“ PEOPLE THINK THE CAMERA steals their soul. Places, I am convinced, are affected in the opposite direction. The more they are photographed (or drawn and painted) the more soul they seem to accumulate.”
~ John Pfahl (Photographer, teacher. Feb 17, 1939-April 15, 2020)
Gardener, opera fan and photographer John Pfahl knew about intimacy. He had, according to his loving family, a deep interest in people. Mr. Pfahl's recent passing, from multiple life-threatening issue complicated by Covid-19, was a loss. His work, and the quote above, inspires a question: What brings us back to a place?
Perhaps the accumulated soul of special places loosens a space within us that had been confined. Returning to our evocative places can add layers to our experience of it. Our appreciation of the setting grows as our memories of it deepen. Place familiarity, instead of breeding contempt, grows into intimacy.
Locate in the Bahamas, Saint Saviors church is one of these healing places, as it invites a photographic effort to evoke the invisible though the visible. If saying so appears not too pretentious, photographing Saint Saviors church is a search for the soul of a place.
An Anglican parish on Cat Island in the southeast Bahamas, Saint Saviors was the 'mother church' of New Bight community, and to many it is still an important part of its faith. To get to the island, we sailed from Florida and then south and east of Nassau. Located off the Queens Highway near a gas station and store, the structure of the building still stands. The roof is almost gone, its beams taken away from hurricane winds. The grounds around the edifice, dried bushes and encroaching trees, were cleared in 2020 by a restoration committee of devoted Anglican community members.
Cat Island is the cultural heart of the Bahamas. It's residents preserve their history. Speaking to an Anglican elder who was born on the island, I heard about Saint Saviors' furnishings. Rose Johnson, a church member in her late 70's, told me she had preserved Saint Saviors' pulpit. Father Eric Miller, an Anglican priest, shared his plans to eventually restore Saint Saviors' edifice itself, so he is fundraising and rebuilding several Anglican churches on Cat Island.
Why go back to this remote ruin? Inside its walls, Saint Saviors radiates the light of the world. Shadows scamper across its walls in a dance. Near the Baptismal font, dark shadows from a few remaining roof beams play across the walls when the sun appear above the clouds. Through its western windows, green tendrils advance into Saint Saviors open interior. It is easy to imagine what a vibrant place of worship the church had been, and could become again. Seated on the church floor near the baptismal font, I recall words of writer and photo instructor Minor White: “ Venture into the landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you. When you approach it, you will feel resonance, a sense of recognition. Sit with your subject and wait for your presence to be acknowledged.” Once again I begin to photograph.
Saint Saviors keeps calling to the soul. Its ethos speaks in the hushed voices of a spiritual community. These murmurs are promising. They echo with the hope that, under the guidance of Father Eric Miller and a faithful community, this Cat Island mother church will once again become a place of worship for many souls.
A LOGGERHEAD TURTLE skull stared out from the corner of the Dungeness Mansion wall. I placed and photographed it there. It symbolized the endangered condition of that sea turtle species.*
We'd arrived at Dungeness, the ruins of the Carnegie mansion, after a hike. With our leashed dog making tracks along the River Walk trail, we hiked through a tunnel of twisting live oaks adorned with resurrection ferns and Virginia creeper, to arrive at the Dungeness dock. Robin, a National Park Service Ranger, answered our questions about Cumberland's wildlife and history. The island horses were feral. Wild pigs, coyotes, armadillos, turkeys, bobcats and whitetail deer all roamed the island, he said. As we walked east through the oak forest on a sandy road, with vultures circling overhead, rustling sounds from raccoons and armadillos in the saw palmettos created an eerie mood.
Robin also told us a longer story when we'd asked him about the island's history. The Coast Guard, during World War Two, was stationed on the island and routinely patrolled the Atlantic beaches on horseback. There were many American ships sunk by German submarines at the time. In a panic, one beach patrol returned to base and breathlessly reported that the Germans had developed an amphibious tank, which had come ashore from a submarine and left its huge treads on the the sand. In fact, the tracks were those of a loggerhead turtle**, whose kin had been laying eggs in the Atlantic beach sand for countless generations.There were human generations nesting on Cumberland, too. The Carnegies, Rockefellers and other prominent families have left their tracks, vehicles, and homes on the island.
Today the National Park Service oversees the island, and our admission fee was waived due to the economic impact of the coronavirus. Cumberland was closed April 3rd 2020, but reopened May 4th, and we arrived on May 9th.That day was World Migratory Bird Day. Cumberland's birds seemed to know about the event; present were blue-grey knatcatcher, Carolina wren, tanager, and yellow-throated warbler.
On a previous trip, one rainy day in January, I came across a motonless great horned owl. To the pique of a group of fire ants, I sat on their colony while photographing the owl. Practicing slow photography, I made three bracketed frames of the owl with a tripod-mounted camera. Later, combining the frames, I used photo editors to boost contrast and tonality.
Timeless and historic, Cumberland Island is a sanctuary of great contrasts. Upon its beaches, the textured tracks of loggerhead turtles stand out in stark contrast to the wind-swept sand. My experiences on this pristine Georgia barrier island have been equally indelible, leaving their own tracks etched into my dreams.
* I found the loggerhead turtle skull washed up on a remote Bahamas island in 2019.
**There are three kinds of turtles that nest on the island: leatherback, green and loggerhead. A turtle research group counted eight loggerhead (Caretta caretta) nests when we were on the island in May 2020. Loggerhead turtles are an endangered species per the Endangered Species Act; only one of 1000 sea turtle eggs reaches maturity.
Plan A Visit: https://www.nps.gov/cuis/planyourvisit/index.htm
Sea Turtle Rescue: https://www.jekyllisland.com/activities-category/sea-turtle/
"Compassion is a necessity, not a luxury." Dalai Lama
When I photograph someone, something deep inside says: Jim, this is a human being, make kindness and compassion your lens.
We see thousands of ads about the lens you need to make a portrait. We are invited to spend a lot on lighting, fashion for the model, and photo style. Yet, I believe something is missing: compassion. Painters understand this. Picasso painted Guernica, a masterpiece of compassion for Spanish Civil War victims. I learned from Jeffrey Stockbridge's portraits of heron addicts (Kensington Blues) that our lack of compassion comes from a failure to see others as human beings. For the six portraits here, I've only begun to try to see with more compassion. Thanks for looking! Jim