CLINTON — The Anglican Book of Common Prayer refers to “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” Photography is great with outward and visible. Inward and spiritual is a different story.
“Seeing is believing” could be the medium’s unofficial motto. It’s in the nature of the camera’s relationship to the external world that what it captures the viewer takes as fact. Put another way, worldliness defines photography.
“Believing is seeing” could be the unofficial motto of religion. It’s in the nature of worshippers’ relationship to what they believe in — whether that be God or mysticism or some other form of transcendence — that that source of belief can’t be shown. It’s otherworldliness that defines religion.
“God does not play dice,” Einstein said of quantum mechanics. Neither does God take selfies — or pose for cameras generally. So it’s the rare photographer who pursues spirituality as a subject. Linda Connor is one of the few. Certainly, she’s the most notable and likely the best.
Photographers who take as their subject Eastern Orthodox Christianity face an additional challenge. The various Orthodox faiths have a heightened relationship to visual representation. It was Orthodox Christianity that gave us the word “icon.” As Alain de Lotbinière puts it, “For the Orthodox believers, icons are not images that are worshipped in the traditional sense of the word, but rather images that are venerated, being seen as windows to the spiritual realm.”
The 23 photographs by de Lotbinière that make up “Spirituality in Eastern Christianity: Images of a Living Tradition” aspire to window status. The show runs through Jan. 21 at the Museum of Russian Icons. It’s curated by de Lotbinière and the museum’s executive director, Simon Morsink.
The photographs are black and white, with a notably soft surface texture. (They were printed and mounted by Digital Silver Imaging, in Belmont.) All but one are 24 inches by 36 inches. The remaining image is 40 inches by 72 inches. They’re being large is fitting. There’s nothing minuscule about immanence. Also, all but one of the images is oriented vertically. This emphasizes ascent and, if you will, a heavenward direction.
The photographs are neither framed nor matted. This has two effects. One is to complement their scale. As it is, the images are formidable. With frames and mattes, they’d be imposing. The other, more important, effect is that with frames and mattes coming between viewer and image these images wouldn’t seem as much like, yes, windows. That the photographs are hung on walls painted a deep burgundy accentuates their quality of otherness and appearing to open on to another space.
People are present in fewer than half of the photographs. Evocation interests de Lotbinière more than depiction does. More often he shows appurtenances and attributes of belief and associations with it: candles, clouds, birds, bells, architectural details, a monk’s robes (minus the monk).
A few of the images indulge in sleeve-tugging (the viewer’s sleeve, not the monk’s). One called “After the Holy Eucharist” makes you wish for a before to counter the after. It doesn’t help that the museum has choral music softly playing in the gallery. God, who does not take selfies, does not make playlists either.
Photography is an avocation for de Lotbinière, a Connecticut neurosurgeon; and this project is one he’s clearly attached to. He’s traveled on three continents working on it. In addition to photographs from Russia, the show includes others from Egypt, Turkey, North Macedonia, and Kosovo.
All that travel posed one kind of challenge. The project faces a far greater one. Ignore the wall texts and titles, which include words like “cathedral” and “meditation” and” church” and “veneration.” Just look. Do the images convey a sense of the spiritual, and on strictly visual terms? Yes, they do, and with a depth of feeling that’s almost palpable. At their best, de Lotbinière’s photographs are tactile as well as visual. They let us feel the force of spirituality as well as see it manifested.
SPIRITUALITY IN EASTERN CHRISTIANITY: Images of a Living Tradition
Museum of Russian Icons, 203 Union St., Clinton, through Jan. 21. 978-598-5000, www.museumofrussianicons.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.