Tag Archives: Religion

Photography Betrays God’s Creation

Photography Betrays God’s Creation – or at least that’s the sort of statement that could have served as the headline for an article published in an 1839 edition of a German newspaper in response to rumours that a new process had been invented. The author writes: “To fix fleeting images is not only impossible, as has been demonstrated by very serious experiments in Germany, it is a sacrilege. God has created man in His image and no human machine can capture the image of God. He would have to betray all his Eternal Principles to allow a Frenchman in Paris to unleash such a diabolical invention upon the world.” Cited in Photography & Society by Gisèle Freund. Maybe it was a Lutheran thing. Roman Catholics certainly didn’t share these concerns. Freund reports that in 1867, the Alsatian photographer, Adolphe Braun, persuaded the Vatican to allow representatives from his studio to photograph the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The project took 6 months to prepare and 2 years to execute. Freund notes: “Even the Pope, it is said, became interested in the Alsatian’s work, and visited the chapel several times a week to prowl around the scaffolding and to chat with the photographer.”

Meanwhile, I continue in my diabolical ways, as evidenced by this photograph I shot last week in Montreal, a discarded paper Pepsi cup in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica.

Pepsi cup in front of Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal

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My Grandmother’s Eyes

My Grandmother died on April 20th. I’ve never been present before when a death is declared. My grandmother had obviously expired, but the attending VON lacked the necessary government-approved certification to say unequivocally that she was dead. At times like this, I become strangely practical. I suggested we turn off the oxygen machine (why waste perfectly good oxygen?), but the VON said no; we needed to wait until his supervisor arrived and declared the death. To my mind, these strict procedures could mean only one thing: some time in the past, a well-meaning relation had turned off an oxygen tank and inadvertently suffocated his grandmother who wasn’t in fact dead but only appeared to be dead. I pulled my hand from the machine and sat like everyone else, waiting for the supervisor to show up. I had to pee but didn’t move. I was afraid tinkling sounds might disturb the solemnity of the moment.

When the supervisor arrived, he did the usual things you’d expect. He felt the wrist for a pulse. Then the carotid artery. He pulled out his stethoscope and listened for a heart beat. Logically, it’s impossible to prove a negative proposition, in this case, that my grandmother was not alive. Everyone in the room—my parents, me, the VON, the supervisor—everyone knew that my grandmother was no longer alive. But how do you establish that as a fact? You want to avoid the Pythonesque situation where, on the way to the funeral home, the presumed corpse sits up and says: I’m not dead yet.

The day before, they had wheeled a hospital bed into my grandmother’s living room so she could die in comfortable surroundings. Now, as the supervisor followed his procedures, I sat to the west of her, on her favourite couch. As a kid, I had sometimes slept on that couch, but in the living room of the house on the family farm. As a teen-aged sci-fi geek, I had read Robert A. Heinlein novels on that couch. Later, as an English major, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses on that couch. Now, my grandmother’s body lay propped a little to one side, facing me where I sat. My parents stood to the east of my grandmother and so they missed what I saw next.

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The supervisor asked for a Kleenex. My mom found the box and handed it to him. He took a Kleenex and rolled it to a point. He leaned over my grandmother from the far side of the hospital bed, with his back to my parents. He pushed back the eyelid of her left eye. My grandmother stared directly at me with her one unblinking eye. Her pupil was dilated, ringed around by the thin band of her blue iris. The supervisor tapped the cornea, once, twice, three times, with the tip of his rolled Kleenex. I don’t understand the physiology of it, but I guess he was looking for some kind of autonomic response. He didn’t find it. He shut the eyelid and scribbled some notes on his official declaration of death form.

At that moment, I couldn’t help myself. I guess it has something to do with my literary background. As I stared at my grandmother’s dead eye, I couldn’t help but think of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Near the beginning of the story, the narrator describes the old man’s eye:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Although my grandmother had died, still she stared at me. Based on that stare alone, I would not have been able to tell that she was not alive. They say (and by “they” I mean some impossible-to-identify person in the misty past) that the eyes are the window to the soul. But my experience suggests that the eye is a deceptive organ.

When I do street portraiture, the number one rule is: focus on the closest eye. As a result, I’ve become adept at manually shifting the active auto focus point into position as I’m yakking it up with prospective subjects. When I capture an expressive face and discover, in post, that the closest eye is perfectly crisp, I smile and give myself a pat on the back. I’ve got myself an image that viewers will care about. Inevitably, the image will draw their attention to the eye. They will stare into it and sense that, almost mystically, it reveals the inmost depths of my subject.

Ross

Diane Arbus observed: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” I would suggest that her observation is doubly true of the eyes that appear in a photograph. When we stare at an image of a person’s eyes, maybe all we can know for certain is the content (the hopes and expectations) of our projections. We meet an elderly man. We observe the time-worn lines etched deep in his face. We think: he looks like wisdom personified. He squints and it looks to us as if he’s staring halfway across the galaxy. As photographers, we want to capture this look and share it with others. But when we talk to him, the mystery evaporates. The man is a moron. Or worse, an asshole. He tells dirty jokes. He says he has a stash of kiddy porn under his bed.

I would hazard that the eye isn’t a sensory organ so much as an aesthetic convention. When we look at a painting or photograph, its eyes tell our eyes where to look. We stare first at the eyes, then follow their gaze into the scene. It produces drama. It suggests the culmination of a narrative. What’s more, the presence of eyes tells us how to engage the work. If eyes are the window of the soul, then a representation of the eyes is a representation of the window of the soul. The eyes tell us that if we look closely, we will discover hidden depths. Just as a perspectival trick (first invented in the Renaissance) produces the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface, so a moral trick produces the illusion of deeper meaning.

A Child's Stare

In his book, The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer opens by drawing a thread through the history of photography: the thematic preoccupation with blindness. He suggests that blind subjects are the objective correlative of the photographer’s desire for invisibility. I don’t think it’s that complicated; I think photographs of blindness lay bare the moral trick. Unless there is something in a photograph that indicates blindness (in many of the early photographs Dyer examines, the blind person wears a sign that declares the blindness), the photograph is no less meaningful than one in which the subject is sighted. Photographs of blind people reveal that the functionality of eyes has no bearing on the effectiveness of a photograph. By extension, they play on our anxiety that photographs—and art more generally—may in fact have no deeper meaning.

As we sat with my grandmother’s body waiting for the supervisor to arrive and to declare the death, the VON spoke to my mother. Maybe the silence bothered him and he felt compelled to say something. He asked if my grandmother was a Christian. I rolled my eyes. While my grandmother was a regular at a local Presbyterian church, she never talked about her religious beliefs. As I later discovered while sorting through her belongings, she maintained a hefty stash of Bibles and they were all dog-eared. My mother nodded and the VON went on a riff about how Jesus’s resurrection was a promise from God blah blah blah. As the VON went on about Jesus, I felt anxiety descend like a fog upon the room. I stared at my grandmother’s body. After 97 years of life, is this all that remains? What if we have no deeper meaning?

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Religiosity On The Streets

There’s a breezeway between St. James Cathedral and what I presume to be the admin building for the Anglican Diocese. Photographically speaking, it’s interesting because it has a glass ceiling (for the men to walk on?) that produces good reflections when you shoot from underneath it towards the street. The other evening, I was standing there, amusing myself, when someone nearby started picking a guitar and singing. I poked my head around the corner and found a man sitting on a stone bench. The church’s exterior wall has a lot of angles that provide secluded alcoves. I asked the man if he was practising. He said yeah, he had a gig across the road, just one song but he wanted to get it right.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I asked if he’d mind me taking shots of him while he practised. He said sure, but he figured it was probably worth the price of a beer. I said I figured it was, so he did his thing and I did my thing and we both were happy. Mike speaks with a bit of a twang so I was expecting him to sing in a nasal Willie Nelson voice. Mercifully, he’s sings much better than that and his picking is fantastic. You can see from the photos that he plays a mouth organ. I grew up calling it an organ, but he calls it a harp. He plays a Lee Oskar. He doesn’t like Hohner; he says they just don’t hold up.

When it came time to make good on my promise, I realized I’d made a mistake. Normally, when I go out, I load my pockets with twonies. But this evening I’d forgotten. Well, I thought, a deal’s a deal. I held up a twenty dollar bill and said it’s all I had. Mike turned all obsequious on me and it made me feel awkward. He pressed his hands together like he was Gandhi. “Oh man, all I wanted from you was a twonie for a beer. Tell me, are you a Christian?”

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I hate when people ask me that question. I don’t want to disappoint them. At the same time, I don’t want to be taken for a bigot or an asshole. To be honest, I don’t know what I am. I suppose I’m happily in limbo. I ended up telling Mike that I grew up in the United Church of Canada but I’m a bit lapsed these days. “Lapsed” describes most people who grew up in the United Church of Canada. “Well bless you anyways,” he said.

One day, my photography habit is going to turn me into a bona fide sociologist. I’d love to conduct an investigation of religiosity on the streets. While mainstream media keep harping at the secular/humanist/agnostic shift of the mainstream-cultures/middle-classes/people-who-pull-twenty-dollar-bills-from-their-pockets, that shift doesn’t appear to have touched those who live in the margins. In part, it may have something to do with the fact that a lot of front line services are run by notoriously evangelical Christian organizations. But nowadays even those organizations are under pressure to keep religion out of it. Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, but leave their souls to the great whatever.

So where does it come from? Does it ooze up from the pavement? Is it prompted by the simple fact of poverty? Is it (consciously or otherwise) a way for those living in the margins to distinguish themselves from the secular lost and their barren normativity? Does my vocabulary and academic/investigative posturing merely underscore the barrenness?

Shut up and shoot, Dave. Shoot like it’s a prayer. Share like it’s a sacrament.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

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Dab Life And Other Distractions

I’ve discovered that the first week of spring—the first week when people can shed their heavy clothes and enjoy being outside—is one of the best times for street photography. People are happy. They’re willing to stop and talk to you. They don’t mind posing for shots. I had a couple hours yesterday afternoon so I went out into the mid-twenty degree weather and came home with much to show for my efforts.

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Traviss in his Dab life T-shirt.

I was first drawn to Traviss because of his T-shirt which happens to include my initials: DAB. Dab Life is a clothing line for people who dab. For more on dabbing, read this.

Brooklyn and Isaac

Brooklyn and Isaac sitting on some steps.

Brooklyn and Isaac were sitting on steps north of Gerrard on Yonge Street, hiding under a map when I approached. The challenge of street portraiture is that, when you approach, people lose the naturalness that drew you to them in the first place. Some people remain stiff throughout the exchange. Others, like this couple, quickly recover and offer you something special.

Street Preacher

Street Preacher at Dundas and Yonge.

And then there are those encounters you can’t interrupt or it would kill the moment. One thing that fascinates me about street preachers is their kinship to grifters and grifting culture. Proselytism is a hustle. People with little religious experience are the marks. Sometimes I wonder if the polite religion of mainstream churches and middle class congregants is any different.

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Homeless On Bloor

I’m working on a photobook tentatively titled The Disposable City. It’s a vehicle for exploring urban concerns like ephemera, waste (garbage, demolitions, pollution), and the commodification of everything, including people. Every now and then, I do another spread, then let it sit for a time to see how I feel about it. A while back, I did one on a homeless woman who camped out for a few weeks in a doorway across from me. It seems like a reasonable piece to post on Good Friday. I’ve included the text and a few images below, but for the full impact, you can download the two spreads in pdf format.

From The Disposable City:

I live high up in a condominium on the north side of Bloor Street. Across from me on the south side, one by one, the retailers are leaving their shops as a new owner—a developer—prepares to demolish the existing structures and build a 49-story tower in their place. A homeless woman has started camping out in a doorway. The sight of her greets me in the morning as I eat my breakfast, and again at night as I get ready for bed. Each day, out of curiosity, I lean out my window and train a long lens on her. I want to know if people interact with her as they pass on the sidewalk.

What I have learned is that most people barely acknowledge her existence much less interact with her. On the preceding page are 25 shots of the same scene. In all but one, the people passing don’t appear to see her. A small child, maybe seven years old, is the only person who turns her head and looks directly at the woman. Later, another child waves from his stroller.

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It would be easy to sentimentalize the scene, maybe read something Biblical into it—you must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. That sort of thing. I dismiss my observations as coincidental. Like so much of photography, it’s a “framing” issue: I’ve watched for only a short time and this has allowed me to be selective in the sliver of time I choose to capture the interactions of pedestrians and a homeless woman. Those interactions just happen to play out in a way that evokes a Biblical aphorism. If I watch for long enough, my sample size will more accurately characterize the interactions. They will become more statistically representative and less Biblical.

The next morning at breakfast, I look out my window and note that a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses have set themselves up within spitting distance of the homeless woman. The scene suggests to me a story about a certain man who lay injured in the street and the pharisees who passed him and did nothing. So much for being statistically representative!

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Over the days and weeks that follow, I watch the homeless woman from my perch. I’m disinclined to suppose that my observations become statistically representative of anything. But they do become more complicated:

A man approaches from the east. He sees the homeless woman. He stops in front of her. He leans in and speaks to her. He pulls a five dollar bill from his pocket and offers it to the woman. They exchange words and then the man walks away. I’m a long way off and can’t infer much from their exchange; I assume the man asked the woman how she was, she answered, and he (taking pity on her) gave her a five dollar bill.

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It isn’t until I examine the exchange on my computer monitor that I realize something different has happened. The man palmed the bill as he walked away. The homeless woman refused the offer of charity.

What a different impression of the parable we would have if the injured man lying in the street had told the Samaritan to go fuck himself.

Then again, that story may have no relevance to the scene on the street far below me. After all, the story was first addressed to a lawyer and so was told in terms he could understand. It was reasonable. Logical. And it was told in answer to a question about the definition of a word (neighbour) and not, as we usually suppose, to encourage acts of charity.

If we want to learn about charity, the stories we hear are anything but reasonable. Emphatically illogical. A woman wants to douse her master’s feet with a valuable perfume. Judas, the greatest villain of the Western canon, makes the reasonable suggestion that they sell the perfume and give the proceeds to the poor. I think it’s important to remember that it is Judas who endorses charity. Maybe it’s his unassailable logic that makes him so villainous.

In the movie, The Unforgiven, William Munny points the muzzle of his rifle. Cowering in terror, Little Bill looks up and says: “I don’t deserve this.” Munny answers: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” He pulls the trigger. If he weren’t a murderer of women and children, Munny could be a religious man explaining the dark underside of a theology of grace. It’s deliciously unreasonable. And terrifying in it’s consequences.

If I am to be gracious, then I must be unreasonable. I find myself asking: what is the unreasonable way to view myself in relation to this woman? What is the unreasonable thing to expect me to do (or not to do) in answer to her presence?

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Holy Merchandise

There’s a shop on Parliament Street south of Wellesley that sells religious merchandise. I’ve featured the front window before; I had been drawn to it by a notice posted in the window. I now realize this is a shop I’m going to have to track over time. Interesting things happen here.

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The other day, I noticed how sunlight was shining through the front window and illuminating a statue of (I presume) Joseph holding the baby Jesus. I stood to one side so I could include the Beer Store sign across the street (these kind of juxtapositions amuse me). Then I waited for people to walk past. When I was satisfied that I had a decent shot, I continued on my way.

It wasn’t until later in the afternoon, as I was returning home, that I noticed something else. There was a rock inside the fenced-in area in front of the shop. The rock and its sign present something of a tautological puzzle. As far as I can discern, the only reason for the sign is to keep the stone in place. And the only reason for the stone is to keep the sign in place. Could this be some kind of parable I don’t yet understand? I must investigate further.

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My Name Is Bond – James Bond

While the official story holds that Ian Fleming named his most famous character after an American ornithologist, local legend tells a different story. In 1942, Fleming spent a few weeks at Camp X near Oshawa where he was taking specialized training (he was leader of a British commando unit). Fleming was staying at a home on Avenue Road, and, every day, on his way to Camp X, he passed a local church, St. James-Bond United Church. The church’s name sank into his memory and, after the war, when it came time to write about the exploits of agent 007, the name floated to the surface.

The hyphenated church name theory is probably no better than historical fantasy but, since we’re in the fantasy mode, why not ratchet things up a notch? Here’s a fresh speculation: while in Toronto, Ian Fleming almost became a Trappist monk. Instead of writing Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang and Dr. No, he almost ended up writing meditations on the contemplative life and tracts protesting military spending.

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In his memoir, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton  writes about his younger brother, John Paul. Like Thomas, John Paul had drifted across the Protestant/Catholic divide and had even toyed with the idea of becoming a priest. For whatever reason, the idea never took hold. John Paul was an impulsive young man and suddenly ran off to Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. The U.S. wasn’t in the war yet, and, I suppose, John Paul was itching to see the sort of action he couldn’t get south of the border. Merton writes that “he was in camp, somewhere near Toronto.”

One of the things I like about John Paul is the fact that he was a photographer. Their father had been a painter, and both sons inherited his artsy fartsy sensibility, Thomas, with his poetry, and John Paul, with his camera. I can imagine how, as training trudged from 1941 to 1942, John Paul grew bored of the Air Force. On Saturday nights, maybe he came into town with his camera, hoping to shoot some action—bar fights, girls, whatever caught his fancy.

I can imagine him sitting by the window of a pub on Eglinton Avenue when a proper English gentleman strolled past. The gentleman paused, struck perhaps by the sight of a young man reading a newspaper while a draught sat chilling on his table beside a Rolleiflex. After exchanging pleasantries, Mr. Fleming joined the young John Paul and they began their conversation by wondering how small one might engineer a camera for use by, say, a spy agency.

Series 372, Subseries 58 - Road and street condition photographs

By the typically circuitous path that conversations take, John Paul let slip that he had an older brother, Thomas, who had become a novice monk and had joined the Abbey of Gethsemani in Louisville, Kentucky. Without thinking, Fleming blurted: “What the deuce would a man do such a thing for?” He was so flustered, he dangled his preposition. Being a good Church of England man, himself, it never occured to him that real people might choose celibacy. Nevertheless, he was fascinated to learn about Thomas Merton’s decision and left the pub with the monk’s address.

The two men struck up a correspondence and, after the war, Fleming even visited Merton at Gethsemani—not so far-fetched when you consider that Merton entertained many famous personages including Joan Baez and Thich Naht Hanh. Together, the men drank a toast to John Paul Merton, whose plane had gone down in the English Channel in 1943. For a time, Ian Fleming flirted with the idea of becoming a monk, but finally dispatched the idea with the publication in 1953 of Casino Royale. After reading the novel, Merton allowed their correspondence to peter out.

As an afterward, I note that St. James-Bond United Church no longer exists. As the congregation’s numbers dwindled, it opted in 2005 to amalgamate with the congregation of Fairlawn Heights United Church. Together, they worship as Fairlawn Avenue United Church. In 2006, most of the church was demolished. Now, a retirement residence stands on the site and incorporates features of the previous building.

Woman Passing Construction Site

A photo apropos of nothing.

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Holy Ferrari!

I’ve lost my faith. Once, I believed as most believed. It would be a virtue to own a Ferrari. It would be a sign that the gods had smiled upon me and blessed me with prosperity, or at least with the right to carry huge debt servicing charges. But the central myth that fueled that belief has fallen under the march of modernism. A fundamental tenet of my faith was the conviction that our resources are limitless. Always, there will be gasoline to power our Ferraris. Always there will be landfill sites to receive their worn-out bodies. Always, the planet will forgive our excesses.

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But the demystifying light of modern reason has blasted our primitive assumptions to smithereens. We could well exhaust our oil fields. We could easily turn our planet into a giant garbage dump. And, as recent extreme weather events have shown us, the planet is not as forgiving as we might wish.

Like most who lose their faith, I grieve, and I grieve in all the ways that grief manifests itself. I deny that anything is wrong and fantasize about a day when I, too, will get my Ferrari. After all, the gods have not forgotten me. Then I grow angry. I blame all the stupid people who have contributed to the problem, who drive their Ferraris like there’s no tomorrow. All the while, I ignore my own bad habits, like the two truckloads of garbage I shipped to the dump the last time I moved. When the anger subsides, I resort to bargaining: please, oh god of the Ferraris, at least let me have a Tesla. If not a Tesla, how about a Prius?

When oh when will acceptance come? When oh when will I accept that the old gods of the Ferraris are dead? Why can’t I simply accept that the modern world can easily accommodate feet and bicycles?

Sometimes, especially when I loll in a haze of nostalgia, I remember the good old days when the world was a simpler place, when my faith was true and my future certain. But after I’ve snapped out of it, I realize that it would be horrible to own a Ferrari in these times. I would have to drift in a state of perpetual delusion, believing that all those people who stare at my sweet ride and photograph me as I whiz past churches are staring in admiration instead of quietly thinking to themselves: there goes another Luddite asshole clinging to his primitive religion!

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The Luminous Veil

The so-called Luminous Veil is, for me, a symbol-laden structure. The Luminous Veil is a late addition to the half kilometre length of Toronto’s Prince Edward Viaduct. It was designed to end the viaduct’s reputation as one of North America’s premiere suicide destinations. Michael Ondaatje has paid homage to the viaduct in his novel, In The Skin Of The Lion, and includes an episode where a construction worker saves a nun from plummeting into the Don Valley below. The viaduct also appears in Bruce Cockburn’s folk song, “Anything Can Happen.” More recently, in “War On Drugs,” The Barenaked Ladies share their thoughts on the upgraded structure:

Near where I live there’s a viaduct
Where people jump when they’re out of luck
Raining down on the cars and trucks below
They’ve put a net there to catch their fall
Like that’ll stop anyone at all
What they don’t know is that when nature calls you go

Although Stephen Page’s lyrics suggest that the Luminous Veil has merely shifted suicides to other bridges, I have heard (from grief counsellors) that it may, in fact, prevent impulsive suicides.

Luminous Veil - Prince Edward Viaduct, Toronto

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

The third installment in my impressions of Paris series. This time: the cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.

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We worship with our iPhones

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