34 April 2004
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to use this site
of the month
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.
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.
meetinghouses, and the late eighteenth century Dutch Reformed churches
of Bergen County exhibit
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
fulfill expectations, at a minimum I know I need to make
a good, straightforward representational image of every church.
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.
had several discussions about my attitude, and they often go
something like this:
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.
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.