I developed the idea of a small group devoted to photography in the Fall of 2016. I called it–admittedly the title was aspirational–The Sacred Art of Photography. I was struck at the time by an odd paradox, or what seemed odd to me. Presbyterians are shy by nature, but once you get them talking in a small setting, they talk a lot about their faith. I knew this because as a small group leader, I had been mentored by Carol Wehrheim. Carol’s groups are so good they fill up within twenty minutes of sign-up. In January, it was easier to get a Covid vaccine in New Jersey than to get into a Carol Wehrheim small group, which makes sense, since the latter would do you more good. And yet what everyone does in every small group I have been in is talk. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. People need to talk about their faith. After a year of Covid, they really need to talk about their faith. And in a predominantly secular world, the opportunities to do so are too few. Hence small groups.
But what seemed odd about this to me is how much the prophets and the psalmists and Jesus and the writers of the epistles speak in images. If Jesus had lived in our time, I think he might have been either a filmmaker or a photographer by trade. At the very least, you would find him on Instagram. He had a gift for giving the ordinary its beautiful due, as John Updike, trained as a painter, once said. He took the ordinary experiences of human beings and fashioned them into narratives they could understand, visions they could see, images they could comprehend: a vineyard where people worked and debated how much they should be paid, a wedding where the hosts almost ran out of wine, a coin that got lost, a barren fig tree. You can talk about these things and debate what they mean in the seminars at the seminary next door, patiently trace every signifier back to its sign, but don’t you have to see them to comprehend them? He leadeth me beside the still waters. When have you last been near still waters? People totally get this in dealing with every other aspect of their lives. Latest estimates are that there are 250 billion photos on Facebook. People upload about 350 million photographs there a day, and that does not even include the more photocentric Instagram. People are using images to communicate something, yes? Why would we not use them to communicate our faith?
In early March of 2020, the eighth session of Sacred Art of Photography began meeting in its usual location on Thursday nights in the Conference Room. You remember the Conference Room, right? We talked about the spring session, the possibility of a trip to galleries in Chelsea in New York, the thesis exhibition I was putting together to finish my MFA. And then, of course, everything stopped. Everything that is, except for my small group. I see the first zoom invitation on my calendar appeared on March 26, 2020 and the group got to work, documenting whatever was left of our world. I gave them assignments; but it didn’t matter; leading them is like herding cats. And they knew exactly what to do. Take a breath, pray, think, create.
The group was scheduled for six sessions, but Spring led into Summer which led into Fall which led into the new year. I thought I was doing them a favor by keeping the group going. They need this, I said to myself. But I realized, of course, that it was I who was in need of instruction. Trapped inside of my house, New York City shut down, my thesis exhibition cancelled, I was provided a schooling in how artists respond to adversity. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work, making sense of the world around them. That’s what you signed up for, Ned, their work seemed to say, now stop feeling sorry for yourself and get back to work.
In this exhibition of their work, which they selected, I am hoping you will see some of that, but you will also see notes of courage and grace and love. You will see humor and wit. You will see a real appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation. You will see the Holy Spirit at work. You will see the work of ordinary people who have transformed themselves into artists in a community of faith. They also transformed me, and for that, I am truly grateful.
–Ned Walthall, March 2021