Do The Priest in Different Voices
Maury Gortemiller works in Atlanta, Ga. His witty and haunting work brings into focus the miracle in the mundane. Newfound was blessed with the opportunity to ask about his powerful series, “Do The Priest in Different Voices.”
Deflating an object of reverence for so many is a curious enterprise. My aim is to produce a new variety of mundane idol worth: not worshipping, but attention.
DANIEL LEVIS KELTNER: In your statement of purpose for “Do The Priest in Different Voices,” you comment that the images from your family bible possessed more power than the “Word of God.” This seems to posit that religion is a visual language at least as much as a verbal one. To what extent does this series intersect religion—is the work critique? Reinvention? Devotion?
MAURY GORTEMILLER: The making of the photographs—and my consideration of them—is my own personal and artistic grappling with this very issue perhaps. The series is partly intended as critique—a reproach to organized religion as a tool to disenfranchise persons. This is not commented upon explicitly, but rather in the irreverent depiction of icons. I like to think that I am reinventing certain symbols as a way of recasting the familiar into new contexts. Deflating an object of reverence for so many is a curious enterprise. My aim is to produce a new variety of mundane idol worth: not worshipping, but attention.
KELTNER: You use words to lend meaning to several photos in the series. The text in “Hall of Ology” comes to mind as being inseparable from the stark almost morbid impact of the image. What are your principles on using words as a conceptual photographer?
GORTEMILLER: Images that incorporate text can be very slippery. Often the text ‘becomes’ the image, or at least accounts for a considerable part of the thrust of the photograph. This works to my favor in “Hall of Ology.” The scene occurred in a disused portion of a natural science museum that was undergoing renovation. The indicated branch of study is indeterminate, leaving only “ology,” which in this case refers to the study of a particular subject. Similarly, what lies beneath the fabric is also unknown. This image references the continuing cultural clashes between religion and science, and the fabric serves as both screen and shroud.
KELTNER: One aspect of “Do The Priest in Different Voices” that I appreciate is its variation in materials and (apparent) complexity of composition. For instance, the found-object feel of “Smoke of the Anger” versus high-production images, such as “Star Gate Sequence.” What was your process in terms of developing and shooting this work?
GORTEMILLER: In terms of process, this series started in relation to my desire to work with staged or studio-based imagery. Much of my other work is produced by carrying cameras with me and responding visually to what I see. Here I wanted to work almost solely with constructed images. Most images are either optically staged before the lens, or are digitally altered in post-production. Often there’s a blend of the two processes.
I prefer that my images ‘hover’ between the two approaches. Many of the choreographed images are intended to appear spontaneous, and at times the spontaneous images appear calculated. The history of photography is littered with discussions as to the proper use of the medium as either a scientific device or an expressive tool. While neither approach is wholly accurate, I like to foreground subtly this issue in most of my work (“How was this created?” “Is this image digitally altered?”) I’m always happy to speak about any aspect of my work, but often I’d rather that viewers who are so inclined continue to ponder issues of process without any resolution on my part.
“Star Gate Sequence” refers to a particular portion of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” After disconnecting HAL, Dr. Bowman takes a trip through deep space after reaching the strange monolith orbiting Jupiter. Racing at great speed across vast distances of space, viewing bizarre cosmological phenomena, Bowman is noticeably stunned at what he’s experiencing.
I’m deliberately echoing the aesthetics of that scene in which a scientist undertakes a literal, transformative journey regarding our origin and destiny. The harrowing, ghoulish expressions upon his helmeted face have always resonated with me. This photograph was taken with the camera looking into a slide projector placed a few feet off a carpeted floor. The slide depicts a traditional TV test pattern.
KELTNER: This series has a number of recurring visual motifs: shrouded forms, dismembered body parts, shining lights. To what degree are these motifs a product of religious iconography or original to the work?
GORTEMILLER: I include both recognizable and more ambiguous motifs, and some of these have a personal connection as well. The cross in “Kraft Singles” is an obvious symbol, as is the detail from Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” Slightly less recognizable, perhaps for some, is the specific form of the Divine Mercy image of Christ. The painting depicts the vision of Saint Faustina Kowalska, in which two beams of light emanate from the lance wound in Christ’s chest. That information is not necessary to have a connection with the image of course. The narrative is part of the photograph; however, I’m more interested in how the spatial depth suggested by the lines of the road and the utility cable echo the rays of light. The converging lines on the left transport the eye into the imagined space of the image, and the light rays bring the eye back to the surface.
I’m very much interested in and enjoying “the search.” It strikes me as a satisfying and worthwhile use of one’s time and sanity.
KELTNER: Did embarking on a project that explores religious imagery reveal any mysteries or insights to which you were previously unaware? I’m thinking of the line from “Amazing Grace”: “I once was blind, but now I see.”
GORTEMILLER: Not necessarily—or I should perhaps say not yet—but this is a very personal project about discovery. I’m interested in the possibility of coming to terms with experience in a way that has little to do with science or organized religion or conventional notions of western spirituality. And I’m very much interested in and enjoying “the search.” It strikes me as a satisfying and worthwhile use of one’s time and sanity. And of course if I were not searching, or if I was more … fulfilled at present, then the images would not exist.
KELTNER: Which image holds the most personal significance and why?
GORTEMILLER: Probably “The Pity.” The shoot took place outside of a large subdivision at the northwest edge of the Houston, Texas, metro area. This is where development yields to coastal prairie, and pastures lie beneath airplanes tracking to Bush Intercontinental Airport. The long uninterrupted stretches of asphalt invite some motorists to drive with abandon. At times the depicted road is littered with animal carcasses, perhaps the victims of car collisions or discarded by hunters.
The image is a re-imagining of the Pieta form. The objects include a gold tablecloth, a large stuffed animal (rabbit), light stand and finally a mobile basketball goal. The post of the latter was adjusted to an extreme angle and telescoped as far as possible. I wished to emphasize a triangular shape and the billowing drapery of Mary’s attire.
While this image has a decidedly fantastical approach, I locate a symbol of suffering and hope for so many in a quiet and particularly unspectacular setting. The golden form is only a tablecloth of course, but it’s informed by the wind in such a way that suggests an otherness appearing nowhere. For me the shape courts notions of divination and prophecy. I’m interested in the possibility of omens and portents, not to predict the future or ensure success, but more simply as an alternate way of knowing and ordering experience.
Daniel Levis Keltner, Managing Editor