Recently, I attended a choir concert, where one of the pieces was a setting of the poem: “The Old Church”, by Della B. Vik. The poem is from a book of poetry about South Dakota published by Vik in 1959. An excerpt:
And every Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.
The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us, and God.
I immediately thought of some of the little, almost forgotten Texas churches photographed by me and four other photographers. In 2004, my friend and fellow photographer Mike Castles bought a one hundred year old camera with the idea of photographing one hundred year old churches. Mike shared his idea with photographer Lee Carmichael. Both had already been photographing old churches.
Mike and Lee asked three others to join the effort: me, Matt Magruder and Jeremy Moore. This was the idea that spawned a collaborative documentary endeavor called the Texas Church Project: photographs of old, historic Texas churches made with black and white film. By early 2006, we were serious, and soon had a mission statement, a website, and business cards. The mission statement said, in part, that we were “combining interests in art, architecture, history, preservation, and traditional photography”.
L to R: David Brown, Matt Magruder. Mike Castles. Lee Carmichael. and Jeremy Moore (kneeling)
We were often asked if it was a religious project. No. We may have felt an affinity for these places, but not really out of religious devotion. The British writer Simon Jenkins said that (to him) “a church is not a place of revealed truth but rather a shrine of impenetrable mystery, symbol of humanity’s everlasting quest for explanation.”
Nostalgia likely played a part in the form of a desire for a connection to the past; a connection to the souls of the people that settled Texas. Into these churches, these early Texans poured their faith, joy, sorrow, labor and love. Great cathedrals may speak the history of the rich and powerful, but the local parish tells of the common man. These churches are where ordinary people married, baptized their children, sought refuge and council, and said final goodbyes to family members and friends.
Artist collaborations are difficult at best. While we had our fair share of success, the project ended after only three years. We first exhibited in May of 2007 and that same month appeared in a segment of the TV show: Texas Country Reporter (which can still be viewed on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrrDMvDKEgA )
Sometime along the way, Jeremy had to drop out as he was a full time graduate student and had a job. Lee had started to photograph less and less. Mike, Matt and I carried on, and had two more exhibitions in early 2009.
Each of us, whether the group of five or just the three, had different motivations for the work, and different approaches to it. We were often asked how we managed to collaborate, and our usual, perhaps snarky, answer was that everything was a compromise, since we didn’t agree on anything. By the time we hung the second 2009 exhibition, the project was taking a big toll on the three of us, especially in time and money. We called it quits for the “time being”, but it has never gotten going again.
Yet, it produced a fair body of work. We had certain criteria for the types of churches we were interested in, and had compiled a list of well over two hundred, which was by no means complete. We did, though, actually visit and photograph more than half of the list!
The five of us became friends. Lee Carmichael, sadly, was already slowing down due to health issues we couldn’t see at the time. He died in 2012 and I miss him a lot, even having known him for only seven years.
I was asked recently if I wanted to photograph more churches. As recently as a year ago I would have told anyone that if I never photographed a church again, that would be fine. One must be careful in saying such things, though. My current project involves church buildings, but in a much different way. I am documenting historic pipe organs in North and East Texas using color and digital. The fact that they are located inside churches is merely a coincidence.
Aside from the pipe organs, would I photograph churches again? Maybe. Probably not. If I did, my current thinking is that I would also do it in color (and digital), rather than black and white, just like the organ project.
The choir piece reminded me that it has been six years since the church project ended – twice the length of the project itself. Not sadness, or regret, but thankfulness for the period of sharing the creation of art with good friends and fellow artists.
More images from the two projects are on my website: www.silverdarkroom.net