The mystic lens – the influence of religion on photography

The Mystic Lens – Glass explores the influence of religion on photography with the world’s most famous (sometimes infamous) photographers and finds unexpected and surprising revelations

FOR centuries, traditional artistic mediums such as sculpture and painting were the only vehicles for depicting religious narratives, giving form, meaning – and validity – to faith. Even cultures that worshipped gods as abstract, mystical entities relied on depictions of divine beings in human or semi-human shape. Modern photography, however, has turned this pious worship on its head: despite carrying on the tradition in one respect, it has  also opened a Pandora’s box of exploration, satire and iconoclasm, and forces one to question their stance on the very parameters that define what religion is.

Photographers discovered that pictorial subversion often takes place within the framework of religion through employing religious codes and clichés to conjure startling, often transgressive, images. In avant-garde photography, the divine body of Christ is no longer sacred but a human form upon which all kinds of sacrilege and doubt can be imposed.
Despite their antithetical relationship – one reliant on figuration, the other prone to disfiguration – religion and photography are intertwined. Photography, the ultimate medium of modernity, instant and automatic, accelerates religion’s process of figuration. Religious figuration and narratives of miracles inspire great photography – even when they transgress.

Most photographers are not devising atheistic, sometimes sacrilegious, representations of the divine to be provocative, even if some are using the medium to challenge religious institutions. They are striving to excavate the subconscious with photography, reaching deep into the memory of their religious past in order to reconstruct their own picture of the divine. Perhaps some photographers, despite their secular approach to photography, still have lingering doubts about God’s nonexistence. What emerges from the visual act of remembering the spiritual past is often very different from the figuration that emanates from religion’s institutions.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1978, Cibachrome, silicone, plexiglass, wood frame, 165.1 x 114.6, Image courtesty of Andres SerranoAndres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1978, Cibachrome, silicone, plexiglass, wood frame, 165.1 x 114.6,
Image courtesy of Andres Serrano

Perhaps no artist has generated more controversy with photography on religious themes than Andres Serrano. Piss Christ, his controversial photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in his own urine, so outraged Christian fundamentalists that the image was vandalised several times and provoked United States Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms to attack Serrano in Congress for receiving funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Serrano, raised a devout Catholic in New York, describes his photography as something that arises from a religious subconscious. “I am fundamentally Christian. I’m seen in the tradition of religious art, but with the twist of a contemporary artist.”

He also sees the re-sacralising of body fluids in his work as an artistic expression. “Creativity is a subconscious process and it’s not always possible to know where it will lead you. Nor should it.”

But he revels in the intersection of divine and quotidian. “You cannot have the sacred without the profane, just as you can’t have good without evil. The paradox of the beautiful and the grotesque in religion is that not everyone sees the same thing.” For him, Piss Christ is not an assault on religion but rather a search for meaning from his religious past, and an attempt to grasp the humanity of Christ.

“Jesus was a man who was made of the same organs and bodily functions as any other man. He was tortured and crucified and died in His own fluids. If the idea of a photograph called Piss Christ is disturbing, imagine what His crucifixion was like.” Serrano isn’t alone in using photography as an exploration of metaphysical memory, even if the photographer’s works appear to be a counterpoint to religious fundamentalism.


David Wojnarowicz, Untitles from the Ant Series (spirituality), 1988-89, Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches, Image Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New YorkDavid Wojnarowicz, Untitles from the Ant Series (spirituality), 1988-89, Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches, Image Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

David Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly, depicting a crucifix crawling with ants, might be an artistic statement against efforts by the Christian right to kill funding for AIDS research, but the American artist could also be looking for spiritual meaning. His video – a still published here – was possibly a way of transcending his own affliction (he died of AIDS in 1992).

Fred Holland Day, The Seven Last Words of Christ, 1898, Seven photographic prints in gilded grame, 3.25 x 13.875 inches, F. Holland Day Collection, Image Courtesty of Norwood Historical SocietyF. Holland Day. The Seven Last Words of Christ, 1898. Seven photographic prints in gilded frame, 3.25 x 13.875 inches, F. Holland Day Collection. Image Courtesy of Norwood Historical Society

The suffering of Christ in Wojnarowicz’s image recalls a set of photographs created a century before by a somewhat forgotten American photographer F. (Fred) Holland Day (1864–1933), who today would be counted as a proponent of queer photography. In his most exhibited work, The Seven Last Words of Christ, Day plays Jesus in a sequence of seven images purporting to represent Christ’s facial responses during His Crucifixion, perhaps also provocatively suggesting the expressions of homoerotic orgasm. Whether that was his intention or not, Day certainly expressed the desire to what literary critic Gilles Deleuze describes as “extract the Figure from the figurative.”

But not all photography is an exploration of religion through the sexual or physical violation of traditional religious iconography. Many photographers create works with spiritual underpinning but without conspicuous religious fervour.


Sam Taylor-Johnson, Pietá, 2001, 35mm film:DVD, Duration; 1 minute 57 seconds, Image Courtesy of the White CubeSam Taylor-Johnson, Pietá, 2001, 35mm film:DVD. Duration; 1 minute 57 seconds.
Image courtesy of the White Cube

The artistic strategy is to reconsider narratives in the context of what modern people understand about faith.
Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Pietà, a reinterpretation of Michelangelo’s sculpture in St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, for instance, is a contemporary but less confrontational figuration. In the video and related photographs, Taylor-Wood inserted herself as Mary cradling the dead body of Christ (played by Robert Downey Jr). Perhaps Taylor-Wood, like many of us, despite living a secular lifestyle, in fleeting moments still wonders about the possibility of God.


Naoya Hatakeyama, Ciel Tombé, 2007, Lambda print, 49 x 100 cm, paper; 71 x 122 cm, Courtesy of Taka Ishii GalleryNaoya Hatakeyama, Ciel Tombé, 2007, Lambda print, 49 x 100 cm, paper; 71 x 122 cm.
Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery

In Japan, secular photographers such as Nobuyoshi Araki and Naoya Hatakeyama, non-practitioners of esoteric Shinto or Buddhist rituals, consider their artistic endeavours as a way to enlightenment. Hatakeyama sees art as a more valid path to achieving transcendence than earlier forms of mystical practice, and considers photography as “nature’s pencil”.

“I am not the kind of person who believes in religion or spirituality myself, but I intend to understand the disposition of mankind, in which ‘transcendence’ has to be something beyond our rationality. This is the reason why art does not fade out in our time, and it is well represented in the fact that art collectors periodically state: ‘This very piece represents religion for me’,” he says.


Nobuyoshi Araki, Sentimental Journey:Winter Journey, 1991, B & W print, Courtesy of Taka Ishii GalleryNobuyoshi Araki, Sentimental Journey:Winter Journey, 1991.
B & W print, Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery

Nobuyoshi Araki, famous in the West for his erotic photographs, prefers to aim his camera at the everyday and chronicles religiously the most intimate moments of his own life. His startling but poignant black-and-white images of his wife, Yoko, in her coffin covered with flowers embody his fascination with life and death – and flowers.
“Flowers become more enriched with life as they approach their death. The most beautiful moment is just before they perish. When coming close to them, one is enraptured with sexual spirituality and I can hear the Flower Rondeau (title of his flowers series).”


Yang Yan Kang, Buddhism in Tibet (YYK-T35), 2006, Silver gelatin print, 50 x 35 cm, Image courtesy of Zen Photo Gallery, TokyoYang Yan Kang, Buddhism in Tibet (YYK-T35), 2006, Silver gelatin print, 50 x 35 cm.
Image courtesy of Zen Photo Gallery, Tokyo

Not all photographers reject religion. Taking a different tack, the Chinese photographer Yang Yan Kang embraces the spiritual and suffuses his images with a mystical aura. His iconic photograph of a Tibetan woman holding a dove is reminiscent of the ubiquitous image of the Virgin Mary clasping her hands like the wings of a dove.

Yang explains how his photographic vision comes from the fusing of his Buddhist and Catholic beliefs. Born to a Buddhist family, he converted to Catholicism in 1993 after chronicling Chinese Catholics in rural areas in China.
“A photographer should have the courage to believe in faith, and to trust them. As artists, if we have faith, live the life of faith, see how people face the challenges in nature, then photographing faith becomes real. You see their mind from their eyes; you see how they face difficulties in nature through their mind.”


Matthew Barney, Drawing Restraint 9; Cetacean, 2005, Centre panel of 3 C-prints in self-lubricating plastic frames, 41 x 33 x 1 inches, Image courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and BrusselsMatthew Barney, Drawing Restraint 9; Cetacean, 2005, Centre panel of 3 C-prints in self-lubricating plastic frames, 41 x 33 x 1 inches, Image courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Abstraction in the filmic figuration of faith is even evident in the work of American conceptual artist Matthew Barney. In his Japanese-themed film Drawing Restraint 9 (illustrated here is the scene showing a cetacean sprite dying on a surgical table inside the Japanese whaling ship, Nisshin Maru), Barney focussed on Shinto narratives, tea ceremony, whaling, the oil industry – and Björk – to collapse reality and fantasy into the same mythological plane.


Luis González Palma, Loteria I, 1988-1991, Foto B&N Virada + betún de judea, 1.50 x 1,50 m, Image courtesy of Luis Gonzalez PalmaLuis González Palma, Loteria I, 1988-1991. Foto B&N Virada + betún de judea, 1.50 x 1.50 m.
Image courtesy of Luis Gonzalez Palma

The photography of Luis González Palma has similar abstraction, merging the political with the mystical. In his series about the persecution of indigenous Mayan and the mestizo (people of mixed European and Native American descent) communities in Guatemala, Palma, a mestizo himself, took pictures of Mayans and the mestizo and transfigured them into mystics with brilliant white eyes.

“My question is ‘What is reality?’ What is the reality that we see and perceive as real? Since when is what we see in reality what we see? I believe that mythology helps amplify these questions. There is a relationship between the image and spiritual experience, but the most important in imagery is what you cannot see, the invisible. The most important image is not in the image, and the indescribable thing is essentially for the creator to find a relationship with spirituality.”

This desire to understand religious fervour drives Swiss photographer Hannes Schmid to travel to remote places and chronicle unfamiliar rituals. He has photographed the Thaipusam festival in Malaysia when Indian men pierce their bodies with metal spears and hooks, a Hokkien street opera troupe in Singapore performing tales about Taoist pantheons, and the Maha Kumbha Mela pilgrimage of around sixty million Hindus to the Ganges River. Even though he’s not religious, Schmid is fascinated with “how a strong religious belief can affect human lives.” But he makes a clear distinction: “Art is art, belief is belief.”

No matter what the photographer believes, the relationship between the photograph and the divine is as inscrutable as art and religion itself. While photography strives to extract “the figure from the figurative” as an artistic endeavour, religion aims to transmit the Figure through photography. Whatever the motive – religious or atheistic – photography and religion’s yearning for figuration can only result in a happy efflorescence of sublime art.

But why choose at all? Perhaps Serrano is right when he considers finding where photography intersects with faith as impossible and ridiculous as choosing “between Adam and an ape.”

by Peter Yeoh

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue 8 – Faith

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