A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America

A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America

A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America

A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America


When the revolutionary technology of photography erupted in American culture in 1839, it swiftly became, in the day's parlance, a "mania." This richly illustrated book positions vernacular photography at the center of the study of nineteenth-century American religious life. As an empirical tool, photography captured many of the signal scenes of American life, from the gold rush to the bloody battlefields of the Civil War. But photographs did not simply display neutral records of people, places, and things; rather, commonplace photographs became inscribed with spiritual meaning, disclosing, not merely signifying, a power that lay beyond.

Rachel McBride Lindsey demonstrates that what people beheld when they looked at a photograph had as much to do with what lay outside the frame--theological expectations, for example--as with what the camera had recorded. Whether studio portraits tucked into Bibles, postmortem portraits with locks of hair attached, "spirit" photography, stereographs of the Holy Land, or magic lanterns used in biblical instruction, photographs were curated, beheld, displayed, and valued as physical artifacts that functioned both as relics and as icons of religious practice. Lindsey's interpretation of "vernacular" as an analytic introduces a way to consider anew the cultural, social, and material reach of religion.

A multimedia collaboration with MAVCOR--Center for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion--at Yale University.


Walter Jones was twenty- two years old when he enlisted in Company C of the 8th New York Calvary in the sizzle of late August 1862. As he put his affairs in order and packed the few belongings that he would take with him— a book or two, perhaps, some writing paper, and maybe a small likeness of his wife, Lola—his stepmother, Lucy, gave him a small New Testament to carry with him throughout his service. and like thousands of other recruits, wealthy and poor, black and white, North and South, the young farmer with piercing blue eyes also sat for a photographer. in his enlistment portrait, Private Jones sits in front of a painted background of the Union standard waving above his left shoulder, legs crossed, clasping his left fist around the hilt of his saber and resting his right hand on his right knee (fig. 1). Although he could not have known it at the time, the Testament and the portrait would together become relics in an unfolding narrative of providence.

In the early summer of 1840, Walter Godfrey Jones had been born into a newly mirrored world. the previous September, news from Europe had arrived in American harbors detailing a newly successful technique for securing “images from life.” Although the eponymous technique attributed to the French painter Louis J. M. Daguerre was not the only method of securing such images at the time, it quickly became the most commercially viable in the United States. Daguerre’s method utilized a careful alchemy of chemical solutions to fix single- exposure, inverted images on polished plates of silvered copper and resulted in highly reflective images that were so sensitive to touch that they had to be preserved in a protective casing. By the time war broke out in 1861, the daguerreotype had been succeeded by other photographic techniques in the United States, including ambrotypes (images on . . .

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