Last week, as part of my research for a sermon on Seeing Again, I visited a Yousuf Karsh photography exhibit at the Glenbow Museum. I have always loved this famous Canadian’s eye. He has a great gift for capturing the essence of his subjects. And his dramatic use of light and shadow is compelling. But what struck me during this visit was the impact of his words. Along side each famous photo were words that identified the content and context of the image. Many of the images I saw that day were of people I did not know. So while the protrait might have conveyed strong emotion, truth or beauty, I really had no idea what I was looking at; until I read the words. Then a great ‘aha’ would come over me, “of course that is what I’m looking at!”
On Sunday (in my sermon) I decided to take the congregation through some of the same ‘aha’s’ I’d experienced. I prefaced the first photograph of Jean Sibelius with these words, ““IMAGE only made sense when it had WORD beside it… We can only see when the WORD is beside us, it’s truth within us…” (nudge, nudge) Then up popped up the portrait of famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius…. and I paused for fifteen seconds. Nice photo, interesting facial expression, but no one really knew what they were looking at. Then I told them that this photo was taken the moment after Sibelius had been told that the playing of his most famous composition Finlandia ( a piece that captured the national struggle of the Finnish people against the Russian Empire) would double the wartime efforts and production of Finnish workers in Canadian wartime logging camps when it was played. Then the portrait came alive… the beautiful sense of pride that one feels when one’s work so compellingly enlivens the work of others. That ‘catch your breath’ kind of moment that an artist feels when the power of his creation reaches and inspires another.
Then I connected that sentiment of that portrait to the heart of God. Surely God feels the same way when we are awakened by the melodious movements of his Spirit. Surely God takes great pride and joy when his compositions do what they are meant to do, capable of doing. Then we just sat there taking in the image for a second or two; Word bringing content and context and light to sight in such a powerful way.
Then we did the same with two more Karsh images (Kriesler and Keller). And the thought hit me, “You could write an entire book on how this Word enlightening Image phenomenon plays out.” Other images from my past come to mind; a WW2 picture of Indian sailors in their life boat, the last time any of them is ever seen alive, the fact of immanent death bringing profound gravity to the gift of life, it’s frail brevity, and the viewer coming to see, for just a second, all of life the way God does. “If they only knew what lay ahead”. The unknown future of what we see, bringing timely truth to present reality. And that’ s only one way words illumine image. There must be a thousand ways this happens. Words adding information about a preceding event, an emotion, a distracting circumstance, a detail about the setting, the presence of someone else off stage, a certain time of day, mood, health… (and now I run over to my bookshelf and pull my Karsh book off of the shelf in order to discover some more contextual categories)… relationship (Estrellita, Karsh’s wife)… social standing (Governor General of Canada)… loves (Lady Clark with her dog Angus)… training, education and passions (Designer Johan Helders)… There are over 200 images in this book!
To me each of these different ‘ways’ that Word enlightens Image points to a different way that the Word (God beside us, Christ in us, The Spirit all around us) can bring light to what we’re seeing. On Sunday we sang a song that speaks of the whole world being filled with God’s glory. The opening premise of my sermon was that we are all more blind than we know. How I would love to spend a month with Karsh’s works so that I could learn to see you more oh Lord.