The Faith Cycle by Jackie Nickerson
By Walter Guadagnini, FMR magazine, issue 28, 2008

The more complex and problematical the definition of individual and group identity becomes in contemporary society, the more closely photography seems to focus upon the portrait – a genre which was of course indissolubly linked to the history and language of this medium right from the start. Scientific and technological progress, anthropological and sociological thinking, all seem to home in on the face, no longer as the mirror of the soul, of the social condition of the individual, but as the opportunity par excellence to investigate the relationship between man and the world – and between the photographer and his subject – through the filter of a mechanism which, in its turn, has been transformed from a mirror into a manipulator of reality.

Two recent well-documented volumes have analyzed the history and topicality of the photographic portrait with striking originality, both emphasizing the current tendency towards the “fabrication” of the portrait, the “staging” of the face, with inevitable references to a loss of identity, to the relationship between public and private image, and to its manipulation through “face-lifting”, subjects which run parallel – and this is certainly no coincidence – to the manipulating of images demanded by the mechanisms of mass communication, made possible by technical developments in photography and the growing complexity of the photographic image. In their different ways, both The Theatre of the Face, by Max Kozloff, and Face. The New Photographic Portrait, by William Ewing (both authors have been concentrating their attentions on this theme for quite some time) confirm the degree to which contemporary portraiture is rooted in a sort of paradoxical elaboration of two concepts, namely fidelity to and recreation of the real, themselves intrinsic to the history of the genre, with all the anthropological and psychological implications they contain. Both volumes, furthermore, seem to concur that it is virtually impossible nowadays to link such faces to their surroundings except through an overt “staging” of these faces, and of these surroundings, along the lines of the inspired and pioneering series of Film Stills by Cindy Sherman. If the face is linked to the surroundings, both will be answering to a principle of falsification, of artificiality; if it is presented in close up, on the other hand, detached from the context, it will speak of pure individuality (as in the famous cases of Thomas Ruff and Rineke Dijkstra), so objective and present in space as to take flight from the moment to enter a dimension devoid of all historical sense of time.

There is no denying that a tendency of this kind is currently in evidence, indeed that it has been predominant over the last two decades; it is equally true, however, that in recent years, together with the new golden age of social documentation, the theme of what was once defined as the “environmental portrait”, to use the well-known formula applied to the photography of Arnold Newman over half a century ago, is once more occupying an important place on the international photographic scene, as exemplified, among others, by the work of Jitka Hanzlová, certain series by Adam Broomberg and Olvier Chanarin, the work of Alex Soth (especially Sleeping by the Mississippi and Niagara) and Faith, by Jackie Nickerson, from which a large selection is presented in these pages.

It is clear, when looking at the images of these authors, that the premise on which they are based is the pinpointing of some place, that is, of some setting, or “surroundings”, at once relatively restricted but at the same time strongly characterized, marked by powerful pointers to identity, not as yet obliterated or irreparably weakened by the forces of globalization: we see as much in the little village in the Czech Republic portrayed by Hanzlová in Rokytnik, in the rural America portrayed by Soth, and above all in the convents and their inhabitants photographed by Jackie Nickerson. It should however be stressed that in none of these cases can we really talk of documentary photography, in either the historical or contemporary meaning of the term; rather, what we have here bears the mark of this new development, the “golden age” referred to above, characterized also, and perhaps most importantly, by a mixture of languages, and by the shift in the very role of the photographer in the cultural landscape (here we might note that both Broomberg and Chanarin, and Soth and Nickerson, work as professional photographers, while also exhibiting their work in galleries showing contemporary art: engaged, that is, in a twofold activity which would have been unthinkable even few years ago, with all that follows also in terms of linguistic strategies and attitudes to communication). In this connection, asked whether she regarded herself as a documentary photographer, Jackie Nickerson herself replied that she did not, “although I do have an interest in social documentation. I’m interested in who we are and how we live. But it’s not a day in the life of the clergy of Ireland. I’m trying to put across what the spiritual reality for them is”. This, then, is a spiritual reality, as observed over some sixty religious places in Ireland; yet the resulting work does not claim to be an investigation into the religious phenomenon in a country in whose history religion has played a fundamental role, in both the distant and the recent past; rather, it aims to show real people who have opted for a life which is in some ways extreme – that of enclosure, for example – people whose individuality is often set aside, thrust into second place in relation to the reading of the work in question. Nickerson is not trying to give a voice to those who are voiceless, that is not her aim, nor is she seeking to formulate a judgement on religion, or the religious: Nickerson takes a close look at the inhabitants of a very particular place in order to understand – through their faces, and their surroundings – what it means, today, to live cut off from the outside world, what it means to agree to live in accordance with rules imposed from outside, in conditions in which the only concern is that of the soul, one’s own and those of others, while everything that is part of normal daily life, of the affairs and patterns shared by almost all of the rest of the human race, is left, quite literally, “outside the door”. Faith is also concerned with looking at “the other”; it is a work born of the desire to relate to people who are different from ourselves, though not in terms of race or social standing, as is often the case in such undertakings. Here the “other” is very close to Nickerson, who lives in Ireland, although she was born in England, and who, though she is not a Catholic, is well-versed in the Catholic religion: thus here we have a confrontation with an otherness which is all the more radical in that it is born of cultural bases which are largely shared, but which have led to profoundly different choices.

In order to execute her project, Nickerson naturally had to win the trust of those involved; above all, she had to devise a visual strategy which would enable the faces, and places, to reflect both intentions and reality, however partially. “Of course, most of the work is done in advance, in the research, in the conversations, in the time I spend working in and around their environments – taking the picture is just the last thing that happens.” Clearly, such an approach engenders the sense of trust, of intimacy, which emerges so strongly from these photographs in the faces of the nuns and priests: the sense of having shared a living space, even if over a relatively short period of time. For this reason – and not as a result of any misguided pretence of spontaneity – the people whose faces are being photographed are visibly aware of the fact, yet they are not “posing”; they feel no obligation to provide an image of themselves. There is something private about these photographs, proof of a special relationship between the photographer and her subject, though both know that this relationship is destined to become public, to circulate in a society from which these subjects have chosen voluntarily to withdraw. The close-ups have all been photographed against a neutral background, characterized only by the different colours of the walls against which the faces stand out – soft, nuanced colours, which make their own important contribution to the overall mood of calm and contemplation which emanates from the whole series, intensified by the choice of lighting, which is artificial but diffuse, with no attempt at dramatization, or distortion, either physiological or psychological. These alternate with two other typologies: one of the surroundings, and one of the figures in those surroundings, so as to give an overall idea of the faces, bodies, spaces and objects in question, that is, of everything which serves to define their inward and outward space, but always subtly timeless.

The photographs of the surroundings are crucial to the whole enterprise: photographs of interiors which take on a metaphysical dimension, long corridors, filled with natural light rendering each object starkly present, yet also engulfing it out in a visual unity which is almost unreal: well ordered rooms for which the word “monastic” instantly comes to mind, lit by windows which let in light and nothing else, no hint of the world outside; a sequence of garments and cooking implements and chairs which become as many abstract compositions, of consummate refinement in terms of colour and composition. In these photographs, everyday life becomes something truly spiritual, without losing anything of the quiddity of place or physicality: we no longer know whether these places, and objects, are awaiting the arrival of the inhabitants of the convent/monastery, or of some supernatural presence. In this sense at least, Nickerson’s visual strategy is clear: she is fully aware of the implications of an empty space, lit in a certain way, with the objects within it, too, arranged in a certain way, so as to make up an image which conveys that sense of time suspended which gives these photographs an antiquated feel, reminiscent at once of the great painting of the past, of the pictorial “metaphysics” of de Chirico and of Atget’s photographs of Parisian interiors. Here, a mental attitude becomes a stylistic hallmark, serving to define a place and the spirit which pervades it, sensed at its most fulfilled when these places are inhabited by people intent on the everyday activities which punctuate the lives of such institutions, from housework to prayer, from reading to eating: an ordinary aspect of an extraordinary existence, whose normality is confirmed by the presence of telephones, computers and television sets visible in some of these images, though without any sense of irony, or surprise, since in point of fact, thanks to the light, they too are made an intrinsic part of the mood which emanates from the faces and spaces of this present-day sacra rappresentazione (mystery play).

The artist herself is perfectly aware of both this sense of modernity, and of a connection with the past, as we see from her use of colour and the way the objects are arranged, often reminiscent of older portraiture. Indeed, she herself has commented on the relationship between art and religion in the contemporary world: “... as far as imagery is concerned, nothing has moved on since the seventeenth century. So this is a great challenge. Do you think I could do something here that isn’t kitschy? Do you think I could do something that could maybe one day hang in a room with all that great art? Is it possible, not just for me, but is it possible for photography to do that? In previous religious art, there would be pictures of saints and Jesus and the Holy Family, but I think that using real people and originary people who have a religious life is far more relevant today. Because it’s all become a lot more personal, our relationship to religion”. This demanding, indeed courageous idea is the key not only to Nickerson’s research: it is also the arena where photography measures itself against the other forms of artistic expression bequeathed to us by the past, and indeed of art as a whole, in its relation to the great themes of humanity down the ages, among which that of religion undoubtedly plays a role of the first importance.

‘Stabilitas Loci: the experience of place in Jackie Nickerson’s Faith’
Artefact: Journal of the Irish Association of Art Historians, issue no. 3, 2009
Interview by Paula Lynch, 20th April 2007

The first body of work, Farm, took you three years. I was just wondering if you found it hard over the three years, did you lose the plot or is three years a natural cycle for you.

Well it wasn’t planned as a three year thing. What happened was I found myself in a situation where I began to take pictures because I was interested in where I was and what I was experiencing. I had come from a background where the amount of time given to do a certain job is very small. So when I started Farm, I wasn’t really doing it as a photography project, I was doing it as an extension of learning, about where I was and and where I wanted to take photography. I was actually in and out of Africa over a five year period and it took about three years trying to create a visual language that I felt worked.

You didn’t have a deadline which is wonderful. I want to ask you, because of my background in art when I had a limited amount of time, so much of my time was spent doing research, some much time looking at the theory, the visual theory, the academic theory and maybe so much looking at other artists ‘work on a similar theme and that sort of thing. But your work seems to be much more fluid than that. For example in the work Faith, was there an approach like that or …

Faith was very different, because Faith came out of a political interest in the church and came out of the news, the media interest as an outsider coming in to Ireland. I was trying to understand what this kind of institution was, and of course it was a very emotive subject and my in-laws, my father-in –law is quite a devout catholic, so we would have these family discussions about how he saw it and about how everybody else saw it and it was always like, well this is how I see it… it was always trapped in the language of seeing…it wasn’t really ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’, then I just began to think that this may be something I should explore a little bit. Then a friend of mine from called me from New York, who has a magazine, and asked would I do something on Ireland, contribute something that I think is of significance in Irish life, so I approached one or two people through my father-in- law, actually through a convent in the area where he lives, and one or two priests, and did some pictures and that was the beginning of it. It sort of interested me, but not that much, and I was ready to let it go, and then, something kept tugging at me, I am not quite sure what, I am trying to remember the exact series of events. Then somebody else asked me to do something, or include it in something and I began to have an interest in, because I didn’t really see it in a visual… was so… was so all over the place. The places that I went, there didn’t seem to be any visual factor that gelled everything together, or I couldn’t see it. The body of work that you see now, that is Faith, didn’t exist, it wasn’t that at all, and then I began to get really frustrated…..I was in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and I saw some, I think it was some Durer, some old German painting, and it was these very, very simple paintings of monks and then I began to research religious art a little bit more. I did an awful lot of research. I went to Spain, I went to Athens, I went to study iconography a little bit and icon writing and all that sort of technique and the symbolism of that and then the symbolism of Renaissance art. So then when I came back to it I still couldn’t see it!! So I was still absolutely flummoxed, and I have to say that it was a very difficult, a very emotional thing because I really in a way thought that this was something I want to explore but I couldn’t see it at all …it took a long time. So again it wasn’t really a three year period, it took longer, because of all the research.

When you say you couldn’t see it, do you mean that it didn’t gell with you or crystallise in your mind that this was the body of work and that this says what you want to say and that you knew what you wanted to say in the work, is that what you mean?

Yes, I suppose in a way that was true, I couldn’t see anything that I thought was unusual or different. You know, it would be very easy to go into certain institutions and pigeonhole them, and especially a group of people like a religious, who maybe aren’t as self aware as the rest of us living out in the world, with maybe the constant attention to personal appearance and all that kind of thing, and so it would have been very easy to go in and just concentrate on the difference between the way they live and the way lay people live, it would have been easy to make it into something that was just a shocking thing …basically it wouldn’t have any depth.

Voyeuristic maybe?

Yes voyeuristic. It would just be that. And actually I don’t think there is any real point in doing work like that, for me anyway, it’s just kind of like a cheap shot and I just spent so long in the commercial world doing work that was kind of nice , but I just thought this is a time to challenge myself, see how far you can take it and see if you can really see what is in front of you, see something that maybe isn’t visually evident, but evident in a different way. It is all about the emotional response and the sort of clinical response to what it is that you are seeing, and seeing if you can create a visual language that kind of epitomises that. But the ritual, you go into every single place and there is always the same ritual and always the same sort of thing going on. You think, well, that’s not really a heightened reality, you know, that sort of a dulling down of the senses, but actually it’s not, really. I actually see it the other way, I see it as more a heightened reality because you don’t have to think about all of the mundane things that you have to do in life. And it is kind of like, if you look at eastern arts, or you look at martial arts, or even if you look at athletes, people try to train themselves, whether it is physically or psychologically, to do the same thing. They all to the same thing, the same thing every day at the same time every day, and so what you are doing is you are training your sub conscious, the memory in your muscles and you are training something that is not immediately evident that frees you and sort of elevates yourself to another level, that people like me could never aspire to because I don’t have, maybe, the discipline to do that every day. So you are going in to these situations where there is this great ritual, and also the environments were kind of similar, especially in the institutional aspect of it. So when I had done a lot of it, and visited a lot and got used to it, because you know I am not a catholic… so I got used to all the prayers and that sort of thing. Then I began to see beyond, I thought ah… this is what they are trying to get to, this is what they are trying to achieve, and are they doing it. Is it working? That was my main priority when I started this, does it work. If someone is going to devote their life, and I think it is a really radical life choice, I don’t see it as being conservative at all, if I had a daughter or son and they said to me I am going to go live in that house over there and I can see you maybe once a year and I am never going to have any loving relationship in a physical sense, and I am never going to leave the house, and I am only going to eat certain things, I would be horrified, I would be calling a help line! So I think it is actually an incredibly radical choice to make. But to get beyond all that, you think, hang on, does it work? Where is the evidence…not just somebody saying ‘Oh yes, I feel great, it works’. My job as an artist is to, maybe, ask a question….

OK. In the work Farm as well as Faith, particularly Faith, you seem to be drawn as an artist to notions of people who have a special relationship with place, with people in a place.

I would say that is certainly true of Farm. And I think the fact that it happened with Faith is kind of a given really because of the nature of their life. I don’t think that’s always going to be the case. I do feel that, my interest, my real interest, is the human condition. As an artist that would be my primary interest, in human beings.

I just wanted to ask you a very basic question about what inspired you to do Faith, but you have already answered that really. But just looking at my own visual response to your work, the colours, they are sublime really, they are muted colours, and you were obviously very aware of the significance of colour in the liturgy and maybe in art history. Did you balance or subdue any of the colours in your photographic process or was that actually it. I was just wondering whether you made any conscious manipulation of it or were you informed by your research.

I have to say that when I was going in to these environments the only thing I thought about was my response to the people that were there. And actually, even though I knew about the colours and all that sort of thing, it’s on the back burner. You don’t look at a wall and think ‘Oh that’s pink and that means so and so, so let’s do a portrait there.’ It doesn’t work for me like that. Now it is funny that all the colours that you see, especially in the enclosed orders, correlate to all the colours that have been used for how many hundreds of years in religious art. I actually never asked anybody if they deliberated painted the walls in these colours, they just were there.

The preciousness and persistence of faith in the works, I do get a sense of this in the works. I do get a sense of longing in the works. This is something that has evolved over the three or so years….

I don’t think that. That phrase, I think came from Kevin Moore.

Yes, he did say that.

I know what he means though but only in the sense that there is a longing to do work, to make the pieces, to understand what the human condition is. There is a longing to create.

I particularly was attracted to the works that had corridors and stairs. The cleanliness, the emptiness and the quietness, those works particularly appealed to me. I found it really contemplative, even in the act of gazing into them.

I can understand that. When you are inside a lot of these places, it’s all about, for me, it’s about reacting intuitively to things and it’s not just the geometry of the corridor, it’s not just about that. You can really sense that something is going on, and you have to really open yourself up completely, let yourself go completely, and ask yourself what is here. So for me the stairs were very symbolic, and the corridors were symbolic, and the door at the end of the corridors and it was about spiritual journey. It was a matter of drawing somebody in so that when you are looking at the faces, using the same technique, if you could see beyond the habit and try and see something else that’s in that face. Maybe it is something that is coming out of that person, that would be the goal. It all really works as one thing, whether it’s a portrait or a still life.

What was wonderful about the corridor space is that there was no extraneous baggage lurking anywhere! You felt that they pared down their lives in this type of environment and it helped them.

I think it is really quite funny, in that in modern life everything is becoming so minimalist, and it’s exactly the same sort of thing.

Did you find any clutter anywhere?

Oh yes.

I mean was that corridor actually…. were those quiet empty spaces actually quiet empty spaces, or did they clean them up for you?

No I believe they didn’t change anything. Everything was found. Found light, found objects, found place setting…

The portraits struck me very much as being also really quiet, and also reminded me, as Kevin Moore mentions, of the Quattrocento portraits. Did you make a decision to leave them totally uncluttered?

Yes. I made the decision to light them as well. The portraits are lit, but everything else is found light. I decided to light the portraits because I wanted the light to be as simple a s possible. I didn’t want there to be any distraction, because, of course, when you light something, it changes everything, it changes the whole atmosphere of the picture. And I also felt that, to bring it down to the very bare minimum, so that all that you were looking at and concentrating on, was the subject itself. I also felt that there had to be one constant throughout the whole body of work, and if it was going to be the portraits, then they had to be lit so they had a continuity within the work, otherwise it would just be too all over the place.

One person made the comment that it was an interesting social document. This takes the work in a separate direction. It is a sort of a social history of a life that is dying out in Ireland. Were you aware of that while you were making the work?

Well, the religious would say that there have always been bad times, that they have always gone through periods when vocations went up and down. And that they just felt that this was another period when the numbers had gone down and that they were going to come back up again. I have no comment to make about that, they might be right or they might be wrong. But I do have a huge amount of photos and lots of pictures of the actual places themselves. I do have a picture of every single member of the community that would let me take a photograph of them. I knew I would never use all of them. It’s not really documentary photography, nor is it photojournalism. But I was thinking, maybe in fifty years time, it might be great to print all the pictures. It would be a valuable tool for anyone to see how, especially the older institutions, were run. I suppose in a way that I do have a huge social record in that the pictures are there.

I just want to ask you about people or works that influenced you as an artist. I know you mentioned Fra Angelico and those works. Were there any contemporary artists?

I love sculpture, and I love Henry Moore. I love Rachel Whiteread. It is so simple and she is so obviously emotionally involved in her work and I love that. As for painters, I like some of the Dutch painters, I mean it is really just about looking at something and thinking ‘great’. I respond to a lot of art, especially painting.