A Ruskinian conversation: conference report

St Michael and All Angels Chapel, Marlborough College

Visual Theology‘s second two-day conference took place this month at Marlborough College, and in what follows I draw on the report penned by Madeleine Emerald Thiele. Madeleine and I have envisaged new places where art and theology might intersect, very much in a plane of contemporary relevance and interest. I was delighted that this weekend offered new ways to bring John Ruskin into conversation with worship, art history, and contemporary art practice. His words continue to inspire, and I’m prompted again to draw on what feels like a wisdom tradition of sorts that he started – one for modernism and arts in particular.

Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni’ was part of the international John Ruskin bicentenary celebrations. The event was held in Marlborough College’s Chapel, overlooked by a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the artist, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and beneath an Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. Amidst a tightly choreographed programme of 15 papers (from open submission and by select invitation), there were 2 keynotes, 1 ‘special conversation’, 1 installation of video art, 1 church service, 1 exhibition, and 1 musical concert. 

Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, thus reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, and our carefully considered shaping and design of the event. The voices who contributed to our conversations represented leading academics in Art History, Literature, and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican tradition, curators, and an award-winning artist. Our speakers were international, with five being based Stateside, and the rest either Europe or UK based. 

The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here) visions of church reflected in Edward Burne-Jones, the visual theology of angels in Pre-Raphaelite art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in colour and sound, the sacred in social contexts for William Morris or Mary Watts, Ruskin’s reception on the continent, and theological reflection on icongraphies of leaves and dirt. We were delighted also to hear from Professor George P. Landow and Professor Colin Cruise as keynote presenters, and through a special conversation between curator Christopher Newall and the Bishop of Salisbury: all four brought questions about aesthetics to bear on responses of faith.

Day Two saw an intimate reimagining of the original 1886 Service of Dedication, with a video installation by Reverend Mark Dean. Visual Theology had commissioned Dean, and we were delighted with his impressive angelic themed visual and musical pieces which were in response to the opening theme of the original service: ‘This is a dreadful place’, and the Stanhope cycle. Dean had brought ideas about both worship and the practising or making of art into close contact with liturgical expression, in this case through a sensitive reflection of the building’s dedication and subsequent history.

Hosted here at Marlborough College, with a conference dinner at the town’s well-known Polly Tea Rooms, and including a private view of the Richard Sheridan exhibition for our delegates, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. Our delegates had the opportunity to access a display of Marlborough College’s rare books with Dr. Simon McKeown. These included architectural books on Pugin, Millais etchings, and most significantly, a copy of William Morris’ Aeneid translation, signed by Morris himself and given as a gift to Burne-Jones’ son, Philip. We also invited three talented young musicians from Wiltshire, who played in the Chapel for our delegates prior to the Sheridan exhibition visit. Significantly for us, the holistic reach of the event was felt further afield, through well-received engagement online with our live Twitter feed #VTRuskin. Increasingly these expanding spheres of engagement are reflective of our hope that Visual Theology finds footing and connections with communities beyond church and academia.

We had a total of just over 50 people register across the event, with a heavier mix of academics than clergy or artists than we have had previously. We had a slightly greater number of women than men (both presenting and attending), but we achieved a broad range of ages from students to those in retirement. We continue to believe this is vital to both our own events, and to academia generally. We remain grateful to Marlborough College for underwriting some of the event: without their financial support we would not have been able to achieve what we did, nor allow our delegates to present in such an impressive and special venue.

We feel two aspects of the conference – the quality of the research in the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the Chapel setting – were key in making this a successful event. Inevitably, as with any event, there were some difficulties – such as a power cut in the town and some audio issues. However, included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have now received were a number of comments that welcomed our sense of ambition, our shaping of a new style of academic event, our interdisciplinary conversations, and our overall achievement without institutional backing. We have received much generosity post the event both from those that attended and also those who were unable to. This event has been a complex one to organise, and we are grateful for such feedback and encouragement. 

Leaves and Lincoln

Prof Larry J Schaaf's revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright
Prof Larry J Schaaf’s revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright

By way of an introduction to the conference Rethinking Early Photography held at Lincoln University earlier this month, Prof Larry Schaaf presented a lecture called ‘The Damned Leaf: Musings on History, Hysteria and Historiography’. In the whirlwind speculation that swirled around this particular photograph, which had come up for auction in 2008 as part of an album, Schaaf’s comments at the time gave rise to unmerited suggestions that it was possibly an earlier photograph than Talbot. The name Wedgwood popped up, since a ‘W’ is found in the bottom left of the negative. In a welcome spirit of openness since the leaf’s quiet retreat from the public spotlight, Schaaf’s lecture gave the photograph its long-due much-deserved critical attention; and the results, while not the tabloid headline so hastily dreamed of, nevertheless open the door on other aspects of early photography.

Of no little interest to me is this early history in Bristol, and the likely female involvement. For Schaaf has discerned in the scrawled lettering on the back of the negative the initials ‘SAB’, standing for Sarah Anne Bright, the daughter of the Bristol MP Henry Bright (1784 – 1869) whose residence was in Ham Green. That the image is printed on paper produced by William West (of the Clifton camera obscura and the Bristol School of Artists) is highly probable – the ‘W’ is a likely link to the blindstamp identifying the paper with the stationer Lancaster, who was selling to West in Bristol at the time. I have written about West in the past (in my book Bristol Through the Lens), as his camera obscura was key to the tradition of landscape composition and view that developed in the South West – a particularly Romantic and photographic view, especially in the area around the River Avon and its Gorge, which includes Ham Green. That the leaf has been treated as a photogram, in the manner of a specimen, is not as far from this Romantic view as we might think.

In my paper for the conference ‘Let There Be Light: Theology and Spirituality in Early Photography’, I consider the vocabulary, context and direct evocation of biblical themes in and around early photographs. Leaves had something of an emblematic status, whether for biological perfection and detail (Talbot), for monogram experimentation (Herschel), or for revelatory apparitions (Enslen); at times, they come close to bearing the immanence of God through the way people saw them, with the action of divine light on the photo-sensitive surface. I argue that when we examine so many leaves, our view should not thereby forget that there was once a forest – that background milieu of religious or spiritual understanding. Nor need we suppose that we have ‘clear’ sight now, rather that we are grafting new philosophical perspectives into early photography.

Two things pointed this up to me mostly clearly at the conference: the first was the final question put to a panel at the end of the last day, a question that sought an answer to our persistent search for photographic origins, for photographic ‘firsts’. Amidst the general replies that questioned points on a historical line rather than the existence of the line itself, I found myself offering the comparison of linear photographic perspective: within its system, we can continue to plot and map our direction and position – but beyond this, surely we have all already woken up to its system-like nature, to the limitations of it, indeed to the falseness of it? And isn’t it in fact photography itself that has done this – in our increasing awareness of its subversion of normative perspective? So the question of origins needs a rather more radical a-historical discussion.

Secondly, 36 of the 52 speakers at the conference were women. In a varied programme that crossed several disciplines internationally, from geography to history, from literature studies to conservation, this high representation of women to me suggests the lack of entrenched patriarchy in what is still a relatively young subject. It bears the mark of the social eclecticism which was undoubtedly a contributing factor to Sarah Bright’s involvement in photography, though here it’s rather more an academic eclecticism. Practicing or studying photography, it is remarkable that so many women are telling the story, which volunteers another radically new, still unrecognised perspective.

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.

Following shoals to Birmingham

Gillian Wearing's 'A Real Birmingham Family' (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham
Gillian Wearing’s ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham

After last week’s post on local events in Bristol, this week I went to the Library of Birmingham for GRAIN’s ‘The State of Photography’ Symposium. In marked contrast to last week, this event was, for me, a dip into the larger sphere of photography in this country and abroad – specifically photography as fine art. Neither photography as commercial business nor photography as hobby is, ultimately, the field for me. In some ways, I’m only just realising which hand I’ve been holding onto all this time, and it’s very much a sense of a bigger picture, which I now need to scope.

At this symposium, scoping involved listening to some extremely proficient experts in the fields of photography festivals, photography agency, photography critique as well as photography fine art practice. Respectively, this was Louise Clements, David Birkitt, Tim Clark and Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. I suppose I take interest in these fields in increasing order of enthusiasm: festivals are all well and good for those who can easily travel (thanks to time and cost availability) but are by no means a circuit open to me at the present time; agency is a bit of a photographer’s dream, but in this case involves a commitment to production and to a certain kind of commercial brief-fulfilling capability (which is a second-stage possibility); critique is definitely high on my agenda as a first-stage aim, since the communication and engagement it involves is such as to place my work centre-stage; which is ultimately afforded by the fine art practice platform of Broomberg and Chanarin.

Without this symposium, I might never have discovered their work – and suddenly the trajectory of this event takes a turn towards me that really sings. Because it boils down to the fact that my practice sits alongside my research – and THAT, really, is the job in hand. The PhD into photography and the Bible has just found another chapter’s focus in Broomberg & Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’, which reproduces a KJV with photographs and underlining. I await my signed copy, on order, and in the meantime, keep the percolating practice considerations at bay…

Finding the right pond for the right fish

RPS exhibition at The Grant Bradley Gallery
RPS exhibition at The Grant Bradley Gallery

This week I went to two events with an eye to scouting the scope of my practice at the beginning of the year. Two local events: the first a networking event for freelance women in Bristol (Freelance Mum), and the second the Royal Photographic Society’s biennial exhibition at The Grant Bradley Gallery in Bedminster.

I first heard of Freelance Mum when Faye Dicker contacted me via Facebook a few months ago, with interest in my appearance on One Born Every Minute. She interviewed me for one of her regular podcasts (see here), and I was delighted to be able to share the aspects of my work, faith and ambition that weren’t entirely reflected in the programme. This week’s networking event had the high profile attraction of Rob Law, founder of Trunki, who spoke briefly about his journey in business. But the aim of the event was primarily for mums in freelance work to have a forum in a relaxed environment where kids are welcome too – a forum where business stays on the agenda, and common experiences are shared.

When this finished I took the opportunity to pop into the nearby art gallery for its photography exhibition, which in fact I’d already been able to scan online at the RPS website. I knew what I was getting: a row of same-sized same-framed prints, no detail nor explanations of concept except the accounts given by the 3 winners. Somehow the singularity of the entries and their presentation made everything homogenous overall, and I left feeling entirely uninspired, bar a few background questions about undeclared manipulation of the prints.

Both these events were good in themselves, but at neither did I feel at home. Despite the number of interesting events/exhibitions I go to in Bristol, there’s never quite that sense of joining the dots for the development of my practice, and I’m only just beginning to reflect on why. The way I work, and what I produce, doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. I’m not a business in the same way that a studio photographer or wedding photographer is, and it’s not really a commercial reproducible product that I sell. Neither am I interested in photography for photography’s sake, in the gear, the print, the membership of a society. It’s more that I’ve got something to communicate, something that seeks to prompt rethinking and concepts and perceptions. I haven’t got any full-stops, but I’ve got lots of commas and colons and questions. Where’s the pond for my work? Who else looks like my fish?