Monday, October 21, 2013

Thoughts on Manipulating Church & Cemetery Photographs

Manipulating photographs beyond simply to clarifying the image technically always raises a question as to whether it is adding meaning to the photograph or is it simply creating a graphic—or worse of all a gimmick. That is something that I struggle with frequently. Moving a photograph beyond mere documentation is important to me. What I question is how far do you go and still retain a successful photograph.

Not all of my manipulations are for the purpose of adding meaning. Much of what I do is to intentionally create graphics that I personally do not consider photographs but images to be enjoyed (hopefully) for their graphic deign or color qualities. They are simply eye-candy for the imagination. These are what I generally call ‘extreme manipulations.’ They lose all interest in reality and sometimes distort the photograph to the point that there is no way to discern the original subject matter. In those cases the original photograph is simply the color pallet—which I will of course probably change also. So maybe the original subject matter is only the shapes waiting to be organized, the rough sketch or simply doodling to see what will happen. That is not what I mean when I say ‘adding meaning’ to the photograph.

Then, where the real rub comes in is when I want manipulation, sometimes pretty severe, to make a statement or to enhance or magnify a statement about the subject matter. It is saying something that is not readily evident in a straight photograph. This is where much of my cemetery photography and sometimes my church photography takes on manipulation. The interesting thing about photography when approached this way is that it presents questions and answers to questions that sometimes I am not aware that I have. It is photography for the purpose of self-discovery as much as it is photography for depiction.

Not that this example is of any great value, but the photograph recently posted with the three red, but dead, flowers and the gravestone with the photograph in the background. I really wanted to remove the reality from the photograph. I wanted the darkness to convey the depth and the blackness of the loss. The photograph contains wonderful elements, the gravestone, the photograph imbedded into the stone so that the viewer is given additional familiarity with the person buried there and the dead flowers representing death. It was a failure as a straight photograph and I knew that at the time I took the photograph. I knew that if the photograph was to work I would need to dig into the darkness, the depth of hurt and emptiness the symbols represented. Of course, in the photograph you cannot identify the person in the photograph on the stone—that is as it should be. Identifying the person would individualize the image. As it is any face from the imagination of the viewer can be substituted. It just struck me while writing this that there is also a relationship between the three flowers in this photograph and the Edgar Fawcett poem Darkness. I frequently use poetry for inspiration in my photographs. In the poem the antagonist observes three dark spirits—the first “had birth in the central blackness of mid-earth”, the second said “I am still more dark because I am Death” and the third” Cried with a voice that bleaker peeled than freezing wind on houseless field. I am that darkness that fills man’s heart, when it aches and burns and yearns for one it has loved as the meadow loves the sun.” I regress. I wanted this photograph to wring every ounce of hurt from the bleakness, the darkness associated with horrendous loss, which I found symbolized in these elements. It works for me. I never know if it works for the viewer.

A few years ago I conducted a tour of maybe fifteen or so country cemeteries in the area south of Hempstead, Texas, for the members of a photography discussion blog. It was a bust, I believe, because I could not or did not fully convey what I find interesting about photographing in cemeteries. I am not even sure that at that time I knew what it was that drew me to cemetery photography. I just knew that there was something there that I found important. I think most people went on the tour hoping to find beautiful statuary, interesting old stones and inscriptions. There was none of that. There was homemade markers, faded plastic flowers, vandalism, abandonment, broken stones, weeds and overgrowth, funeral home markers (one of my favorite cemetery subjects), loss, sadness—there was so much there but little if any of it was pretty. We each deal with our own immortality, with the immortality of those we love. In a cemetery we can confront those fears fairly directly. And in truth I garner some perverse pleasure from confronting these concerns of death—I do not fear it. I do find it very interesting to contemplate. I really felt bad after the tour but like many things in my life I really did not understand or only understood it from my limited point of view until after it was too late. To me, those were ideal cemeteries to photograph. As much as I love photographing in Glenwood, as I recently told Alcy, “I don’t find much poignancy in cemeteries full of rich people.” It is too glossed over, to well hidden behind beautiful memorials—which of course I question. Anyway, to me the country cemeteries were the perfect place to photograph. To everyone else they seemed just ugly and lacking any visual interest. They were absolutely correct. The interest I had was not visual but in using the visual to talk about the process of dying and being buried six feet under ground, what we leave behind and how those left behind honor or abandon the us after death. Maybe everyone is just not as interested in that aspect of cemeteries as I am.

Much of the time when I photograph I am simply looking at objects and sometimes I draw symbolism from the object. I enjoy using photography symbolically, metaphorically. I waste thousands of shutter clicks between the worthwhile photographs but those are the practice shots. I find a great deal of symbolism in church photography, which is somewhat related to cemetery photography. Being Baptist I was not exposed to much outside of the Bible and the cross that are used symbolically. In the past few years I have expanded that repertoire of symbolic elements—much to the distaste of my Baptist relatives I’m sure.

I discovered something in the Guardian Angel Catholic Church in Waller that I was unaware that I was capturing in my photographs. It started with the NWHPC trip to photograph the mission in San Antonio. Every year that was on the activities list and every year it was cancelled—then came 2008, I think. There was a big deal made that under no circumstances, no circumstances, would it again be cancelled. That year they were going to do it for sure. With Janet I could not drive to San Antonio and visit five missions for photographs on the same day, so we drove over on Friday. Shortly after I got checked in I got a call from Terry Conors telling me that the shoot had been cancelled and no one else was coming. Prior to that time I had never photographed inside a Catholic church, hardly had ever been inside one and would have packed up and returned to Houston except for the fact that even though the missions are still active parishes they are also a state park. By approaching them as a park rather than a church I was comfortable enough that I would not entirely be doing something disrespectful or sacrilegious I had a great four days of photography. I shot two of the missions Friday afternoon—then all five of the missions twice each on Saturday and again on Sunday, reversing the route so as to do both morning and evening light at each—and returned to the two largest Monday before driving home. During an hour or more spent inside Concepcion on Monday morning, with the sound of Gregorian changes filling the sanctuary I was interrupted by only one other person, a priest came in briefly to change out some of the prayer candles. It was a photographic experience that I will never forget.

I once mentioned to almost everyone’s chagrin on the discussion blog an article that Ralph Hattersley, Jr. wrote in Popular Photograph back in the 1960’s titled Is Photography Your Religion. I needless to say was very taken with the article. Hattersley was a lousy photographer in my opinion but a great teacher of photography (one of THE great teachers of photography even though he scares the absolute pegebers out of most amateur photographer). That was the only article he ever published where I was impressed with his photography. He was very much into Aesthetic Realism and from that in a very roundabout way he took the message that Christ should not be limited to the church but that Christ should be seen every day and in everything. That’s a very simplistic interpretation of Siegel’s message on my part, but from that Hattersley did what I consider a truly great set of photographs by juxtaposing a crucifix with the mundane minutia of life. I greatly enjoyed shooting the religious artifacts in the missions—simple documentation, but I also tried to bring some meaning to many of the photographs. I found several very interesting crucifix and tried approaching the photographs with Hattersley’s article in mind. No. I didn’t take them out of the mission to be hung on a chain length fence. I did leave them where they were. LOL  Since them I greatly enjoy photographing crucifix and always look for them in unusual settings as well as in churches.

Anyway, back to Waller. I photographed inside the Guardian Angel Catholic Church on two occasions. There is an almost life size crucifix in the vestibule. On the second trip the lights w/ere off when I got there. I do not like changing things in a church even though it would have been simple to flip the switch that was close by and then turn it off when I left—I didn’t. That did not keep me from taking photographs. I was shooting up at the face of Christ on the cross with the camera set to aperture priority. Since I do not like using a tripod in churches I was shooting hand held and the exposure turned out to be eight seconds. I didn’t think there was a chance that the photograph would be usable. To my surprise it is one of my favorite photographs of a crucifix. It made me see something that I had not been able to previously, something that was in some of the earlier crucifix photographs that I had not realized. The picture in Waller emphasized not the surface appearance of the artifact but the suffering Christ bore on the cross. I think that was something that at that time I probably needed to be more aware of. Photography does that sometimes when I am able to get past the surfaces of both the subject matter and myself. That is why it is so important to me.

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