious Light Series (2011), I’ve written for the German Bible Society’s online journal, Bible in the Arts (Volume 3) exploring this work in greater depth. In the vein of Kudos’ helpful interface for the presentation of academic writing, I’ll answer their questions about this article here:

  • Plain language title: What happened when artist David Mach took cuttings from the Bible.
  • What is it about? David Mach’s ‘Precious Light’ series of photographic collages: huge and with myriad details, these art works show well-known biblical episodes against modern city backdrops with contemporary crowds. I describe Mach’s visual treatment of the text in three ways: the images play to that which is scenic about biblical stories (a realism which is also staged/written like a kind of picture), they give the stories the epic treatment (especially with the wide-angle), and they invite the reader-viewer’s imagination to construct from and with composite, piece-meal knowledge of the stories.
  • Why is it important? Mach brings the Bible into the present tense, which opens the door onto its present-tense theological bearing. Such theology can be seen through the Bible understood as newspaper rather than as Shakespeare (to paraphrase David J. A. Clines) – as being continually renewed, disseminating, and materially embodied, rather than residual, throwaway and inaccurate. Mach invites a particularly engaging consideration of theology as mediatised with his recourse to imaginative re-collection and re-membering of contemporary media.
  • Perspectives: ‘[Precious Light] veered away from just being about the Bible very quickly, to being about people. People living on this earth, like me, with two feet on the ground, and all the things that are happening to us today, in an attempt to try and make this story, that subject matter a contemporary thing, a contemporary art talking about now. I’m not illustrating something from then, I’m trying to talk about us, how we live, and what’s going on now’ … ‘Surreal is too bloody easy. … Collage can be political, contemporary social comment. Because they are real people who exist, every time you cut, you bring something to it – like chopping off Castro’s cigar and putting it in a peasant’s mouth’ (David Mach, 2012).

How a Victorian vicar used photographs to explain the Bible

From the 37th edition of Revd Alexander Keith’s publication in 1859

Earlier this year, my first journal article from my doctoral thesis on the Bible in photography was published in History of Photography. The journal itself has been a prompt many a time for my research – its articles shine so many lights into the past, with deeply attentive and close looking into histories that haven’t yet been told. It is the authoritative journal for close, peer-reviewed, study in the subject. So I’m naturally delighted that this article was accepted for publication.

‘Photographic and Prophetic Truth: Daguerreotypes, the Holy Land, and the Bible According to Reverend Alexander Keith’ (Vol 42, Number 4, 2018, also published here on my website) explores Keith’s bestseller publication and his use of engravings made from daguerreotypes to ‘prove’ that biblical prophecies about the landscape of Palestine had come true. Early ideas about photography’s ‘truth’ are commonly filtered through our modern understandings of science, objectivity, and experiment, which tend to present a blind spot when it comes to religion. Particularly in regard to Christianity and the Bible, religious reference is reduced to thematic illustration and (a nostalgic) art iconography. My essay presents an important challenge to reductionist simplifications of Christian thinking prevalent in early photography, revealing the intellectual sophistication of what is Keith’s photo-biblical apologetic. His highly articulate faith-based defence of photography’s superior documentary capacity reveals a more complex relation between science, visual culture, and religion than has typically been assumed.

For his book, Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion Derived from the Literal Fulfilment of Prophecy, Keith employed the services of his son George Keith to daguerreotype biblical sites on a tour of Palestine in 1844. The 18 engravings from daguerreotypes might look a bit dull, but they had the punch of truth-telling propaganda in their day: seeing was literally believing. This was more than armchair travel, more than seeing equating to the real experience of being there, because Keith linked the images to specific texts from the Prophets. In the above images, Ashdod (west of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast) shows that ‘the sea coast shall be dwellings and cottages for shepherds, and folds for flocks. Zeph II-6’, and the Temple at Jerash (east of the Jordon, a city not readily identified from Old Testament references) reveals that ‘in all your dwelling places the cities shall be laid waste, and the high places shall be desolate, &c. Ezek VI-6’. Keith made the record of the photograph synonymous with the record of the prophets. No other Palestine-religious guide (and many would follow in the nineteenth century) would hold photography and the Bible so determinatively together.

Ordinarily, it’s not a complicated connection, though it’s often missed because of common understandings of the Bible-as-myth today. The Bible is a record first-and-foremost. Its declared intent is overwhelmingly documentary, it purports to be historical about the Israelites in the Old Testament, and about Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. Though it certainly has more lyrical and poetic books or sections, it is not as a whole a mythical account of a religion’s origins, nor a theological treatise. This is its ‘scandal of particularity’, as it has been called by theologian Alan Richardson. Keith, however, takes this one step further, because it is the predictions of the prophets that he takes as literal record, their foresight about the landscape’s destruction. And for his purposes, it is helpfully specific in the text about what the desolation will look like. Writing at time when British interest in Palestine was expanding on the tide of the Empire’s wealth, it was a land increasingly present to readers of the Bible too, and of concern particularly to Zionists. Keith had such concern in mind with other publications, notably Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland (1842), which had first employed him in Palestine in 1839. What one was engaging with when one looked at photographs of the Holy Land was urgently related to religious convictions pressing through the literalness, and bound up with present feeling about who was entitled to the land (especially when it was so conveniently photographed as empty). It was nothing short of a symbolic reality: the Jewish Promised Land inviting ‘return’, as much image as word.

For writing about photography, I think it’s urgent work to recover such a religious conviction as Keith’s, or at least to give those who held it (he had thousands of readers at a time when over half the population went to church, his book running into over fifty editions) the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their intellectual capacity. We can attribute greater specificity to their intentionality, if not always circumspect to our eyes, in the name of a fairer, clearer, interpretation. If nothing else the biblical literacy of our ancestors in the West ought to be more fully reckoned with, and given its fine grain. In my article I expand on this through the idea of Keith’s telescoping across present feeling and original prophecy, and through photography’s quasi-supernatural promise as being made ‘without human hand’. If anyone reading this would like a hard copy of the article, let me know and I’d be happy to send you one.

Good News : David LaChapelle’s photo-gospel

‘Anointing’, 2003, from the series Jesus is my Homeboy, by David LaChapelle

Catching the last days of this exhibition at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, I went to see David LaChapelle’s Good News for Modern Man in October this year. Not quite a retrospective for the photographer, the show concentrates on his fine art photography with oversized tableaux prints produced in bold, searing, colours and drawing on his earlier career’s attention to celebrity and fashion icons. Produced more or less since the turn of the twenty-first century, these works catapult what might otherwise have been jaded or cynical comment on the overblown and hedonistic art-commercial scene in which he was involved into something extraordinarily vibrant. Into, indeed, ‘Good news’. For LaChapelle, the optimism underpinning his detailed attention to pictorial construction, to the art of making meaning, is one couched in the Christian language of redemption and salvation. Overtly, and with intent, LaChapelle is one of a number of photographic artists today bringing biblical reference, of which the show’s title is just one example, centre-stage.

Deluge, Room 7 at the Groninger Museum
I was, I admit, overwhelmed by the work. Over 60 pieces illuminated the colour-blocked walls with stage-lit drama and cinematic immersion: each room of 10 had its own mood of theatre, from the sun-blanched yellow of the Land Scape series, to the submerged aquamarine backdrop for the largest room Deluge. It’s no exaggeration to say that the ‘show-ness’ of the show was part of its attraction – viewers were invited to inhabit worlds in which the people represented were companionably life-size, yet also pitched at the extremes of human reckoning such as drowning, or found in Edenic forest, or at the height of societal fame (with the Kardashians). The un-peopled environments presented were just as seductive. The room Earth Laughs in Flowers contained a series of large-format chromogenic prints whose apparently traditional still-life arrangement of flowers in vases disguised more contemporary visual abundance in artful combination: tins of pop, mobile phones, plastic packaging. The series title comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, one work from which includes the line ‘God is Not the Author of Confusion’ in the kaleidoscopic presentation of a Late Summer bouquet.

Over-abundance, kaleidoscopic colours, and an unflinching embrace of Western society’s more decadent preoccupations are yet compatible with LaChapelle’s Catholic faith. Inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, his 2006 work The Deluge includes a saving Jesus figure reaching from a cruciform telegraph pole, forming the apex of a flooded and chaotic urban recreation of the Genesis story. In his Awakened series (2007), single submerged figures in contemporary dress, named after biblical characters such as Abram, Ruth, and Deborah, are suspended in life or death, light blazing from behind them. And he has said of his series about Jesus, pictured above:

If you really want to shock people in the art world, talk about Jesus or God. You could take a dump on a gallery floor and they won’t care. That’s art … when I wanted to do Jesus Is My Homeboy, I wanted to ask who Jesus would hang with, if he was back. And it wouldn’t be the aristocrats or the rich people, but the disfranchised. I was making this point to the editor of i-D and I heard the phone go dead. Eastern religions like Buddhism are cool – anything foreign or exotic like that is acceptable, but Christianity has a horrible reputation because of fundamentalists and evangelicals.

(quoted by Nosheen Iqbal in the Guardian, 21/11/17). LaChapelle’s is a reading of simultaneity across Bible subject, art subject, and contemporary human experience. It is not particularly loaded with moral freight or intellectual depth, lacking the dimensionality of either backwards- or forward-facing temporality, and its present is an imaginative realm rather than the social or geographical field of photographic topos. In this sense, LaChapelle’s work orchestrates biblical reference for unironic symbolic value, to reclaim from the extremes of fundamentalist religious interpretation or art-world dismissal a lively middle way in which it is possible, as he put it, to ‘live dimensionally [in the modern world] and still have faith’ (interview on The Art Newspaper, October 2008). I like the intent here, and the sense of ownership. From a white gay former studio assistant to Andy Warhol, it’s an ownership that confronts prejudice on so many levels. Here’s to the recognition of that, especially when it’s in danger of being lost in the stream of celebrity-association that LaChapelle is more often known for.

detail from ‘The Deluge’, 2006, David LaChapelle

Female Photographers Al Fresco in France

Photograph by Yagazie Emezi, Festival Pil’Ours, La Chaize Giraud

A brief holiday review here, with the chance discovery of the Festival Pil’Ours in France: an outdoor, multi-site exhibition of work by ten female documentary photographers across the region of St Gilles Croix de Vie. It’s a fitting reflection of the holiday mode that sometimes we encounter photography incidentally, without seeming to connect with its directive in normally prescribed ways. Here, at three sites on our family’s travels, a windmill at St Révérend, the coastal promenade of St Gilles Croix de Vie, and visiting a church at La Chaize Giraud, we found the work of Sanja Knezevic, Maan Youssouf Ahmed and Yagazie Emezi (above) respectively.
What I noticed wasn’t so much the depth and strength of the artist’s portfolios, but the impact of the surrounding setting and the kind of detached engagement which this al fresco photography seems to encourage. At no point did the information provided at the sites mention any competition website, artist website, social media, or even email, in order to find out more. The global Pil’Ours logo communicates an international reach, and so do the subjects of photographers based in Nigeria, Serbia, and elsewhere; yet frustratingly they seemed unreachable. This absence of physical and digital linking, both outwards and between subjects, is a telling one for revealing a hermeneutic premised on one-way dissemination of information – there is no connectivity to the experience of viewing these works. One artist’s work in St Gilles (Alexia Webster) was vandalised, her portraits of South Africans scratched over with gouges and swastikas, which, aside from the politics involved, suggests that a hermeneutics of information at some level denies conversation. When an interpretation may be defiantly expressed in a negative way, it is perhaps the absence of a more positive one that has failed in the context of international promotion. In terms of local promotion however, the sense of a three-dimensional frame for each image I found quite exciting – the visual dynamic of 2-dimensional work changes when the background is a space one occupies and walks in. It gives the setting a new prominence, even agency, because we are in it and we become foregrounded. Perhaps that too is an invitation to interaction, to a more communal, conversational form of engagement with photography – seen perhaps most promisingly in the collective spirit of Shutterhub’s contribution to the show, a series of contact-sheet style images from over 70 female photographers. Here indeed, partly in the group’s theme of female empowerment, and partly in its celebration on social media, there was a sense of activating the subject-matter for new audiences and within new places.