Throughout history, man has questioned the reason for his existence, seeking an explanation for countless unanswered questions and trying to decipher puzzling paradoxes that were beyond the reach of his understanding. The desire for knowledge, to explore the unknown and have all the answers under control, is in the DNA of the human being, forming an intrinsic part of his identity, which lead him to seek these answers in art, religion, philosophy and science.
Revolutionary scientific discoveries, new metaphysical theories that make seem puerile the previous ones, complicated theological treatises, and even each new artistic tendency reveal such human ambition which is an intimate part of the identity of the individual, and that René Descartes defined as the reason for his existence: Cogito ergo sum.
However, it is also true that a large majority of people usually live in areas that we could call “safe areas”, and I am not only referring to material safety, but areas where a set of established certainties guarantees a quiet and predictable existence. This is a human aspiration that from ancient times leave him to abandon the nomadic and uncertain life of the hunter/gather, taming plants and beast and establishing in settlements where life is more predictable. Establishing rules and dogmas helps to define and limit the behaviour of individuals in the community. Thus remaining within the established scheme is safe for the conformist individual, and this immobility could be applied to all spheres of human knowledge and culture, although perhaps it is more easily observable in matters related to religion, where custom and tradition are always well received.
Religion is one of the basic and sensitive aspects in people’s identity, to the point that it has been an element of confrontation throughout history – perhaps due in part to that immobility in which the different religions have stubbornly established their positions during centuries-; Conflicts that come to our days, if only to mask intentions and conflicts of an economic and political order. Centuries of conflict, doctrines and liturgies rooted in tradition, and an increasingly secularized society have dwarfed the figure of God.
This has also happened in Art, and more specifically in Western Art, where the religious theme has gone from being the dominant theme of most of the artistic manifestations from the Romanesque to the Renaissance where the Church played an important role of cultural patronage , to become a form of residual expression that is a reflection of the progressive secularization of Western culture:
The idea of a divine absolute became less and less acceptable and credible, causing a distancing from questionable ideas from texts considered unsubstantiated, such as the miracles in the bible’ (Perez, 2003).
Regarding photography, Nissan Pérez in his essay “PICTURING FAITH Christian Representations in Photography” makes a detailed study on the limited presence of religious themes in the history of photography. For example, the early works of Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Rejlander show the use of a model of representation inspired by religious iconography in the case of Cameron-Adoration (1865), Light and Love (1865), and the representation of biblical scenes as in the case of Rejlander’s photograph “Head of St. John the Baptist in a Charger (1859).
These first religious manifestations in photography are scarce, but they range from pictures of the popular representations of biblical scenes – Oberammergau Passion representations in Germany (1890) by Heinrich Korff-, tableaux and studies about the crucifixion –The Seven Last Words of Christ (1898) by Holland Day, to simple allegorical compositions that make use of religious imagery -The Heart of the Storm (1902) by Anne Brigham.
With the arrival of surrealism, whose members declared themselves openly atheists and opposed to the Church, there is an appropriation of religious symbols with the intention of representing precisely what they were trying to reject:
“One of Surrealism’s purposes was to defy Christianity and replace it with a new valid contemporary religion” (Perez, 2003)
We have some pictorial examples in Dalí’s works, such as “Atomic Gala” where he represents his muse Gala as if she were a goddess, or in some self-portraits where Dalí himself seems to pose in a mystical attitude. In the field of photography, we find notorious examples of such defiant attitude towards the Church, as in Man Ray picture “Monument de Sade” (1933), or the representations of The Last Supper in the photo-collage by George Hugnet (1934) that was considered sacrilegious at his time, or which leaves no doubts about the provocative intention of the artist:
“The background image was appropriated from a commercial, pious, photographic postcard taken during the traditional Oberammergau Passion Play . This was then superimposed with a pornographic image subverting both the religious significance and its conception of a “last meal” (Perez, 2003)
With postmodernism, the concept of identity takes relevance, opening the doors to artistic representations that were previously restricted to the private sphere: themes like family, sexuality, memories, diseases, religion, etc. Postmodernism creates a new space where any personal proposal can be integrated without questioning its legitimacy, which allows that the religious matter can enter the scene by its own, although this time away from institutional and traditional models and more open to personal interpretations and feelings; As we can see in the work of the German photographer Angelika Rinnhofer, where using an aesthetic model inspired by classical religious imagery, she reflects on the influence that this iconography exerted on her in her childhood in Bavaria.
In contemporary photography the use of religious models pivots between the choreographic and documentary intentions of artists such as Sergei Bratkov, who in his “Italian School” series shows children and youths in a reformatory representing biblical scenes, or works such as the controversial Piss Christ by Andrés Serrano, who could be considered a transgressor, using the feeling of religious affiliation to create a strong controversy.
This assignment do not intend to be a doctrinal manifesto of my religious beliefs, but my personal exploration of how through the connection of image and text the religious message is reinterpreted: keeping the traditional text from the Gospel but reformulating the imagery, lead us to a different vision far away from stiffness of the established paradigm, proposing an reading experience more connected with feelings than with dogmas.
It is interesting to point out how scarce religious photography is, so my interest is to contribute with this assignment to the genre. Historically, the figure of Christ was not depicted in religious iconography up to the sixth century, so my assignment in which all direct representation of the figure of Jesus has been removed could perfectly be valid to signify those feelings of the first Christian communities that lacked of any visual reference of the figure of Christ.
The viacrucis is a Christian ritual that dates back to the fourth century, as a tradition of the first Christian communities to recreate the path that Jesus covered from the Roman Praetorium where he was condemned, to Golgotha where he died crucified. The classic viacrucis includes 14 steps or stations, beginning at the judgment of Jesus and ending at the burial of Jesus. In my series is included an additional station, which symbolizes the resurrection of Christ, and that is because for a believer the resurrection means the culmination of the mission of Jesus Christ. I decided to include it because from a narrative point of view, if the last station represents the burial of Jesus, there is a kind of narrative anti-climax that leaves the story in suspense, especially when almost everyone knows the end of the story.
To better understand how single pictures and the titles of each station work together, I started a collaboration project with a religious writer, commissioning him to write a poem for each station. Although some pictures are quite abstract, he had no problem to identify the meaning of each based on the title of each station. Sadly, the poems are extremely complex to translate into English, so I have included a link to the book I am planning to publish in the references section. In addition, I commissioned a musical piece to accompany the viewing of the pictures to the Spanish composer Brais González, who is a specialist in soundtrack music for silent films.
Viacrucis: Stations of the Cross
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
I think that one of the main challenges of this project was to gather 15 pictures that fitted with the story and that the whole series had a visually coherence. Certainly the final have a tonal similarity, where the grey tones are predominant, to create that feeling of heaviness that the drama of the story requires. I spent around 4 days, four to five hours each day, walking around the outskirts of the city, looking for this kind of images, keeping constantly in mind the stations that I had to search to complete the assignment.
Abstraction was another objective that I kept in mind during the development of the project, so I tried to avoid wide planes or landscapes. Exception station XIII (Jesus is taken down from the cross) most of the pictures are decontextualized from the surrounding in order to that mystic connection that the storyboard required.
Because I was interested in the mood and feelings of the story, I tried to avoid literal representation of any character of the story, reducing them to symbols that evoke the desire feelings that each situation required.
Regarding whether is better to use colour or black and white, I decided to use colour despite of the fact that the grey tones are the predominant one, because in some pictures slight areas of colour help to reinforce the message: red stains in the face of Mary, the rust of the iron on the station XI or the greenery to represent resurrection.
Quality of outcome
I tried to keep the work on the limits of the abstraction and ambiguity, so it can be watched either as a religious and anthropological message. As I said before, there is not any explicit mention to Jesus in the pictures nor in the text, so the accent is put more on the feelings that the suffering of Jesus (or anyone else) can caused than in the religious message. Someone told me in the OCA forum that including the text of the original viacrucis could be considered as religious propaganda. My answer to this question is clear: I wanted to keep the formal similarities with the traditional viacrucis that we can see in many churches and cathedrals: alongside with the painting or the sculpture there is the number of the station in roman numbers and optionally the title.
To promote the book on which I am working, I made a video footage that shows the pictures and the title of each station, as well a soundtrack music composed specifically for the project. I posted this video on the OCA Forum but it was strongly criticized by the fellow students, who found the Ken Burns effect annoying, the title unnecessary, the time adjudicate to each picture extremely short and the music too much descriptive so it disturbs the viewer. Although I accepted and agreed with all those criticisms, I tried to remark that the video footage was not in fact the assignment, but a kind of promotional video for the future book I am working on. At the end of the day, I learnt that some things I have to avoid to present photographs in a video footage, especially when photographers will watch it.
Finally, I have the impression that the work stays on “no man’s land” because religious people found it in certain way disrespectful, and liberal viewer has an instinctive reaction of rejection due to the religious connotations, so from the ambiguity point of view I think the project worked.
Demonstration of creativity
Without any previous references of something similar, I think this work is a consistent attempt to do something that I would call “sacred photography”. I think that the religious subject is too risky because it touches very personal and strong feelings of people, and my first intention was not to approach the subject in a controversial way.
Because of its intensity and narrative power, the passion of Christ has played an important role in painting and sculpture during centuries, most of the examples related to liturgical and devotional use: Here in Spain, the Holy Week features some of these old sculptures during the procession. Music has also some examples in form of oratorios, stabat maters, etc -the most remarkable example the “The Seven Last Words of Christ” by Joseph Haydn.
More recently, the Passion of Christ by Mel Gibson has contributed to the genre focusing the film in the last twelve hours of Jesus.
Thus, I think that it would be a great idea to try to do something similar in photography, but using specific resources of the medium, and one of the most decisive aspects of this viacrucis is the feeling of proximity that the viewer can get seeing recognizable elements of his urban surroundings.
I could have chosen actors to represent each scene, but the result would be very similar to the hundreds of existing paintings. In addition, abstraction gives to the whole set a sense of ambiguity that I consider fundamental.
Finally, my tribute to those who collaborate with me on this project: Isidro Lozano who wrote the poems that accompany each picture: he kept the original idea and his series of poems share the same feeling of abstraction and hardness that the pictures have. Jose Antonio Pagola who wrote the epilogue for the book: a contribution from a well-known writer that could be useful to contextualize the work from a Christian point of view. Brais González of Caspervek Trio specifically composed the music of the video-teaser.
I did not use any reference model to do the assignment. The starting point for the project was a real viacrucis that I casually saw a couple of week before I started to plan the work in a small church in the village of Sobrado do Obispo (Ourense). A few days after that encounter, I stumbled across with the cross depicted on the station XIII and that was where everything started…
On early research, I found the work of the painter Raul Gabriel who made an abstract viacrucis, which I found very inspiring and unconventional, so I would say it encourage me to try to do my own version.
A fellow student sent me a link of the work “The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachtani”, a series of paintings that represent the secular vision of the artist:
“does not single out Jesus’ particular experience via the traditional narrative of the Stations but uses it to call attention to the fact that every person will suffer and die, that in our very particularity (one cannot die someone else’s death), we are all connected by this fate, separate and together” (Mavcor.yale.edu, 2017)
Latter, with all the pictures taken, while I was editing the pictures I came across the American photographer Minor White, and the concept of equivalences and as I way to look up in ordinary subjects something that is inside the photographer, an idea initially preconceived by Alfred Stieglitz and his pictures of clouds. I think this perfectly summarize my experience doing this assignment.
Markpower.co.uk. (2017). MASS. [online] Available at: http://www.markpower.co.uk/Projects/MASS [Accessed 5 Jun. 2017].
Angelikarinnhofer.com. (2017). Felsenfest : angelikarinnhofer.com. [online] Available at: http://www.angelikarinnhofer.com/index.php/photography/felsenfest/ [Accessed 5 Jun. 2017].
THEMA. (2017). RAUL GABRIEL “IL CORPO FUORI NORMA, LA VIA CRUCIS DELLA FORMA” – THEMA. [online] Available at: http://www.thema.es/raul-gabriel-corpo-norma-la-via-crucis-della-forma-romanegocr/ [Accessed 5 Jun. 2017].
Mavcor.yale.edu. (2017). Barnett Newman, The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachtani | MAVCOR. [online] Available at: http://mavcor.yale.edu/conversations/object-narratives/barnett-newman-stations-cross-lema-sabachtani [Accessed 8 Jun. 2017].
Perez, N. (2003). Revelation. 1st ed. London: Merrell Publishers.