• December 3, 2011

Walls & Light Exhibition Essay

by Silvia Espinosa - artist and PHT student in Art History

Looking is an act of sal­va­tion, of com­pas­sion, and it is the path Father Paul Anel has taken in his voca­tion as a Catholic priest and pho­tog­ra­pher. The exhi­bi­tion, Walls and Light, at the First Things gallery brings together ten pho­tographs by Fr. Paul that shed light on the beauty and mys­tery of ordi­nary and ephemeral moments in life and nature. Shifting reflec­tions, quiet shadows, moving streams and passing clouds appear as time­less markers of a tran­sient world caught between the infinite and finite, the per­sonal and the uni­versal. In these works, Fr. Paul approaches his sub­ject - an empty stair­well, an urban com­mute, or a frosty morning glare - without any agenda, but the joyful desire to see the world “with the eyes of Christ,” that is, of com­pas­sion and love. Photography embodies the act of looking and in Fr. Paul’s hands or rather eyes, it becomes aspi­ra­tion, prayer and praise.

Fr. Paul’s ear­liest expe­ri­ence with pho­tog­raphy came by way of his grand­fa­ther while growing up in south­western France. The elder was an ama­teur pho­tog­ra­pher and botanist who always seemed to be taking pic­tures of the local land­scape and flora, and who took delight in pho­tographing his grand­chil­dren. This left a deep and lasting impres­sion on Fr. Paul. However, it was not until Fr. Paul moved to Brazil in 1998 to begin work at Heart’s Home, a non-profit inter­na­tional Catholic orga­ni­za­tion com­mitted to pro­moting a cul­ture of com­pas­sion through char­i­table, cul­tural, and edu­ca­tional activ­i­ties, that pho­tog­raphy once again became part of his world. Heart’s Home emphasis on forming com­mu­ni­ties of love and prayer with the poor, dis­ad­van­taged, and socially iso­lated brought Fr. Paul close to many suf­fering people. The rich encoun­ters and bonds of friend­ship that arose inspired him to use pho­tog­raphy as a means of cap­turing and recording their expe­ri­ences living in some of the most des­perate areas of the world. His aim was not to show their mate­rial poverty, but their dig­nity and beauty. In a recent inter­view, Fr. Paul spoke of his desire to see with Christ’s eyes. He said, “I wish to have the atti­tude of Christ when he looked at people, even the land­scape; to see the beauty that is within them.” He explained fur­ther, “the act of looking is very per­sonal, sub­jec­tive, but you can share it [with a pho­tograph], revealing things about a person that others would not be able to see.” Seeing becomes redeeming.

Though people have been the main sub­ject of his pho­tog­raphy, Fr. Paul’s most recent body of work reveals an interest in the abstract qual­i­ties of light and reflec­tion, par­tic­u­larly on the land­scape and urban envi­ron­ment. John Silvis, the curator of the exhi­bi­tion, saw in these abstract images as much power to speak of the human expe­ri­ence as do his por­traits. “They have a rich poetic quality and invite the viewer to spend time to con­tem­plate. There is a cer­tain com­plexity which takes years of seeing, a com­plexity of form and an under­standing of the visual lan­guage as a medium,” says Silvis. This is evi­dent in a color pho­tograph of a stone fence (2009); it is decep­tively simple, but a longer view dis­closes varied layers of nat­ural ele­ments brought into a uni­fying whole­ness by the pho­tog­ra­pher. Earth, sky, stones and leaves become the rich layers of reality. A single cloud pauses over the wall. In Stairwall (2008), the end pro­duct of the NYC building code becomes the site for spir­i­tual awak­ening as light enters and reflects off its pro­saic walls and handrail. Light breaking through clouds in Molokai (2010) recalls the hidden beauty behind the once wretched land of leprosy, aban­don­ment, and decay that was trans­formed into a haven of grace by the holy love and work of a priest, St. Damien (1840-1899). A tree becomes a sign of hope as it pulls toward the light.

Contrasts between light and dark, as well as move­ment and still­ness are impor­tant ele­ments in Fr. Paul’s pho­tographs. A train ride through Brooklyn is the occa­sion for a quick reflec­tion of another ride, a har­rowing one on the Coney Island roller-coaster. In one pho­tograph two bending, trem­bling tree limbs awaken to a bright and bleary frosty morning. In another, flashes of light twist through the swaying, sag­ging over­cast sky above the Williamsburg Bridge. And finally, light’s salv­ific dimen­sions mate­ri­alize in Pieta (2008) where a Passion pro­ces­sion in Spain cul­mi­nates in an image of a mother’s piercing encounter with her cru­ci­fied Son. Light floods the dark­ness; her crown glows. Mary becomes the embod­i­ment of com­pas­sion. Fr. Paul’s pho­tographs invite us to con­tem­plate the poetic and sym­bolic expres­sion of light across sur­faces, places and time.

Walls and Light will be on view from November 10, 2011
through January 9, 2012.

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