A total of 30 entries were submitted to the Seeing in Green photography competition, and displayed as part of Westbury-on-Trym’s Community Fair on 9th May 2015. The junior and youth categories were merged to form one young people category of under-18s, in which there were two winners: Annie Clough-Hillman’s unmanipulated print of a view through a window, and Edward Smith’s digitally-created circular composition. Both images concentrate the eye in a layered process of looking: Annie’s framing segments the view of house and garden with precision, while nevertheless softening the exterior/interior boundary across the sunlit glass. Her image is atmospheric, quiet and pays attention to the mark-making process of light’s action on a surface. Edward’s centrifugal collage has a intriguing balance of image references, which alternate between the softness of a green leaf/surrounding trees and the hardness of metal/turbine sculpture. The suggestion of movement brings a dynamic life to the image.
In the adult category, Simon Smith’s similarly centrifugal composition of a magnolia flower wins the unmanipulated print category. The magnolia stands out like a beacon in a sea of concentrated blur, a brilliant technical accomplishment with a zoom lens, but also a singularly iconic choice of imagery. The blossom has all the clean, bright beauty of spring, which is focussed so that we might see it more clearly in the midst of the whirling world. Of the smaller selection of digitally created entries, Christopher Richards wins with his entry of Bristol bicycles. A suggestion of bicycle overload is created with the mass of wheels, frames and metal all pushing up against a bank of green – the parked up transport visually has nowhere to go, despite Bristol’s efforts to promote cycling, this seems an apt depiction.
I’m writing this open letter to ask you to reconsider your approach to photography and the Bible, as suggested by the above poster. You ask for the public to send in photographs to enable you to produce a 2014 Scripture Calendar, with the aim of matching inspirational Bible verse to image. You offer something of a suggestion as to how this calendar will look with 3 examples, though you leave room for development with ‘actual design will vary’. You exclude any details of how the photographer will be credited, nor any terms of copyright, nor how and for how much the calendar will be distributed.
I am deeply concerned by various assumptions seemingly made by this advertisement. You are an organisation founded to promote the Bible, and your strength has always been your serious engagement with contemporary media and culture. Among other things, you spearhead pioneering work in raising the profile and quality of film-making that embraces biblical stories, you produced an outstanding calendar last year that demonstrated the skill and professionalism of textile art on the theme of creation, and you currently support myself and others with a studentship that encourages a greater and deeper engagement with education and academia (in my case, a PhD in photography and theology at the University of Gloucestershire).
Yet for this promotion, you are asking for the simplest level of media understanding, coupled with transparently personal interpretations of the Bible. Such expressions, more usually seen in powerpoint presentations in churches, or as devotional tokens in Christian bookshops, undoubtedly have their value and place – afterall, we all respond emotionally to images and text, and are all able to think creatively about such things. However, for your organisation, it demonstrates a worrying acceptance of sentimentality and amateurism in a public, media-savvy sphere which demands more from the message. Assuming the calendar is produced primarily to fit in with the mission aims of the society (and not for ‘in-house’ circulation only), this calendar will not stand up to the quality of your other work, will fail to honour the professions of photography and art, and will ultimately cheapen the integrity and depth of the Bible itself.
I would implore you to rethink your approach to this calendar, to the type of work you will look for and to the quality of its presentation. Do not assume the easy appropriation of photographs for a quick spiritual return.
Today, Maundy Thursday, is the day in the Christian calendar which prepares for its biggest celebration at Easter. The story of the passion, Jesus’ final hours culminating in his death and resurrection, is one that I re-told in my series The Passion – 12 stations originally produced for exhibition in Bristol Cathedral in 2006. This series has since been shown elsewhere in Bristol, and today, a version of Station 8 (above) has been published in the Church Times as one of the 5 winners of an Easter poster competition. The competition encouraged thought-provoking responses, in keeping with style of ChurchAds, with whom the competition was run. Visit the Church Times site to see the comments and the other winners, one of which includes my friend Ralph Mann.
It’s been encouraging for me to revisit my series, and to dig around in the symbolism and moments of encounter that each station include. It’s also a timely connection to the end of Lent and the approaching end of Holy Week. In a booklet which accompanied the exhibition, I wrote the following article about the work, entitled ‘Why replay the Bible story of Christ’s last hours in art?’
‘Critics today have noted a turn in art since the ’90s towards the iconographic (Brandon Taylor, The Art of Today, 1995), a shift that asks for a more knowing and cognitive response from the viewer in terms of the language being used. The term icon has been broken down and labelled by theorists wanting to explain how pictures exert influence over us, and the place for an experience of art becomes increasingly subject to coding and psychological analysis.
‘But experiences of art were once closely aligned with experiences of God in Western culture, at a time when the iconographic language of pictures was also incredibly rich. Painting began to plumb new depths during the Renaissance when, in the context of art made to represent Christ for the faithful, it invited a greater immediacy for relationship:
Paintings proved capable of representing Christ’s body more richly and resonantly than relics. They could show it whole and eloquent, in the course of its redemptive work. They could also show human beings like ourselves contemplating the actions and traces which God and the saints have made in the world’s fabric, and so draw us into their contemplation by example. … As a result, they are not prey to the disenchantment which has overtaken relics and so much of the furniture of religion in the modern world. … Religion lives more richly from such creative use of its resources. And in the enlivening process a little of what it had once held in exclusive control is consumed into a wider humanity.
(from John Drury, Painting the Word, 2002)
‘In these images, I am trying to remember what was both a knowledge-based understanding of the subject-matter, and a sensory engagement with the design (in terms of spiritual journey or encounter). In this particular balance there are new possibilities for a relationship between art and the church that recognises the legacy of such work – a legacy that encourages a very human telling of the Christian story, and goes some way towards breaking down the institutionalization that encroaches upon it.
‘This ‘human telling’ is specifically conceived of as multi-dimensional: a story has visual qualities that do not remain captive to or do not always need obvious photographic, literal interpretation: metaphors, prose, symbolic meaning all provide meditative stopping points. With my Stations, these open up points of stillness or departure or expansion for the viewer. The scenes are multi-layered, with many character interplays, emotional and spiritual exchanges, political and biblical symbols.
‘And like silver threads running through all the dark tangles are also God’s themes: his relationship with his son, his handing over Jesus to the authorities (whose power he also holds), his abandonment of Jesus, his ultimate plan of redemption for humanity. The cross’ shadow is so big and so long over history, it is sometimes easy to forget its minutiae. One needs to recognise in it the universality of human telling in recounting its uniquely historical story, and also to regain the hand of God in its iconography.’