Category Archives: On Art

The Changing Social History of the Photograph

I’m sure we’ve all heard it all before. This generation will be the lost generation, because so many of its photographs are treated differently, shared instantly through avenues such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, email, text message, Pinterest (and other avenues I can’t even name, let alone use) – and, if printed at all, are often printed on budget paper with cheap ink. A generation or two from now, who will be able to find grandma’s university graduation photos or aunty’s first birthday party pictures? Should we be thinking about these things?

Recently I’ve been finding myself thinking about the social history shown in collections of photographs. I’ve been trawling through the well-organised photo album collection of one of my aunts, ostensibly to locate photos of some of the family who celebrate ‘0’ birthdays this year, but finding myself thinking about everything in the background instead. With little money and plenty of ingenuity and inventiveness, the legends on the back of Christmas photos show how proud my grandfather was of his young family, and their joy and happiness is evident in their grins as they pose with their trinket shelves and books and tea sets on a sunny Christmas morning. 

Brothers and sisters pose alongside the birthday girl, with a homemade cake in pride of place on a small stool. The whole family lines up along the back of the house, dressed in school uniform, clutching suitcases and schoolbooks. An older sibling comes home from university, and the whole family gets together for a photo. A younger sibling marries, and there’s a photo of each older sibling’s family group with the bride or groom. The passport sized school photograph is distributed among the family, captured forever in the family album. Baby’s first photos are printed multiple times, mailed out to everyone in the family, preserved in albums with the appropriate age handwritten on the back.

When it came to my generation, there are photos of my brothers and me on the first day of school, or blowing out birthday candles, or dressed in cub or scout or guide uniforms. An anniversary means an endless parade of family group photos, each of them getting larger as the years go by. The weddings of my generation include the siblings (my aunts and uncles), or the mixture of cousins who attended.

And then, once we get to the age of the digital cameras, the collections I have access to both grow and shrink. In five years I think we have managed two photos with my siblings and I, one of them less than a month ago. In ten years – well, you might be able to add a couple more. 

Even the background of the photos tells you something. Fashions, in clothing, in food, in cars, in toys, even in advertisements, and road signs, and shop names and sign writing. The wedding or birthday cakes, the candles, the gifts, the buffet menu. The size of the photo, and the shape – whether square or oblong, or rounded corners. 3.5 by 5 inches, or 4 x 6. Even the fading of the colours and the albums they’re so proudly mounted in – all of it tells a story about a place and a time and a way of life.

Why did we stop posing as family groups, and move towards a parade of selfies and candid photos, and group shots with hidden faces and bunny ear fingers? Do we think we’re now invincible, or so completely documented that another photo isn’t necessary? I might remember the family weekend at the beach – but will my niece and nephew? Do we spend too much time in the here and now to look at and learn from our past, or provide a record for our future? Or do we simply not take the time to celebrate who we are and what we’re doing, moving on to the next big thing?

In fifty years, in a hundred years, what evidence will there be of our existence?

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Ratesjul is an avid reader (of almost anything) and keen amateur (emphasis on the amateur) photographer. She loves looking through collections of family photos and hearing family stories – and is in awe of her aunt’s collection of photo albums.

 

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A Faith of Flesh and Blood: An argument for visceral Christian art

Three years ago, at a high school art show, my teacher used masking tape to cover the genitals of the nudes in one of my paintings.  Other students had nude figures in their work, but mine were nude Madonnas, represented dancing, in youth, maturity, and old age, as a parallel with the threefold Goddess.  My teacher told me that she had gotten complaints from several parents; not only had I represented a holy figure “naked and profane,” but she had body hair, sagging flesh, and wrinkles; she wasn’t even a “pure and classical nude.”  It seemed contradictory to me that, in a religion characterized by the humanity and mortality of the main protagonist, the corporeality of aging human flesh could be seen as unacceptable. Christian imagery has always been harshly regulated; it’s run the gamut from the sincerely faith-driven to the blatantly politically oppressive, and all conventional critiques of the institution of the Church apply here.  As with all regimes, art has always played a vital role in the propagation of all the most oppressive aspects of the misogynistic, imperialistic Christianity under which so many have suffered.   This statement functions as a sort of disclaimer, in that the history of Christian imagery, in all of its complexities, is an ocean of study and thought unto itself, and this essay barely skims the surface of those murky and vibrant waters.  As an artist and activist who is also a Christian, and not as a theologian, I’d like to discuss my problem with the insistence on a pristine Christian iconographic tradition.

"Madonna of Choice" by Katherine Cavanaugh
“Madonna of Choice” by Katherine Cavanaugh

In his painting Death of the Virgin, Michelangelo di Caravaggio, a 16th-17th century Italian artist, modeled the dead Madonna after the corpse of a pregnant prostitute who was infamously murdered by drowning and publicly pulled from the Tiber river. The church that commissioned it rejected the piece; the parish objected to the model and to the idea of a bloated cadaver as the holy Virgin.  Official Church doctrine denied the Madonna any bodily humanity; according to those who would see real women condemned for corporeal functions, the Madonna, an “ideal” woman, did not suffer the pain of childbirth or the indignity of an actual bodily death.  Taboos on the mortality of Mary have their roots largely in misogyny; however, Caravaggio was also criticized for giving his holy figures in other paintings characteristics of real life, such as dirty feet.  Social insistence on a pristine Christian iconography, and on a refusal to embrace the Christianity of flesh and blood, has ostracized important expressions of Christian art up to the present day.

"Death of the Virgin" by Michelangelo di Caravaggio
“Death of the Virgin” by Michelangelo di Caravaggio

For example, Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” of 1987, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine and blood, caused knee-jerk public outrage.  Few seemed to consider the beauty of the photograph and the possible commentary on the beauty of God’s grace through Christ manifested in the most primal of moments, present in all the messiness and pain of living.  Likewise, Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin displays an intrinsically Christian compassion toward the murder victim; by modeling the Virgin on her, Caravaggio relates her suffering to that of the Madonna, and underscores the humanity of both.

"Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano
“Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano

As recently as last year, Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture of Jesus destitute and sleeping on a park bench, recognizable only by the stigmata (the marks of nails on his hands and feet), was rejected by several major American cathedrals (though it was eventually welcomed to the Vatican by Pope Francis).  It seems that many Christians still resist the immediacy of Jesus’ message; we don’t want to remember the desperate, sticky, painful, primal moments when we experienced grace, and we don’t want to acknowledge that we belie our faith every time we fail to see Jesus in all other messy, struggling humans, including those we would rather forget, including ourselves.

"Jesus the Homeless" by Timothy Schmalz
“Jesus the Homeless” by Timothy Schmalz

I actually think that discovery of holiness in the profane is what has made Christianity such an enduring story.  My faith is woven into my mortal flesh, into all my fears and desperations.  When I paint, I try to express this grace. The most compelling expressions of God’s grace come from art of all disciplines, and regardless of how such art is received by mainline ideology, it’s how I come back, again and again, to the beating heart of my faith.

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Katherine Cavanaugh studies painting at the Rhode Island School of Design; when she’s not doing that, she reads, sorts mail, and answers a domestic violence hotline.  She’s currently abroad in Rome, Italy.

 

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