No. 34 April 2004
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250


  
   
   
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Feature of the month

A church is just an excuse to make a photograph

Occasionally I receive e-mail from readers gently suggesting that I have not chosen a very good photo to illustrate their church—mine is too distant, too tight, distorted, of the rear instead of the front, or perhaps too dark—an imperfection that would be remedied by using the color photo they took last year, which they have thoughtfully attached to the message. Many of those photos are actually very accomplished. Moreover, I am highly appreciate of all feedback, and particularly of any extra effort a reader puts forth to improve this website, which depends to a significant extent on local knowledge for accurate dates, names, and other factual information. The published materials are invariably incomplete, and often inaccurate as well. I receive more than a dozen amplifications and corrections every month, almost all of which are incorporated in the website within a matter of weeks. To the offer of a photo, however, I demur, not out of ego to see only my own work in print, but because my concept of what I am about here and in my books and portfolios, is rather different, I suspect, than most readers realize. The images I have presented in this month's feature, which marks the beginning of the fourth year of the New Jersey Churchscape website, represent much better than the bulk of the ones on this site, why I make photographs.

Anyone preparing a photographic inventory of physical objects has an obligation to show those objects in a fairly straightforward manner, whether the objects are coin, cars, Anasazi pottery, or churches. Readers have an expectation that they will see a reasonable representation of what a church looks like, even if that means that the site, viewed as a collection of images, includes a lot of similar views—the façade or a three-quarter front view—of similar churches. Anyone reviewing the churches of Somerset County erected between 1846 and 1856, for example, will see enough Ionic columns to delight even Pericles, generally shot from one of two positions. Quaker meetinghouses, and the late eighteenth century Dutch Reformed churches of Bergen County exhibit even less variety. I would have prefered to startle a viewer with images of original grace and subtlety, were I able to, but a photographic inventory imposes some constraints, and to fulfill expectations, at a minimum I know I need to make a good, straightforward representational image of every church.
Sometimes the front is obscured by foliage, or the rear of the building is much more interesting than the front, as is the case with the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. Sometimes I simply get tired of photographing another white box clad in aluminum siding. But mostly I do the conventional, documentary kind of thing. One result is that much of the photography appearing here is what I regard as pedestrian—competent, but conventional, with little or no creativity or individuality. In fact, given the different seasons, time of day, lenses, and what to include or exclude, there is substantial room for artistic interpretation and expression. Nevertheless, I am often disappointed when I emerge from the darkroom with only a good illustration rather than a good image. 

For me, a church is just an excuse to make a photograph. I treat it, a friend suggested, somewhat like the corpse at an Irish wake— necessary for the occasion but preferably as inconspicuous as possible. That's not entirely false, as the images here attest, but I freely acknowledge that the photographs that interest me most are the ones where the fact that the subject is a house of worship is essentially irrelevant to the image. There are a number of wonderful old churches in the state—some are exceptional examples of early architecture and others delightfully eclectic late Victorian structures; it is a pleasure to spend time studying them and trying to capture in two-dimensional back-and-white what is a colorful three-dimensional object that can't be compressed to fit within even my widest lens. There are several dozen churches I have revisited more than five times, looking for the combination of light, sky, and season to do justice to the building. More than a few of those resulted in a fine representation but a mediocre photograph— calendar art—competent, but boring after anything more than a cursory examination.

I’ve had several discussions about my attitude, and they often go something like this:
Audience: “Well, its very nice, but I don’t see much of the church.”
Me: “You’re right.”
Audience: “Uh, isn’t this about churches?”
Me: “The church is the reason I point the camera in a specific direction at that location, but it’s not the reason I make a photograph. The image isn’t about a church, it’s about selecting a small rectangular section of the world and offering that as something that engages my attention.”
Audience: “But shouldn’t we be able to get an idea of what that church is like from your art?"
Me: “After you’ve seen ten Quaker meetinghouses, eleven Wren-Gibbs churches, and nine Gothic Revival buildings, perhaps you already have an idea of what the church looks like and you might be ready for something more.”
Audience: “Not if it’s my church.”

At that point I resist the inclination to clobber him with a tripod, and usually retreat into a mini-lecture that suggests Walker Evans was not trying to photograph southern domestic architecture in the 1930s, but to show us something we ought to be interested in, and that the reason so many of his images live, even outside their context, as do those of Wright Morris and Dorothea Lange, two particular favorites of mine, is not that they are about anything in particular, but rather the result of Evans’ and Morris’ and Lange’s attempts to make a good image.
     
One would not use George Tice’s wonderful photo of the car for sale in Patterson to sell that car on eBay, or a water tower and gas station in Cherry Hill (readers who are really into photography will know immediately the images I allude to; my apologies to the rest of you, but for copyright reasons I cannot reproduce their work here). Most people can drive through Patterson or Nebraska or Alabama and see absolutely nothing to photograph; others, like Thoreau, can find a world in the square mile that made up Concord and Walden Pond. But Thoreau, like Evans, Morris, Lange, and Tice knew how to see. One of the values of an exceptional photograph is that it helps us to see as we have not seen before. I have often had people tell me they have driven by a church in their neighborhood for years and never noticed it before they saw my photograph, meaning they knew it was there, but never realized it possessed any photographic possibilities. I photographed a set of wrenches hanging in a friend's barn near Ithaca, New York some years ago. When I gave a print to my friend, he recognized the scene, studied it for a while, and remarked that until then, he had "never known he was an artist."

A photographic inventory, especially if it offers a only single image of each church, has to provide a reasonable illustration of that church. But the photographer who would stop there and not attempt more, might as well use a throwaway camera and have the local drugstore do the processing. I try to offer a reasonably good illustration of each church—most of the time. But I do not apologize for occasionally coming up with a better image. It may not be as good an illustration of your church as you believe it deserves, but if I have done my job well, I have served your church better than you realize.

Long after I began the project of photographing all the old churches of Hunterdon County I came across an analysis of the work of Eugene Atget, one of the small handful of people who have shaped modern photography. John Szarkowski, then Director of Photography for the Museum of Modern Art, wrote of Atget in words I like to think pertain to my efforts as well. "We could say that it was Atget's goal to explain in visual terms an issue of great richness and complexity—the spirit of his own culture—and that in service to that goal he was willing to accept the results of his own best efforts, even when they did not rise above the role of simple records."

The images, from top to bottom: Hackettstown-Methodist, UpperBevans-Reformed, Barnegat-Quaker, Imlaystown-Methodist, Hackettstown-Presbyterian, Bloomsbury-Methodist, Flemington-Presbyterian, Lambertville-Presbyterian. The Szarkowski quotation is from The Work of Atget. volume one: Old France. New York: MOMA, 1981.

 
 

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