Seeing church and theology in stereo

Cardboard stereoscope with inbuilt stereoscopic photograph, from Jumièges Abbey, Normandy.

I’m continuing a blog series which is exploring more experiential ways of engaging with art and theology, with particular reference to photographic technologies. Today, I completed a two-week course from FutureLearn with the University of Edinburgh, ‘Stereoscopy: An Introduction to Victorian Stereo Photography’. Free to access, and wonderfully user-friendly, I checked in over a period of two or three days to whistlestop the 40 or so points on this course. Each was characterised by images, short commentary, links, references, or videos: a byte-sized diet of amuse-bouches on the fascinating technology and contexts of early Victorian stereographs. The online learning platform itself has theological implications for the experience of art and images, though these are not my subject here. Rather, the stereoscope itself is.

They are remarkable images, involving ‘the simultaneous perception of two monocular projections, one on each retina’, as described by Charles Wheatstone in 1838. His invention of the stereoscope created a handheld viewing instrument with mirrors (for drawings in the first instance), but it was the later lenticular stereoscope designed by Sir David Brewster whose lens-based design is remembered. A pair of photographs, each fractionally different as taken from different points, are usually presented together on single cards, which are then inserted like slides a couple of inches in front of the lenses. In my foldable, cardboard ‘readymade’ above, the images are part of the box – a tourist souvenir I picked up at Jumièges Abbey while on holiday in Normandy a few years ago. Optically, the lenses aid the eyes to focus beyond the picture plane, at which point the wall-eyed convergence (as opposed to cross-eyed convergence in front of the picture plane) perceives the images as one, with the illusion of 3D projections across its surface.

Many a stereoscopic photograph of an abbey ruin was produced during its boom period in the mid-nineteenth century. Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was a master of such views of church architecture. His photographs range from atmospheric ruins in romantic settings (for example those at Furness Abbey, 1860 and Glastonbury Abbey, 1858) to sculptural studies of light and stone detail (for example at Rosslyn Chapel in 1856 and Westminster Abbey in 1858). The ruin carried a pictorial emphasis which imbued typical tourist scenes with an expansive melancholic vision, deliberately evoking the spiritual undertones of the picturesque ideal. Views by Fenton and others such as Francis Frith were readily commercialised by companies specialising in stereographic production, who capitalised on the Victorian appetite for armchair travel. It’s easy today to align the romantic effect with our own somewhat nostalgic attribution to a sentimental style, but the theological weight of a church’s representation should be remembered for carrying some substance at the time. Oliver Wendall Holmes famously evoked what was almost a supernatural experience in looking at stereographs, ‘a dreamlike exaltation of the faculties, a kind of clairvoyance’ (in the 1861 essay, ‘Sun-Painting and Sun-Sculpture’), and he gave specific significance to the Dome of St Paul’s and Canterbury Cathedral, with the presence(s) of divine authentication as amplified by the power of the 3-dimensional lens. The images still hold a certain magic today, and my research will continue to explore the spiritual resonance of looking at, among other things, the Palestinian landscape and Victorian diableries in stereo. It is, specifically, a corporeal and immersive way of seeing, which occasionally received enthusiastic religious attention and explanation.

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.

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.

Photographing Jesus

The Turin Shroud
The Turin Shroud

For the forthcoming Images, Icons and Idols conference at the University of Manchester, I hope to present a paper with the title and abstract below. Forming part of my doctoral research, this paper will contribute to a chapter on the iconic characteristics of the photograph, particularly as they relate to the interpretation of biblical texts:

Photographing Jesus: Truth, Typology and the Turin Shroud

The first photographs depicting Jesus in the nineteenth century were typically defined by fine art conventions relating to symbolism, dress, age and pose (Gabriel Harrison, Léon Bovier, Fred Holland Day among others). A relatively young medium, the interpretation of photography’s realism, to our modern eyes, is not convincingly suited to ideal representations of a religious or mythological nature. However, in the person of Jesus Christ, the combined aspects of an historical flesh-and-blood figure and an iconic, divine being receive a unique hermeneutical treatment in the form of photography. Taking the specific example of the Turin Shroud when it was first photographed in 1898, this paper will present the photographic aspects of its representation of the crucified body, and examine the visual interpretation by which these have become evidentially and ontologically ascribed to Christ. The extent of the denoted and the connoted photographic image (Roland Barthes) on the Shroud will be discussed with reference to, respectively, the physical record of truth (as it correlates to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death) and the notion of the icon as a form of typology in reverse. With regard to the latter, the perceived presence of the real object of veneration is, I suggest, less the subject of discourses relating to material idolatry and instead a visual correspondence after-the-event to the textual pre-figurations of Isaiah 52-53.

Early missionary photography

'Baobab tree' by Charles Livingstone, c. 1858
‘Baobab tree’ by Charles Livingstone, c. 1858

Missionary photography is outside the main interest of my research by virtue of its departure from biblical representation. However, it is undoubtedly a significant aspect of photography made and published in the name of religious interest, from its first occurrence in the mid-nineteenth century, up to the present day. There are certainly instances of biblical focus, but they remain subservient to the broader aim of mission focus, which can vary from documentation of indigenous cultures to reports/celebrations of material and spiritual progress. Such images certainly seem unconcerned with artistic or reflective nuance, though as I go on to mention, they perhaps offer a noteworthy check on the marshalling of representation in the name of ideological purpose.

T. Jack Thompson, in his book Light on Darkness? Missionary Photography of Africa in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, highlights uses of photography which range from scientific and anthropological interest during Dr. David Livingstone’s 1858-1864 Zambezi expedition (see above) to the atrocity photographs of Alice Harris showing mutilated Congolese during King Leopold’s era (1865-1909). Photographs both posed and emotive were believed to be demonstrative of ‘Africa as it was, not simply as [the photographer] saw it’ (p.273) and were more often than not accompanied by images taken to show the (successful) work of the missions themselves. In one interesting case, a photograph of a black missionary to Malawi taken around 1878, is later doctored in the 1924 publication of the Laws of Livingstonia (by W. P. Livingstone) so as to show the man holding a Bible. Originally part of a group photograph, the solo portrait of William Koyi takes on the singular authority of a ‘man of God’, albeit one dressed as a European, with the representative token of purpose and position. Similar doctoring occurred with figures who were never converted (p.156-158).*

In this sense, the Bible explicitly figures as an anchor for certain ideas about Western civilisation and the expansion of the Empire. There is no inherent textuality about it. It is an object wielded (at least pictorially) to help ‘read’ the identity of the person shown, but not itself to be read or internalized. It is Bible-as-symbol, much as it appears in countless photographs of confirmations or as the accessory of choice in early society portraits.

* Incidentally, in 1908, American athlete Forrest Custer Smithson was photographed jumping a hurdle while holding a Bible in his hand, supposedly in protest at being asked to run on a Sunday in the Olympics. However, this photo, too, turns out to have been ‘faked’ – this time by posing after the event.