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.

Reading between the Bible lines in Tacita Dean’s desert

Tacita Dean, ‘Quarantania’, photogravure, 2018

It’s a commonplace to find photography and the Bible linked through particularly simple illustration: if you pick up any modern guide to the Bible, you’ll invariably find a book or website with photographs of the landscape of Palestine and Syria, or of its flora & fauna, or of archaeological remains. Occasionally an image might zone in on an object given particularly rich symbolic significance in the text, like a vine or a dove. Invariably, the context of the illustration delimits the use of the image, ‘this is what it says’ becomes a closed line of reference, each in collusion with the other. To me, there’s a redundancy and a poverty, linguistically, in this arrangement. Ok to establish some concretion of the Bible and world, but it doesn’t reflect the elasticity of the text itself very well. MUCH more interesting to me is the impetus of an artist for whom the linking of photographs and biblical text is a chance to change the game, to ask questions that make the relation a more open question of reference.

This piece, Quarantania, by Tacita Dean is one such exploration. It’s by far my favourite in her London take-over this summer at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Academy. She has been given a landmark triptych of shows, all of which I visited in order to write a review for the forthcoming autumn issue of Art & Christianity. There’s a lot of work, and a lot of film, this being the medium for which she is most celebrated. She is at her best, in my opinion, when the landscape and the still life (two of the gallery themes) present opportunity to engage more widely across other media, other time-frames, other ideologically separate concepts (than that of self-conferring artist portraits). And one of these is the Bible. We find it as a premise for her film Antigone, an opening reference to the sojourn of the Israelites in the desert. We find it in the curated arrangements that include a painting of John the Baptist’s head, or a communion plate. We find it in some of her chalk drawings of the natural world. And we find it in Quarantania.

    

Mount Quarantania is found in the desert between Jericho and Jerusalem, and is also referred to as the Mount of Temptation. It is notionally the site where Jesus was tempted by the devil before he began his three-year ministry as recorded at the start of the synoptic gospels, in most detail in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Dean’s seven-panel work, each comprising 3 photo-mechanically printed sections, has a filmmaker’s sense of framing, even spooling, across what is a panoramic capturing of rockface and desert expanse. The lurid sky and seeping distant terrain have an apocalyptic oppression, and the only release of air seems to come from the dust of the chalk writing which scallops across parts of the scene. This breath, these whispers, are fragments of reading from/around the Bible. There are identifiers, ‘place of temptation’, ‘Satan’s Step’, ‘Judaen desert’. There are questions, ‘where are you JC?’, ‘alone?’. There are emphasised statements, ‘bread or SATISFACTION’, ‘hedonism, egoism and materialism, WEALTH’. Clustered around a scattering of pots in the fifth panel are the numbers 1 to 40, and the words ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’. Unlike a book illustration, where the texts pedagogically read the image, here the image seems to practise a reading of the text. And its ‘reading’ is like breathing, an organic reaction emerging from the cracks and fissures in the rock, not scripted around gridded lines of text. Conversation not proclamation. Hybridity not homogeneity. Imaged not written. In this sensitivity, something of an exploration is going on, in which Dean reaches for mythical/Scriptural attachment to place and uses it to inhabit her own engagement with the landscape and its representation. It is a theology of place no less, an interweaving/interleaving of Bible and world with self.

New art for two Catholic schools in Bristol

'Transpire' by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

As published in the current issue of Art & Christianity (No.70, Summer 2012, p.16):

Bristol City Council has recently commissioned two contemporary art works for St Bede’s Catholic College and St Bernadette’s Catholic Secondary School. Respectively, Transpire by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva and Intersection by Michael Pinsky (both 2011), have transformed two public spaces where the footfall of staff and students enact the threading and crossing of ideas that created these pieces. From the outset, these art works were created alongside major building projects for the schools, as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme – indeed, they were a conditional part of these projects. As such, the integrated nature of the results speaks for the depth of encounter and consideration given to the commissions.

Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s piece, Transpire, is an installation of winding, stretching tree branches/roots which spill across the stairwell linking St Bede’s art and technology faculties. Traditionally-applied stucco and gold-leaf form a tracery along the walls and ceiling, with etched detail continuing the pattern across two windows. The windows, in fact, seem to be the site of the source of this spreading energy: a site of in-between, where the idea of the liminal space offers a particular resonance for the concepts of the work. The artist has identified the piece as representing ‘a search for something deep within us’, where ‘what lies beneath reflects above’ (the subtitle for the work); the Vice Principal Patrick McDermott has reflected on the course of knowledge passing from inside to outside and vice-versa.

What could remain as something of a Gnostic homage becomes richer for the setting of the school itself as a place of faith – it is as a tree of life, with its organic, tangled lattice and gleaming veins of flowing sap that the work is enlivened. Here is the acknowledged reference to St Bede’s interest in the natural world and to the biblical idea of a tree (or vine) that represents lineage and rootedness in God. Here too is the reference in the materials used to the highly decorated interior facades of Byzantine churches, where preciousness (both in the care taken and in the monetary value) is a fitting acknowledgement of the sacred.

In this regard, it is revealing that the commissions were organised by Art and Sacred Places, who seek to connect artists and their work with places of worship or similar sites. The commissioning process necessarily entails interaction and discussion as to the matching of ideas, faiths and hopes. For both schools, this was a lengthy process, taking several months alongside the inevitable questions about material suitability and safety. It might be a pertinent question to ask how successfully the sacred emerges from such conversations, there being a danger perhaps of dilution-by-democracy. Happily, it is to the credit of the contributing decision-makers that here the resulting art works embody something of a map of faith.

'Intersection' by Michael Pinsky

With Michael Pinsky’s work Intersection, this seems both the implied and the literal result of the commission. A pulsating, illuminated grid appears to glow at one end of the main school passageway, alternating between a negative and positive image. It is a composite image featuring the digitally-transcribed hand-drawn crosses of all 750 pupils at the school, whose individual post-it-sized drawings have been incorporated into one larger pattern. Formed from glass layers within a steel frame, the LEDs which contour the pattern create the rhythm of a light-house’s sweeping beam – a rhythm markedly different from the school bell – where the measure of place and situation is slowed and deepened.

Intersection works by opening up routes for the sacred. It makes sense both of an individual’s singular description of a cross, and of the interconnectedness which such descriptions suggest for a whole community. It is also a sign for a literal journey of faith through secondary education. More than the simple use of an abstracted symbol, it prompts the static form to become spiritually meaningful in its (and because of its) context. Like Hadzi-Vasileva’s work, it brings dynamism to the appropriation of religious symbol, neither sealing it tightly with doctrinal declaration nor allowing it to disintegrate in irony, cynicism or pluralism.

Perhaps this is a strength of the particularly conceptual approach of both artists. In numerous successful exhibitions, internationally as well as locally, both Pinsky and Hadzi-Vasileva have produced work which facilitates other people’s worldviews – from the green cross understood to signify religious divide in Mas d’azil, France to the tree as representative of our living systems in the New Forest. In the schools, to the surprise of the management groups, concepts can and have become the malleable carriers of meaning through a style of art that is not readily celebrated by such institutions. While this may still seem to be a ‘strange place of religion in contemporary art’, it nevertheless champions the sacred in deeper and richer forms.

Photographs by Sheona Beaumont
www.michaelpinsky.com
www.elpihv.co.uk

Bristol Through the Lens at St George’s

Cabot Tower Through the Circling Seasons

The last of my three main shows on during the Bristol Festival of Photography is now open at St George’s Bristol. Bristol Through the Lens features 25 pieces celebrating the Bristol landscape, primarily through digital collages of photographs taken at different times of day/year. My book Bristol Through the Lens: An Exhibition and An Essay is also on sale during the show. Displayed in The Crypt Gallery, the venue is open with the box office and bar 90 minutes before all concerts – which normally means from 5.30/6pm and the occasional lunchtime.

From the press release:

‘The work explores the landscape as a changing, animated scene, bringing life to familiar landmarks such as Cabot Tower, Queen Square and the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  Like Monet’s series paintings, they form individual studies of the kaleidoscopic effect of place over a period of time, revealing its capacity to evoke a myriad of emotive and even spiritual connections. Repeated looking is also part of our biology and reveals much about our physical connection to landscape. All of this interconnectedness offers ways to reinvigorate the window-world of photography, not least by bringing the aesthetic of cubism and impressionism into the frame.

‘Also accompanying the pieces in the exhibition are a selection of photographs from Sheona’s Bridge series. These simple, distilled shots of Clifton Suspension Bridge and the two Severn Bridges in different weathers bring a quiet, mystical element to the show, complementing the colourful collages.’