Kara just finished her doctorate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Currently she is Curatorial Assistant in the Photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Most recently she worked at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, and in 2014 she worked at the New York Public Library on the exhibition Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography.
Priests of the Sun: Photography and Faith
My dissertation explores how faith motivated British and American photography during the long nineteenth century. As a medium dependent on the physical world for its subject matter, photography was invested with aspirations and ambivalences connected to Victorian religious debates. On both sides of the Atlantic, photography supplied empiricism and mysticism in the midst of what the cultural critic Matthew Arnold described as faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” The photograph’s dual status as a record of empirical “truth” and a conduit of mystical, alchemical experience predisposed it to answer to some of the most urgent questions of a half century marked by unprecedented doubt about the Bible’s accuracy, the rise of alternative Christianities, and a more vocal and pervasive secularism. Photographs seemed to materialize divine light circa 1860; by 1900, they assured spiritual communion with the machine. Religious associations and desires have continued to surround the medium in the twentieth century, from the moralizing rhetoric of straight photography to the theory of Equivalence proposed by Alfred Stieglitz and elaborated by Minor White. Religion was not only an occluded component of nineteenth-century photographic practice; photography was a vital tool for exploring religion’s centrality to a certain critique of modernity hinging on the desire to impute magical qualities to industrial products like the camera. I used the generous funds from the Palmquist award to undertake research in Utah libraries and archives on two little-known Mormon photographers featured in my dissertation.