In his essay “A Calling of Voices,” from his book The Hungering Dark, the theologian Frederick Buechner wrote of an aesthetic experience he witnessed on a lonely windswept beach:

…you are walking along an empty beach toward the end of the day, and there is a gray wind blowing, and a seagull with a mussel shell in its beak flaps up and up, and then lets the shell drop to the rocks below, and there is something so wild and brave and beautiful about it that you have to write it into a poem or paint it into a picture or sing it into a song; or if you are no good at any of these, you have to live out at least the rest of that day in a way that is somehow true to the little scrap of wonder that you have seen.1

From the time I read these words I realized that I had a sacred purpose in life — a ministry — through the medium of photography. My images could bring a little bit of light, inspiration, and sometimes humor into a torn and battered world.

Another artist, London bookseller and photographer Frederick H. Evans (1853-1943), spent his career in relentless search for splendor. He made fine art photographs of many English cathedrals and printed them on platinum paper. He regarded those and French châteaus as places of great beauty and the proper subject matter for his craft. For a photographic artist during the time, the search for beauty needed no explanation. Because the medium was young, the term “documentary”2 was not yet apropos for photographers engaged in camera vision.

Mid-twentieth century-historians and practitioners widely accepted three major styles of photography—pictorial, documentary, and metaphor or equivalents. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was often referred to as the father of modern photography, for he cultivated separate bodies of work in each of the categories. Debatably the equivalents of clouds became the most important.

In the article “How I Came to Photograph the Clouds,” Stieglitz wrote that “clouds were there for everyone – no tax as yet on them – free.”3 The cloud series (1925-1931), made at his family’s summer home in upstate New York’s Lake George, suited his style. On a hill, he used a handheld 4 x 5 Graflex camera fitted with a long cardboard snoot to darken the light in order to see the image clearly on the camera’s focusing screen. The arrangement allowed him an angle directly overhead to the sky without painfully bending his back, as most eye-level viewfinder cameras would require. Though many of the pictures served as purely documentary images used in schooling meteorologists at the time, Stieglitz thought the images functioned principally on an emotional level.

Considered by some to be one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, violinist Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), on viewing the pictures, compared the visual works to music. Stieglitz never said they were equivalent to music but found satisfaction in letting each person experience whatever individual emotional response was appropriate. He wrote in the same article “that unless one has eyes and sees, they won’t be seen.”4

In English pubs I have visited, one can sense centuries of interesting conversation and merriment stuck in the very fabric of each brick and wooden table. Likewise, in the sanctuaries of churches and synagogues, the vibrations of songs, prayers, and comforting words offered over time stick like a coat of tacky damp varnish on the pews and in the crevices of holy places. How many generations have asked for healing for themselves, their children or their aging parents? How many have found answers to their prayers there? How many shouts of joy can one perceive in the sacred silence? How many friendly handshakes? How many hugs? If you listen you can imagine hearing the hushed vibrations and murmured confessions that relieve a soul’s burdens.

A photographer’s field experience is undeniably richly filled with memorable experiences. In Europe, during the week, curious tourists often fill places of worship to capacity. In the United States, I found most sanctuaries empty except on Sunday or during a wedding or funeral.

One place in particular is Saint Michael’s Catholic Church in Convent, the first church I photographed for this project on sacred light. At the door, a statue of the Archangel Michael met me. The armed figure rested his body on the handle of a wicked, twisting sword blade. Inside, I noticed a man sweeping and carrying a trash can. I thought he was the janitor and then realized he was a Jesuit priest with the appearance of an everyday workman. Another time, an excited student assistant with the camera and a tripod over his shoulder ran up the aisle to set up a picture, exclaiming, “This is the money shot!” More emotional was our panic as we heard the sound of the maintenance crew locking the door, unaware that we were inside making photographs.

Just when I felt the project was nearing completion, Hurricane Katrina ripped the Gulf Coast apart on August 29, 2005. It hit New Orleans especially hard with flooding that caused devastating damage to both people and property. The loss of home and displacement of community were heart-wrenching. Less than a month later, Hurricane Rita slashed into nearby Cameron Parish and Lake Charles.

When the dawn shone its light on Katrina’s ravages, many south Louisiana residents began repairing damages and removing debris without knowing the storm had compromised the New Orleans levees and without even suspecting the horror soon to flood the Crescent City.

The storm left tens of thousands stranded in attics, on rooftops, in ill-prepared and storm-damaged facilities, and on the few patches of high pavement. Their suffering flooded New Orleans as surely as the relentless water. Many of the anguished refused rescue until their beloved pets could accompany them.

Filmed images of the misery filled American newspapers and television and exposed the shame of the ill-prepared response to the world.

I had been photographing the interiors of churches and synagogues for seven years prior to the Katrina. This was the contrast, the shadow side I was looking for. However, I could not bring myself to make photographs in New Orleans for more than a year after the storm. There had been too much pain, too many photographs of the damage.

It took courage for me to enter the city for the first time after the hurricane. Then, to hear the stories of people who had lost their communities took even more courage. People needed to tell their stories and needed others to listen as part of the healing process.

More than six feet of filthy water completely devastated Beth Israel Synagogue on Canal Street. Congregants risked wading through dangerous, fetid water to rescue the sacred Torah scrolls. With desperate hope, they set sodden prayer shawls and historic photographs in the air to dry, but the help came too late for the ruined artifacts.

The wind ripped a section of the roof from one of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church’s5 towers and carried it a few blocks away. It landed with its cross, which had adorned the building’s apex, buried headfirst in the ground. The gash in the roof exposed the church’s interior to Katrina’s merciless rains.

And, I heard stories of further desecration – stories about thieves who looted the sacred spaces, taking priceless artifacts, which they sold for personal gain.

Photographing in New Orleans, driving by the damaged structures and sacred buildings leaves a definite scar on the psyche. Years later, it still is heartbreaking to hear the stories of too many congregations now dispersed in Katrina’s diaspora and the remaining few determined to rebuild. Most poignant is that people want their sacred spaces restored, but some churches and synagogues have only five or six members of their congregations remaining.

Photographs jog the memory of personal history, such as remembrances of weddings and funerals. Losing photographs—the visual records of personal history—is a uniquely painful violation. It is often what grieves people the most after the initial shock of such devastation subsides. They can fix or rebuild structures. Treasured photographs are irreplaceable.

I believe in the determination of the human spirit to build community and restore order.

Ultimately, the reason I photograph these places is that being inside offers a quiet refuge from chaos and confusion. It is a search for beauty, and I can make photographs in peace. That is reason enough.

For some, a technical explanation is deemed both important and interesting. I use a 4 x 5 wooden field camera on a tripod. I load my holders with daylight film and have them processed at a professional color lab. From that point everything is digitized. The transparency is scanned, electronically cleaned, and eventually printed with the use of archival inks and museum-quality paper.

The photographs are usually not manipulated in any fashion. The often-strange color is the way I found it, with the light coming from the color of stained-glass windows or the mixture of daylight and unfiltered tungsten balance. Occasionally the photograph was filtered to convert daylight to a 3400K rather than a 3200K incandescent light source for a slightly cooler result.

Not always obvious in some of the photographs are the long exposures, several seconds to, in some instances, several minutes in duration. Astronomers making deep space photographs realize that light collects through the lens and onto the film, making a dark sky seem full of stars. Likewise, a dark interior, given enough time, will result in the same effect.

I especially wish to thank Marchita Mauck for hours of consultation and advice; Lee Davis, my preliminary editor; Gillian Sims, technical expertise; at the University Press of Mississippi, Craig Gill, assistant director and editor-in-chief, for his support of this project, and John Langston, assistant editor and art director; Otis B. Wheeler (1921-2008), whose books on churches have been inspiring; Zack Godshall, a talented filmmaker; and Tom Abel, a former monk and father of five, the latter two for assisting with hard work, hours of riding, listening to my general complaints, pontificating on photography theories, and helping make this project happen.

A. J. Meek

1 “A Calling of Voices,” The Hungering Dark, by Frederick Buechner, Harper and Row, 1969, p. 26.

2 “Documentary” Photography was possibly first attributed to Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) in an article on Documentary Photography published in A Pageant of Photography, San Francisco, p. 28, 1940. Reprinted in Photographers on Photography: A Critical Anthology, edited by Nathan Lyons, Prentice Hall, Inc., in collaboration with the George Eastman House, New York, New York, 1966, p. 67. In some regards, all photography no matter how abstract is rooted in the documentary style on one level or another.

3 First published in The Amateur Photographer & Photography, Vol. 56, No. 1819,
p. 225. Reprinted in Photographers on Photography: A Critical Anthology, edited by Nathan Lyons, Prentice Hall, Inc., in collaboration with the George Eastman House, New York, New York, 1966, p. 110.

4 Ibid.

5 Now a struggling Community Center.

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