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.

‘Seduced by Art’ at the National Gallery

Thomas Struth, 'National Gallery I, London 1989', 1989
Thomas Struth, ‘National Gallery I, London 1989’, 1989

On to the National Gallery’s Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, where the language of borrowed symbolism from art, or classical and biblical literature opens the door on a style which might be called iconic relating. Here, the influence of the fine art tradition is presented as the “engine for early photographic innovation, and both these precedents inspire present-day photography.”

One of the largest rooms in the genre-divided exhibition is entitled ‘Tableaux’, and features a selection of work identified by their reference to allegorical or narrative themes. Dominant on one wall is Thomas Struth’s National Gallery 1, London, 1989 (1989), which shows gallery goers scrutinizing an early 16th-century altarpiece: a painting of doubting Thomas by Cima da Conegliano, found upstairs in the gallery’s main collection. The zoned spaces of this picture-within-a-picture reveal how, as watching human figures, we invest belief in the physical inhabiting of our environment. The gallery visitors regard the scene with their backs facing us the viewers, and lean in towards it, echoing the figures of the disciples and Thomas himself. In addition, the plane of focus, seen more obviously in the print itself, is horizontal, and at the level of Jesus’ head. In a beautifully realized way, what might be a single trans-spatial line of unbroken, faith-filled sight becomes an embodied searching for the tangible body.

Such tangible bodies are found in Helen Chadwick’s work, particularly her One Flesh (1985), showing a red-cloaked visceral Madonna and Child with a collage of photocopied textures and skin. Seen in proximity to a similar subject represented by Julia Margaret Cameron (Light and Love, 1865), the capacity of photography to reflect the changing place of biblical and Christian iconography in art is apparent: on the one hand the endlessly reflexive mode of a self-conscious postmodernism borrows sign and symbol to cornucopian effect, while on the other, a Victorian sensibility claims an authoritative, if occasionally sentimental, shoring up of moral ideals. Cameron appears elsewhere in the exhibition, in the rooms dedicated to both ‘Portrait’ and ‘Figure’, yet the impact of her more conventional reference to human figure is slight in comparison – here pose and sensibility seem to be the trading cards with art of the past and photography of today (for example with G. F. Watts, and Craigie Horsfield).

Occasionally this linking and labelling of early and contemporary photography with art seems convoluted and tenuous: Jeff Wall is surely under-represented on inclusion of The Destroyed Room (1978, alongside a small copy of Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus) instead of the Tate’s A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993). What does succeed overall, perhaps contrary to the lineage-thesis suggested by the curator, is an interdisciplinary examination of subject-treatment. One may well compare, for example, the digitally-constructed Arcadia of Beate Gütschow’s clean landscape LS#13 (2001), with Roger Fenton’s Paradise (1859), a view of an idyllic river scene in Lancashire. Visually, it is a subtle change that distinguishes the “stubborn lyricism” of the former, despite the inclusion of incidental printers’ marks at the edges of the image, from the “spiritual intent” of the latter. Fenton, master of multiple genres in his time (including the stereoscopic still life also seen in this exhibition), embraced a pictorial emphasis in such landscapes that reflected the ideal of the Romantic picturesque. This utopian dream cannot quite be expelled from Gütschow’s image, even as it is riddled with artificiality.

The powerful all-embracing lens of the camera, as so clearly defined in Ansel Adams’ work (see earlier post), turns out to be a distinctively imaginative image-maker. It can leave the trace of cultural turn in nuance or extraneous detail, just as much as it can wield forceful artistic rhetoric in elaborate construction and scene-setting tableaux. It is to be hoped that the spiritual and theological aspects of this capacity become more widely studied in visual culture academia, as a result of the increasing institutional platform offered by such exhibitions as these, for the enrichment of the many postmodern stories of photography.

Quotes from: Hope Kingsley, ‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present’ (London: National Gallery Co, 2012), p.9, 180; and Gordon Baldwin’s essay, “In Pursuit of Architecture,” in Sarah Greenough, ‘All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860’ (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004), p.59.