Presenting Religion through Photography

Recently I completed work on a yearlong project. When I undertook the photography essay I did not realize the extent of the time and consideration that would be demanded to complete it.

After months of thought, shooting, post-production and enhancing the images, I have a body of photography that conceptualizes my impression of worship in a small New England town through architecture and religious objects.

First, Some Background

In 1975, my parents retired from their NYC Board of Education teaching careers and relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Bethlehem, N.H.  Quite a change! The following year, my husband, my 1-year-old daughter and I began to summer annually in the idyllic semi-rural community.  My family grew and diminished, but the town remained a constant, as did the time I spent there.

The contrasts of life in northern New Hampshire and suburban New York City are enormous.  I used the elements of each in my professional photography and art.  It was stimulating and challenging to work in environments that were so polarized in lifestyle, appearance, and focus.

Capturing Two Ways of Living

As a photographer, it has always been exciting to live near NYC.  There is an energy that is palpable and that translates into marvelous visuals.  The pace is like no other city I have ever visited, but there is a tradeoff.

Often the energy of NYC provides a superficial take on life.  People rushing around so fast it is hard to know who they are and where they are going.  Even though my focus is architecture and not people, the intensity of a location influences my work a great deal. That is why it is so wonderful to have a place in New Hampshire where the slower pace is the extreme opposite of that in NYC.

In Bethlehem I can photograph the gentler way of life in the natural setting of the White Mountains. Buildings seem more tranquil (if that’s possible) as they are situated in a landscape back-dropped by permanent and stunning mountains.

‘Live Free or Die’

Worship is integral to the town of Bethlehem. Although not all of the residents are committed to formal religion – after all, the tate motto is: “Live free or die,” – many people are regular congregants at the several houses of worship. I have been a member of the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation for many years, although I am more traditionalist about my heritage than religious devotee. Many of my Bethlehem friends belong to the Durrell United Methodist Church, and I have attended events at both houses of worship through the years.

There are many similarities in the New England architecture and in the artifacts of religion in the church and the synagogue.  Last summer I conceived of a body of photographs that would embody worship in Bethlehem.

After shooting 1,000-plus photographs of the church and the synagogue over a four-month period, I began to cull the shots I thought represented the houses of worship and the religious concepts that are associated with the architecture and the religious objects. It was a challenge to get depth of meaning into the images without presenting the obvious.

As I worked on the post-production phase of the project I became aware of so many subtle aspects of each religion.  For example, in both houses of worship the windows play a key role in admitting light to illuminate and emphasize religious symbols.  I had learned of this illumination in my art history courses, especially with regard to the great Gothic churches, the Renaissance synagogues and the Inca masterpieces of Machu Picchu. Now I had the chance to create the focus of illumination in my images. It is a great task to undertake. I also felt the need to provide images representative of religion, such as the Star of David and the cross, but in the context of architectural photography. This proved time consuming and instructive to me as a story teller.  I strove to hit the right notes without creating a “bill-board” or banal photo of a holy and iconic symbol.

Putting on the Finishing Touches

After I had 24 photographs that I thought represented the concept of worship, I was faced with enhancing the photography with the new technique I am using of incorporating pencil, charcoal, pastel and gold leaf to accentuate and add depth to the images. Another huge challenge: differentiating my work from an already existing and established genre.

Carefully I applied the fine art media in small increments so that the photographs represented the profound meanings I had envisioned for each image. It was a marvelous project through which to utilize and stretch my skills as a storyteller and a photo essayist.

Editor’s Note: The Houses of Worship essay will be exhibited at the Colonial Theater on Main Street in Bethlehem, N.H., during the month of August.  There will be a reception on Aug. 3 that will be attended by leaders and congregants of houses of worship in the area, especially the Durrell United Methodist Church and the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation.


Leave a Reply