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).

Future forecasts for art and religion by A+C contributors

It’s 2020. I wonder if we can start the year with clear vision. If those of us playing with the meaningfulness of images and words can anticipate the colour cast of the next decade or two. Or consider whether we are even facing the right way? Sometimes I feel the disjunction of offering thoughts on the arts in a burning world acutely, let alone introducing a religious voice here. The estrangement of theological vocabulary: it’s a laughable anachronism in visual culture at large, but those in church or universities (on the religious side) continue to write and speak it. Where practice harangues me, publications persuade me. A betwixt and between place to be at the moment.

Excerpts below are taken from Art+Christianity’s 100th issue (Winter 2019), to which I contributed. Along with others working in the field, I was asked to respond to the question, ‘Looking back over the past 25 years of art and religion in dialogue with one another, in what ways do you think this will develop in the next 25 years?’ Here I select those who identified specific concerns for the future. Some identify interpretative or cultural thresholds for the conversation partners, others highlight the changing locales of the internet, church space, activism and global Christianity. Plural indeed, as Jonathan Anderson notes. Let’s hope for the rigour to follow.

Academic interest in the relationship between theology and art … has been conspicuously absent from contemporary art academe and the public gallery. A significant apologetic task remains to make the case for a public practice of visual theology. … Practices and reforms [in the art world, including working practices that are collaborative, inclusive, heterogeneous and democratic] provide fruitful opportunities, as yet unrealised, for public theology. My hope is that the debates we have been having will find their place within contemporary art academe and cross over into the public realm. This is not inevitable. It must be intentional and, as practitioners and researchers, we must listen carefully and try to ask the right questions.

Lucy Newman Cleeve, Gallery Director, Man&Eve

The scholarship of ‘art and religion’ has grown significantly in the past 25 years, and it will continue to do so, gradually consolidating into a coherent field of study. … I think we’ll see two important developments: (1) Thus far, the most advanced ‘art and religion’ discourse has lived on the margins of the art world, drawing more heavily from sociology, religious studies and theology. In coming years, more of this discourse will occur within academic art history and major art institutions. (2) In the past two years, several prominent contemporary artists have told me that they are not particularly interested in talking about religion or spirituality, but they are very interested in talking about theology … This doesn’t mean a shift towards doctrinal or ecclesial concerns, but it does mean an increasing exploration of the vast resources of historical theology as providing both vital social context and powerful critical apparatuses for art-historical research. The theological perspectives contributing to this discourse will be extremely plural, but they will be more theologically rigorous and historically well-resourced across this plurality.

Jonathan A. Anderson, Associate Professor of Art at Biola University

Criticism has been catching up to practice [since Elkin’s ‘On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art‘, 2004], and will continue to do so, not least because horizons of religion in the global cultural sphere demand it. But I echo those such as Jonathan Anderson who call for deeper reflexive engagement alongside the more prevalent sociological axis. Theologians and religious leaders are slow to pick up where a dominant suspicious hermeneutics has thoroughly disenfranchised the image from institutional religion, partly because there’s so much postmodernity to get through. Art critics and educators show lack of nerve and occasional lapses of intellectual respect, especially where Christianity is concerned. Artists, on the other hand, will crack on regardless. They’re the ones doing the imaginative work; my money’s on them.

Sheona Beaumont, Bishop Otter Scholar and artist

The internet is a public space and in the next 25 years I think it will be in this public space that the most interesting and creative inter-relationship between art and Christianity will take place.

Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford

Whether exploring the imagination in art and theology, questioning the claims of institutions on corporate and individual cultures of belief, or assessing the vital place of visuality in a putatively post-secular world, [art and religion] dialogue can speak to urgent needs today. Facing a culture poor in truth and satiated with excess, in the next 25 years the dialogue between art and religion may hold some of the best means we’ll find for living with it and with one another, seeing clearly, and for hope.

Deborah Lewer, Senior Lecturer in History of Art, University of Glasgow

The dialogue between theologians and artists, especially within the sacred spaces of churches, will continue to be a central context for religious reflection in a society that is increasingly set apart from the churches and the practice of religion.

David Jasper, Professor Emeritus of Literature and Theology at University of Glasgow

The next 25 years is the timeframe we have left to avert the potentially disastrous consequences of environmental abuse to our planet. It is also our chance to lead on equality of opportunity, to mitigate homelessness and hunger and to embrace the potential benefits to societies from migration and multiculturalism. There are parallels to be drawn between religion and art, both which will address these urgent issues.

Vivien Lovell, Founder Director of Modus Operandi

What I would like to see in the next 25 years is a worldwide perspective on this [Christian imagery in art]. In some parts of the world, China and Africa for example, the Christian faith is thriving. It would be good to be in touch with how this is being expressed in the rich artistic cultures of those countries.

Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford

Julia Margaret Cameron’s island outpost

Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight

2 weeks’ holiday on Hayling Island in April afforded me the first opportunity to go and visit Julia Margaret Cameron’s home on the Isle of Wight. Named Dimbola Lodge after Dimbula in Sri Lanka, where her husband’s business in tea and coffee plantations had taken her in the 1840s, Dimbola was her family home from 1860-1875. By all accounts, the home became her abundantly creative domain for family and photography, and it was here that she turned her chicken house into a studio for her wet plate processing (not preserved today at the site) – a time-consuming and dextrous version of photography, in which the tasks of arranging and sitting her subjects for portraiture were further extended by glass plate developing and then positive print production. In the 1860s especially, she devoted herself to this work, saying to a would-be reviewer,

I work with more zeal and rapidity than can be supposed, and this I can illustrate to you when I tell you that I took last week 35 life-sized Portraits and printed 62 in 5 days time and I work without any assistance printing my own prints – varnishing my own glasses – continuing till 2am & recommencing at 7am.
[“A letter by Julia Margaret Cameron”, Graham Smith and Mike Weaver, History of Photography 27:1 (2003), p.66]

Display of the ‘Freshwater Circle’
Visiting it today, and indeed with the label ‘museum’, I found it hard to recover the vitality and energy of her story in this place. The building is somewhat tired in places, accommodating enough for tourist pilgrims needing a tea-room stop but somehow missing the dynamism of, say, Lacock Abbey as Fox Talbot’s home. Of course it is much smaller – a gentleman with a country seat (and the National Trust’s later patronage) is not the same as a society lady married into a shrinking colonial business. I found myself asking whether this effect of geographical and historical ‘outposting’ is something to do with the way UK heritage is set up to receive and commend the efforts of patriarchal success, but not matriarchal success. The museum has some wonderful prints to show, but it also gives us Cameron’s bedroom in a flurry of Victorianised domesticity with inordinate attention to furnishings (which are also proudly announced as speculative), while in the same breath elevating a roll call of those more esteemed figures with whom she was associated.

It is the creep again of the fine art vaunting of Cameron, to which I am giving more attention elsewhere, that relocates her work within a high modernist intellectual tradition – something that isolates her vision in black and white austerity and certain emulative acceptability (usually to do with male subjects as themselves, and female subjects as models). In a way, this develops reasonably enough on a body of work that doesn’t lend itself to mundane identifications of place and situation – her studio photographs (which form ninety-nine percent of her output) deliberately play to her ideals of truth and beauty, with minimised background setting, close-up framing, and painterly compositions. The strands of this more serious discourse around her tend to eclipse the possibility of finding something different about her at Dimbola. I would love to see a family tableaux vivant recreated, or her effusive letters (written at about the same pace as her print production), but the museum would rather show cabinets of old cameras. I would love to get a sense of her church life, her neighbourly interaction, whether she went to ‘take the air’ down on the beach, but instead we get a ponderous voiceover that retells what every photo-history resource repeats about her (the amateurism of her soft focus and its reception). My kids loved the dressing up room, and I wonder if they too were reaching for a recreation of JMC’s spirit here – her dressing up went beyond play, into the sincerity of assuming Christian identification with figures such as Mary and the angel at the tomb. There must be other ways to highlight this, to bring a rich, resonant, feminine, spiritual credibility to light. I think the floor is open for something new here, but it remains to be seen at Dimbola.

Bible Society response

'Creation of Fish and Birds', Sue Symons.  Part of Bible Society's 2013 calendar, originals currently on show at Horizonfest, Sheffield.
‘Creation of Fish and Birds’, Sue Symons. Part of Bible Society’s 2013 calendar, originals currently on show at Horizonfest, Sheffield.

I’d like to acknowledge with thanks a reply received from Bible Society to my open letter posted a couple of weeks ago here. Matthew van Duyvenbode (Head of Campaigns, Advocacy and Media), gave considerable thought to my concerns, for which I am deeply grateful. An initial point of clarification was easily resolved with reference to the online terms and conditions – www.biblesociety.org.uk/calendar2014 – which I duly recognise as overlooked on my part.

These guidelines make it very clear that the calendar is not for purchase, but is simply as a thankyou project available for ongoing supporters of Bible Society’s work. Indeed, the project is ultimately made up of supporter’s own photographs and comments to share with one another, as a kind of community collaboration project, rather than a commissioning project and for-sale project.

I agree with you that there are a range of different ways in which people can be invited to engage with the biblical text. Indeed – there needs to be a range of entry points. I’m sure you would also recognise that a personal response to Scripture can often be deeply profound and theological. To assume that this project will result in sentimentalism is perhaps doing a disservice to the task of encouraging more and more Christians to engage with the Bible through the lens of the arts?

In addition to this point, I would also reiterate – as is mentioned in the further details – that the resulting calendar isn’t intended to stand alongside professional art in the broadest public spaces. You’re right that we do have a strong pedigree in this area – but that isn’t the intended focus of this particular project. Does this mean that we are embracing an amateurish approach? Certainly not! … For many Christians, the opportunity to think creatively about how the arts can help them think more deeply about the biblical text is a bold and exciting step. In running a competition like this, we aren’t ignoring our mission aims in the culture, but providing a stepping stone for some Christians to grow in their confidence in this area. Perhaps some might be so inspired as to begin to explore and support the arts more seriously – which, I’m sure you would agree, would be a fantastic outcome! … We believe that there is a space for laypeople to be involved in an accessible and unthreatening manner. I’m not sure I’d agree that this dilutes or cheapens the integrity of the Scriptures, but I would want to argue this fulfils our missional goal to offer ‘ways in’ to the Bible for everyone.

Ron Mueck’s biblical overtones

Ron Mueck, 'Drift', 2009
Ron Mueck, ‘Drift’, 2009

Purpose and contrivance lurks behind all that realism… The key piece here, shown high up on the wall, features a man in dark glasses floating on a lilo. He’s wearing blue bermudas and his skin is shiny with suntan oil. Like the giant couple upstairs, he seems to be on holiday, and ought to be exuding relaxation and contentment. But he isn’t. Instead his mood is anxious and expectant. Because his arms are outstretched to catch the sun, because he’s hanging on the wall, rather than bobbing about in the water, because his skin is glistening with sweat, his similarity to a crucified Christ hits you immediately.

These obvious religious references appear throughout the show. …Youth shows us a black teenager lifting up his T-shirt to reveal a bleeding knife wound positioned exactly where the Roman centurion stuck his spear into Jesus. Apparently, Mueck had in mind that marvellous image by Caravaggio of the apostle Thomas thrusting his finger into Christ’s wound because he doubts that Jesus is back from the dead. …Woman with Shopping is an updated Mother and Child. And the giant chicken hanging from the roof, called Still Life, is another surrogate crucifixion, in the spirit of Rembrandt’s famous Carcass of an Ox. …

Surprisingly, perhaps, the effect of these recurrent religious references is not to make the exhibition itself feel overtly religious. It doesn’t. Instead, the transformed biblical narratives seem to feed back the other way: back into the Bible, where they make those portentous texts feel less grand, more human, closer to us. How marvellous to see a contemporary artist dealing so inventively with such ancient themes. Contemporary art doesn’t get much more original or more thrilling than this.

Waldemar Januszczak on Ron Mueck (showing at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, until 29th Sept) in the Sunday Times Culture, 21st April.