A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America by Rachel McBride Lindsey
Rachel McBride Lindsey's A Communion of Shadows is a unique, if at times uneven, analysis of the influence vernacular photography had on lived religion in America at the end of the nineteenth century. Specifically, Lindsey considers how the sudden proliferation of photographs—of loved ones, of the dead and the mourning, of alleged spirits, of the holy land—in the late 1800s served to expand traditional notions of "beholding" beyond centuries-old religious icons and illustrations. They now included the everyday and the familiar, infusing these moments captured on emulsion with religious significance.
Lindsey's survey is unique in that there is a relative dearth of collated material on the subject of how early photography may have led to alternative considerations of the sacred by ordinary people in their everyday lives. By capturing the fleeting, the ephemeral, and the commonplace, and giving it eternal life on plate or paper, the nineteenth-century photographer sacralized the quotidian. Unlike paintings, photographs were experienced not as re-presentations mediated through the eyes, mind, and hands of an artist, but rather as direct presentations of life made near animate through the interplay of light, glass, and emulsion. To see, as one sees with one's own eyes, the dead forever alive on tin or paper, images of ethereal spirits, or the lands where Jesus walked, would have indeed seemed miraculous.
The unevenness in A Communion of Shadows is in its structure and prose. This seems an inevitable result of the author setting before herself an (admittedly) overly ambitious goal: "to make a strong case for anyone who studies or otherwise encounters American religion … to see not only how photography was (and is) part of visual and material landscapes but also how this newly mirrored world actively shaped imaginative, intellectual, political, and theological worlds" (6). In trying to gather together all of these threads, the readability of the text suffers. There are often two distinct voices present: that of an ethnographer and that of a journalist. Chapters tend to begin with a narrative, journalistic tone that captures the imagination without sacrificing the depth and weight of Lindsey's ideas. However, these highly narrative sections give way to deep dives into ethnographic theory, written using an "insider's" [End Page 165] style of prose that relies on the familiar (and too often overly dense) jargon of anthropology and sociology. Because they are preceded by such highly narrative and journalistic introductions, these largely theoretical sections feel clunky and create a dissonance that requires some effort on the part of the reader to resolve.
The most successful chapters in A Communion of Shadows are those examining death and mourning photos and alleged "spirit photographs." The aforementioned unevenness is least noticeable here, where the author achieves a synthesis of idea and prose that is seamless. By narrowing her focus and analysis on specific aspects of the intersection of photography and religious life, Lindsey draws the reader into the world she is examining. In these chapters, the feeling of wonder that must have saturated everyday life in the newly photographic world remains palpable even as Lindsey dissects and examines it.
Despite A Communion of Shadows being a unique resource on a largely unexamined facet of American religious experience, there remains some confusion as to the intended audience: Is it the author's intent to present a popular book with serious scholarly chops or a scholarly resource with highly narrative introductions and interludes? It seems a little too much of both, but not enough of either to make an easy answer apparent. Nevertheless, I would encourage those seeking a greater understanding of American religion in the nineteenth century, and perhaps even those interested in photography as an artistic medium with important social dimensions, to read this text. A Communion of Shadows may not be the conclusive tome it aspires to be, but it provides a solid jumping off point for further investigation.