God’s in His Heaven: Theological Thoughts on Two Exhibits
Stromholm: Nana, Jacky and Adèle Chanel, 1961
“God’s in his Heaven — All’s right with the world.
[Robert Browning, Pippa Passes, 1841]
And not by a long chalk. And some people choose an interpretation of meaninglessness. And some redefine the meaning of “all right.” And still others simply ignore the gap between religious claim and reality. But none of those are adequate for those of us who need “a faith that can encompass tragedy without reducing it to a meaningless episode….” 1
This seems particularly true on a weekend in which the whole country is mourning the specific tragedy of the mad shooting of the crowd watching “Batman” at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. There is no way to gloss over such evil with reassurances of a fundamentally good world. And yet.
I’ve had occasion of late to reflect on art that speaks to the incarnational sense of God’s presence in the things which are “not all right,” the bits about death and war and cruelty that provoke us all to look to God for some sort of accounting as we simultaneously point a finger at each other. There are two exhibitions currently on display at the International Center of Photography that reflect such a theology. The main attraction is “Murder is My Business,” which carefully curates the crime and calamity photos taken in New York between 1935 and 1946 by photojournalist Arthur Fellig, better known as “Weegee.” The second, “Les Amies de Place Blanche,” shares Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm’s photos of the community of transexual prostitutes he befriended and lived among in 1960’s Paris. Both shows are artistically stunning. But, as important, the photographers convey the sad and harrowing realities of particular worlds without dictating despair. Between the two of them, they create a grammar that negotiates what Patrick Miller once called (in another context entirely) “the very thin line between the redemptive and the demonic possibilities for life on this planet.”2
Tenement fire, Harlem, 1942
Mother and daughter looking up at the top floor, where another daughter and her baby are trapped
Weegee and Strömholm share a humanity, but what bends their work, I think, to a artistic theology that matters is their ability to uncover flashes of connection in a world of only sometimes mitigated tragedy. Weegee’s work here seems harshest because it is wholly unvarnished. He shows us horrible, catastrophic things, people bloodied and savaged, senselessly killed, and in anguish over the death of a husband or brother. He shows it all without cheapness or sentimentality or any effort to invoke sympathy or opinion. Like a good war photographer, Weegee shows us exactly what happened and how, and what everybody looked like when it went down. What he shows us is beautiful, though it is beauty “infiltrated” by as-yet-unredeemed reality.3
Weegee: My Man, 1941
One striking thing is that virtually none of Weegee’s pictures would be likely to appear in any major newspaper of our own time. They are just too lurid, too graphic, too invasive. Worse, the crowds that gather at a crime scene in Weegee’s photos are far from innocent bystanders. They are entertained. No matter what has happened — a fire, a murder, a tragic accident — the crowds stand there looking on with interest: men, women, and children. They are as fascinated as motorists crawling past the scene of an accident hoping to see something horrible.
For all that, Weegee’s photos also leave his subjects — pretty much all of them — with their innate dignity. A series of shots of men under arrest for cross-dressing on one wall was particularly impressive. The arresting officers mock them, but the men themselves (labelled “boys dressing as women” on the photo margins) do not look either shamed or ridiculous.
By contrast, Christer Strömholm’s much smaller show aims to do more than document. Strömholm, the “father of Swedish photography” (who knew?) can be read as raising “issues about identity, sexuality, and gender,”4 but the impact of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” is much broader than that. In his foreword to the book of the same name, Strömholm described the work, in part, as about “insecurity… humiliation…, the quest for self-identity, … the right to live, … the right to own and control one’s own body… [but also] about friendship.”5
At bottom, Strömholm claims this body of photos as “about friendship.” And that friendship is not only his own. The women he records have befriended each other and Strömholm documents their creation of a community.
Strömholm, Jacky, 1961
A rough kindness infuses the entire series. Strömholm’s shots are honest and ineluctably dissonant, but he also seems protective of his subjects. There is such a huge gap between their hopes and their prospects, and he catches their yearning as almost palpably beautiful. He paints the beauty of their wounds. And, in fact, his final judgment is of beauty.
Neither of them presents a Thomas Kincaid sort of world for the solace of anyone. But by presenting worlds we know to be true, they honor us and communicate the place of the divine in what seems most broken. Both shows are on through the summer.
1 Gregory Wolfe, “The Tragic Sense of Life” in Image, Issue #61 (Spring 2009)
2 Patrick Miller, “Poetry and Theology, Theology Today (speaking of Yeats, “The Second Coming”)
3 In*The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism* 57. no. 1 (1999): 7 in @101, Peg Zeglin Brand speaks of “Beauty infiltrated by the dangerous, transgressive, bizarre, grotesque and the horrible.”
4 Christopher Harrity, Advocate.Com/Artist Spotlight, 5/29/12
5 Christer Strômholm,Les Amies de la Place Blanche, Reprint of the 1983 edition, Arman Iman Éditions, Dewi Lewis Publishing (March 13, 2012)