A Theology of Photography, Part 2 [Updated]

Dawn Through Trees
‘God Playing Hide and Seek’ — © Ralph H. Sidway (Title by J. Howe)

A commenter on the North American Thebaid Facebook Page had this to say concerning my recent blog post, ‘Pursuing the Light’ – A Theology of Photography:

There is no theology of photography. So we work with light? duh. All visual art works with light. So what? Photography is just a tool we use to say what we want to say, like any other artistic tool, be it pencils or pens or paints or clay. Don’t make it something it is not.

This is quite a direct challenge, and on the surface, seems very strong. Here is my response (my emphasis added):

Thank you for your comment, but I respectfully disagree.

Because a photographer creates an image, condensing (typically) a three dimensional reality into two dimensions — a carefully composed interpreted view of God’s creation — a photographer is able to say something about God (the Author or Artist of Creation) through the art and craft of photography.

Further, photography is not a tool in the same sense that “any other artistic tool, be it pencils or pens or paints or clay” is a tool. It is a “way” of seeing melded with a unique combination of sophisticated technologies which forms an image. The photographer may then interpret the image further in order to achieve the creative vision he has.

Update, August 23, 2016, 1:11PM ET:

My interlocutor wrote: “Photography is just a tool we use to say what we want to say, like any other artistic tool, be it pencils or pens or paints or clay.”

This is an incorrect analogy.

A camera is a tool. A lens is a tool. A tripod is a tool. Photoshop, Lightroom, and other image editing software are tools.

Photography (and by that I mean intentional, fine-art photography such as I have been describing in these articles) is a wholly unique artistic process. It is my hope in these articles to make the case that Photography can also be a holy, unique, artistic process, and that by elevating it to such a status, we are engaging in the sacred process of theology.

My original response continues…

Ansel Adams wrote about “pre-visualization” in making photographs. In his view, a photographer does not “take pictures,” and certainly does not “shoot” or “snap” photos. He or she senses and sees, and tries to “pre-visualize” [his words] the scene in order to (1) make an entire series of choices of ISO, shutter speed, aperture, composition, in making the actual exposure, and (2) prepare to make another series of choices in the darkroom or computer to further interpret the scene, so that the resulting photograph is as close as possible to his/her original “vision” (“theoria”).

In my essay, I sought to discuss how, without using words, photography can in fact both “see” and “say” something about God, Man, Forgiveness, Salvation, Beauty, Truth, Death, Resurrection, etc. My own photography may be inadequate in achieving this, and I will gladly own up to any failure on my part to measure up to the bar I have set, but I do feel it is possible for photography to say a “word about God”, and that is what theology is.

And then there is the saying of Evagrius of Pontus, that “He who truly prays is a theologian.” I certainly fail at truly praying, but if there is a photographer who does truly pray, and who seeks to make photographs that somehow say a “word” about God (albeit without words), then again, we might rightly speak of a theology of photography.

To conclude, I am uploading a photograph I made some years ago. I titled it “Dawn Through Trees,” pretty straightforward and a little pedantic. But a friend of mine, who was always on the agnostic (and playful) side, liked to call it “God playing Hide and Seek.” I think her title absolutely proves my point. – Forgive me…

I would also like to add the observation that there is much photography which is deliberately profane, debasing the image of Man, the Image of God, the Image of the Most Pure Mother of God. Would we not say that such photography puts across a false image of God and Man? In which case, are we not in effect saying that such profane photography is, on a theological level, false?

If that is the case, then can there not be photography which exalts the image of Man, of God, which is noble, beautiful, and therefore, on a theological level, true?

Put another way, I assert that photography is capable of going beyond mere aesthetics, and can directly bear upon the deep, ultimate questions of God.

I am reminded of Dostoevsky’s saying (which I used in my book, ‘Pursuing the Light’), “Beauty will save the world.”

If we couple all this with the closing lines of John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, “beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”, we begin to veer close to a theology of art in general, which would certainly embrace the unique art form of photography.

As I quoted the Psalmist, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork…”

Surely then, a photographer who purposefully (and prayerfully) strives to create images which convey the beauty of the world created by God, or the beauty and mystery of the monastic way, lived intentionally and lovingly in response to the salvation offered by a loving God, is working in theology.

If, as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, then perhaps a hundred photographs of the monastic way might be able to convey something of its hidden essence to a viewer, who might then respond by giving their life to Christ by embracing and following that monastic way themselves.

Is that not the goal of theology? To speak a word which inspires others to seek harder after God?

All this is hinted at in the stunning quote from photographer Minor White, included  in my original article:

One does not photograph something simply for “what it is”, but “for what else it is”.

I’m very interested in what you readers have to say about this topic. Feel free to comment below.

3 thoughts on “A Theology of Photography, Part 2 [Updated]

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  3. There is no need for anyone to be so dismissive. All the arts (with the obvious exception of music) need light to convey their message. Also, artists make use of materials from God’ creation. In our tradition, artists take from what they are offered by God to give back to Him, as an offering and glorification. Of course, art is not addressed exclusively to God, but also to fellow believers, helping them see the unseen (visible light as a symbol of invisible light and so forth) and also to see the visible world through the eyes of the Church.

    What is unique to photography is that is uses light in a process similar to the human eye, using the film or digital sensor as an artificial retina. Thus, photography is uniquely suited for conveying to others how the photographer sees the world. Is the photographer an artist? Is the photographer a believer? Then his* work will also convey a glimpse of the unseen, because an Orthodox believer will always discern some manifestation of the invisible in what is visible.

    * Using a general masculine here, which is not fashionable, but can still mean (grammatically) that the photographer may be either a man or a woman.


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