Revelation: Representations of Christ in Photography

by Nissan N. Perez

Published by Merrell

224 pages, 2003

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Photographing Christ

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


What did Jesus look like?

Was he the fair-haired, blue-eyed young man of the meek, pious countenance whose portrait still graces the walls of Sunday school classrooms all over the Western world? Or is there another way of seeing the Christ altogether -- a different lens to look through, so to speak?

It's intriguing, to examine a book of Jesus photos. Compiled by Nissan N. Perez, curator of photography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, this collection ranges over a period of 150 years, reflecting not just the multifaceted nature of the divine but the shifting social and religious views of particular eras.

As Perez explains in his essay, "Who Do You Say I Am?: The Image of Christ in Photography," the advent of 20th century thinking brought with it a certain religious skepticism which crept into all art, including photography. "As a result of the influence of earlier masters of doubt such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud ... everything converged towards the implantation and growth of the idea that 'God is dead'." Nevertheless, the depiction of Christ in photography survived for a century and a half and still goes on, whether reverential or cynical, sacred or profane, or even downright mocking.

The cover photo is a particularly vivid example of in-your-face satire: Annie Leibovitz' 1999 portrait of the TV Mafia family The Sopranos in a Last Supper pose, complete with loaves and fishes. Obviously Perez was looking not just for the most pious images, but the most striking, challenging and affecting.

"This has been a perilous adventure," he admits. "When dealing with such sensitive issues as faith and religion, it is extremely difficult to ensure that every viewer will see and understand the idea, and agree with the proposed line of thought and action." In other words, if you're expecting conventional Jesus imagery, prepare to be shaken up and perhaps even offended.

But I truly enjoyed my trip through these images, some of them suffused with ethereal beauty, others blazingly ugly but potent, and all brimming over with one kind of passion or another. Leibovitz is only one of the celebrated photographers in a list that includes Paul Strand, Man Ray, Lewis Hine, Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Mapplethorpe and Fred Holland Day. But some of the biggest surprises are the unknowns, the anonymous religious postcards from the 1800s and the arresting snapshots capturing raw true-life moments.

I began by marking the photos that really grabbed me with sticky-notes, but by the end of it, the book was so bristling with markers that I had to pare them down to a short-list. Revelation is a book that encompasses everything from stiffly-posed Victorian religious tableaux (which made me think of those old Classic Comics Bible stories) to depictions of a crucified horse, a naked lady surrounded by Minnie Mouse balloons, and a baldly graphic photo of a woman performing fellatio with the Last Supper in the background.

Here we find a United Colors of Benetton ad featuring an emaciated, bearded young man dying in bed (perhaps from AIDS?) surrounded by his grieving family. We will see the Last Supper enacted by adults with Down's Syndrome, a picture of three squeegees with undershirts draped on them that eerily suggests crucifixion, and a skeleton hanging on a giant black Nazi swastika.

Gertrude Kasebier's 1899 photo The Manger captures a sense of mystery and other-worldly beauty. Mary's veiled face communicates both innocence and devotion as she bends to the infant, so swathed in gauzy fabric that we can only make out his shape. Tony Catany's El Christ d'Esperreguerra (1997) is one of many images that imply a kind of veiled eroticism. Christ crucified wears a look of blissful peace that is at once beautiful and disturbing. A. Bert's 1917 portrait, Isis, seems to depict a crucified Mary, her nude form lit so beautifully it glows alabaster.

Some of these images seem to step out of the world of the subconscious. Fred Holland Day's Jesus at the Tomb (1898) is dim and dreamy, yet arresting in its impact. We can barely see Jesus' face as he walks out of his earthly prison, but the sense of recognition is powerful.

One of the simplest and most effective images is Christ, Our Liberator (John Dugdale, 1999), a blue-tinged photo of two male hands clasping each other, as if one is rescuing the other from a fall. In Dad by Dean Tokuno, a husky Native American man holds the emaciated body of his father with all the tenderness of the Mother of God.

Social commentary is implicit in many of these images, and sometimes even spelled out. Duane Michal's series Christ in New York (1981) includes hand-written commentary. In the last panel, depicting a dead body lying face-down in an alley, the note reads, "Christ is shot by a mugger with a handgun and dies. The second coming had occurred and no one noticed."

If I could name one image that grabbed me at the most visceral level, it is a journalistic photo by Bill Eppridge called Robert F. Kennedy Shot (1968). Kennedy, eerily lit from above, stares lifeless in cruciform position as a young Asian woman bends over him in a sort of awful, spontaneous modern version of the Pieta.

So what did Jesus look like? The conclusion this diverse group of artists reached seems to be: Jesus can look like anyone -- like a woman, like a child, like a man with AIDS or an animal or even a politician. Even the most cynical of these shots reveals a certain fascination with the Man from Galilee and his mystique, revealing that Christ has lost none of his enigmatic power to move human beings over the past 2000 years. | June 2003


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.