Three books on visual images in the history of the Church [2]

Review

Contents

WILLIAM W. SLAUGHTER. Life in Zion: An Intimate Look at the Latter-day Saints, 1820–1995. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995. x; 196 pp. $24.95.

EPICENTER COMMUNICATIONS and MATTHEW NAYTHONS, comps. The Mission: Inside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. New York: Warner Books, 1995. 226 pp. $49.95.

RICHARD G. OMAN and ROBERT O. DAVIS. Images of Faith: Art of the Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995. xii; 202 pp. $49.95.

One does not have to read E. H. Gombrich on art and illusion1 to realize that any picture is inevitably a choice: the photographer or painter chooses what goes within the frame and, beyond that, chooses what to highlight—the expression on human faces, even the time of day, light and darkness. And the artist also chooses from a range of stylistic possibilities, including a kind of photographic realism, impressionism, expressionism, various symbolic and fantasy combinations, and of course different degrees of abstraction. When visual works are compiled into a book or an exhibit, drawing from a large pool of potential candidates, again there is selection.

I

Why William W. Slaughter chose the particular photographs in his Life in Zion is not always clear. A certain number of these photographs appear in print for the first time, while others are already familiar. But almost all of the pictures deserve more than a quick look. Not only do these historical photographs show how certain individuals appeared at different dates, but also by applying intensive examination known as photoanalysis, we can discover valuable information and ask many questions. One can imagine an enjoyable hour as two or more people examine picture after picture, saying, “Look at this . . . and this.” Why is one woman holding a basket over her head and another an umbrella at Plymouth, England, in 1863? (45). Do the linked arms and hands on shoulders in the famous group portrait of “The Big Ten,” some of Brigham Young’s daughters, indicate genuine affection and solidarity between these prominent young women? (47). If so, does the same stance depict unity between the males of American Fork’s brass band? (49).

The photograph showing the funeral cortege of Wilford Woodruff in 1898 reveals telephone poles in the middle of South Temple Street, still a dirt road, and a trolley car but of course not a single automobile (97). A wonderful photograph of a wagon train at Hams Fork in 1900 reminds us that pioneering continued long after 1847 and even long after the coming of the railroad in 1869 (102).

Pictures of individuals and groups abound: missionaries and their wives in Japan (106); Ella Wheeler Wilcox meeting with Mormon women (109); a group at Old Folks Day in American Fork, with Ebenezer Beesley holding his violin (110); missionary Spencer W. Kimball bathing his tired feet (126); Church leaders and their families bathing in the Great Salt Lake (129); President Heber J. Grant at the 1922 inauguration of radio station KZN (130); missionary Gordon B. Hinckley in the British Mission (142). And on and on. One of the last pictures shows a group of Primary children in Sierra Leone, West Africa. This is a photo album not just for a family, but for the entire Church.

One thing I look for in such a book is documentation of the individual works. Who was the photographer? Which repository has the picture? The regrettable editorial decision of placing this information in small type at the back of the book means that the photographer will get no credit in the eyes of most readers.

My other regret may have as much to do with the original photography as with the reproduction in the present work. Several of the photographs seem too hazy or too small for adequately seeing what is there. Serious readers may wish to have a good magnifying glass on hand. In any case, they will be well rewarded.

II

With The Mission, the question of documentation does not arise. The forty-one photographers are identified at the back of the book, and captions give proper credit for the individual photographs. If this is history in the sense that the events photographed are past, it is contemporary history, for the photographs are so recent as to be thought of as the present. From Slaughter’s survey, more than half of which focuses on the nineteenth century, we shift to the 1990s.

And so we see a baptism in Alaska (8–11), sixteen-year-old Brittany Fairclough receiving a father’s blessing (16), and Mejkin Legler writing in her journal (17). A magnifying glass enables us to read Mejkin’s reminder in the frame of her mirror: “Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now.” We see dancing in Perth, Australia (20–21); Native American Mormons on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation (24–25); a pedicab driver in the Philippines (26); the rodeo club at Ricks College (50–51); ballroom dancing at BYU (55). Samoa, Flat Island, Ireland (the “Stormin’ Mormon” middleweight boxer, Ray Close [32–33]), the Dominican Republic—the geographical jumps are wide and unpredictable, but somehow all of the images reflect a common faith.

Death is not left out. We look in on the funeral of a young father in Utah (64–65) and the death of a young black convert, determined to spend his final months as a missionary (66–67). Family history research and records, general conference, pageants at Cumorah and Castle Valley, workers on welfare projects—the reader is treated to Church members engaged in quite a number of activities.

The importance of ordinances in the lives of Latter-day Saints is shown by touching pictures of baptism, blessing of children, and the sacrament. Temples are captured from the outside, showing the excitement of weddings. An unforgettable picture shows a line of Filipino youths dressed in white, waiting patiently to perform baptisms for the dead (118).

Humanitarian activities are represented by pictures showing Relief Society service, welfare projects, doctors performing surgery in China (166–67), an English Relief Society president and her overland van journey to take supplies to Croatia (168–73), and the prison ministry of Bishop Heber Geurts (152–55).

Missionaries are shown preparing at the Missionary Training Center, saying good-bye, then laboring in Russia, Thailand, the Philippines, Poland, Belize, Australia, Hong Kong, the Dominican Republic, Japan—and the Bronx.

These pictures are all positive. I like that. We have enough of the other. The purpose here is to catch the spirit of the religion: its goodness, its multifacetedness, its international character.

It is not, I think, a criticism to recognize that the diversity and complexity of Mormon life are so great that they simply cannot be captured photographically in a single work. And it is fair to recognize that many world settings are not represented in this book. France. Chile. Malta. Polynesia. Haiti. Fiji. Siberia. Zaire. Papua New Guinea. These and many other places where members live and missionaries labor are not represented. But The Mission does convey the important fact that Mormonism is not limited to the white Anglo-Saxon visage of Utah. I wish we could see young missionaries coming out of their training in India or Brazil. And the missionaries shown in their fields of labor, practically all Americans it seems, should have been supplemented by a few showing young Filipinos, Mexicans, Indonesians, or Nigerians laboring together. We do see blond Elder Albert Kemp of Kansas City, Missouri, and his Black companion Elder Prince Henry Omondi as they preach the gospel in Kenya (208–9). One book simply cannot do it all.

Especially interesting is the epilogue, “Images of Faith” by Roger Rosenblatt (215–17), well known as a contributing editor of Time magazine and frequent commentator on public television. Rosenblatt does not discuss the individual pictures but is marvelously insightful and willing to recognize good in Mormons. How refreshing! It seems that a key player in influencing Rosenblatt was a high-school English teacher by the name of Jon Beck Shank, a Mormon and a poet. Rosenblatt tells how he, obviously a precocious and educable young man, drank in the words of Shank, a gifted and inspiring teacher.

This I can well believe, for I knew Shank. In fact, Jon and I were friends at Brigham Young University during the school year 1949–50 and collaborated on a prize-winning varsity show; he wrote the script and the lyrics, while I composed the music. I later lost track of him. It is satisfying to learn that his New York City students knew he was a Latter-day Saint. Of course, if they studied his marvelous little book Poems, published by Knopf in 1945, they could not fail to notice references to the Book of Mormon. At least one young student in Shank’s classroom, Rosenblatt, was so touched that many years later he can tell us that “what matters most in these images are the things unseen; and what is most real is the life that is guessed at” (217).

And no one, I think, will fail to be moved by President Gordon B. Hinckley’s introduction, entitled “Why Am I a Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” (1–4). Explaining that his faith is much more than a matter of inheritance, he goes on to give nine carefully selected articles on his personal faith, all beginning with “I believe.” This is a beautiful, open-ended statement to the world.

The Mission—with Rosenblatt’s essay; the superior photography, often showing unusual angles; and Walker’s captions—is a poignant and delightful showing of the Church in the lives of the people today.

Before I leave photographs, it would be a shame not to recall Something Extraordinary: Celebrating Our Relief Society Sisterhood (Deseret Book, 1992), which might well be regarded as an earlier companion volume to The Mission. Also showing the contemporary Church, it captures the great variety of women’s activities throughout the world. Its photographs, identified in microscopic print by country and photographer, cry out for adequate captions. Even so, it is a delight.

III

Images of Faith: Art of the Latter-Day Saints is a team project of the staff of the Museum of Church History and Art. The preliminary selection from the Museum’s collection was made by Richard G. Oman and Robert O. Davis, who also prepared the text, but a dozen or so other staff members and docents assisted in the selection. In a preliminary statement, Museum director Glen M. Leonard is careful to acknowledge that “many important Latter-day Saint artists are not represented” in the Museum’s collection (xi). Likewise, many artists whose works are in the Museum’s holdings could not be included because of space limitations. Again, selection is basic to what we see on the page as representative of Church art.

Nonphotographic art and crafts are the focus: furniture, ceramics, quilts, wood carvings, sculpture, and especially painting. As in Mormon history and Mormon literature, one has to decide whether it is the Mormon producer or the Mormon subject that determines inclusion. It is not entirely clear to me why LeConte Stewart’s painting Private Car (1937), for example, is Mormon art. Would a history of the Crusades by a Mormon historian be Mormon history? Still, a generous definition is probably preferable to a narrow one, and we can enjoy the works here compiled.

The photographic reproduction is superior. The textual accompaniment is precise and professional: title, artist, medium, size of the work, and location are all given. Knowing the attraction of pictures and the aversion of many people to reading the printed word, I am not sanguine that the text by Oman and Davis will be properly appreciated. But their comments and insights deserve praise.

The use of painting and sculpture in the Mormon artistic tradition began surprisingly early. Both individual and group portraits are numerous, some few of them originating during the Nauvoo period. During the second half of the century, romantic landscapes were being produced by George Beard, H. L. A. Culmer, John Tullidge, and Reuben Kirkham. The marvelous C. C. A. Christensen painted many historical scenes, and Danquart A. Weggeland did portraits and genre scenes. George M. Ottinger, an underappreciated Renaissance man of the territorial period, depicted Chimney Rock at sunrise and the arrival of the Mormon Battalion at Carrizo Creek. With all of the arduous toil required to settle a wilderness, it seems some Mormons found space in their lives for the appreciation of artistic beauty.

Robert O. Davis gives us a lovely chapter on “The Impact of French Training on Latter-day Saint Art, 1890–1925.” The label is too simple for this fertile thirty-five year period, but the influence of study in France was doubtless strong on Edwin Evans, James T. Harwood, J. Leo Fairbanks, Herman H. Haag, John Hafen, and others. Gifted sculptors Cyrus E. Dallin and Mahonri M. Young, not forgetting their Utah roots, created memorable works, such as the eloquent panel “Deliverance” on the Seagull Monument by Young.

“Developing a Regional Latter-day Saint Art, 1925–1965” becomes the theme of the next chapter, with such artists as Minerva K. Teichert, Edward Grigware, LeConte Stewart, and the prolific sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks. Maynard Dixon’s vivid The Hand of God, a good selection from LeConte Stewart, four of Arnold Friberg’s narrative images, Richard Burde’s emotionally gripping Return of the Prodigal Son, and Mabel Frazer’s strongly conceived The Furrow are all here to enjoy, not to mention many individual portraits. I mention these only to give some idea of the richness of Images of Faith.

Most exciting in many ways is the section entitled “Contemporary Latter-day Saint Art, 1965–1995.” Many of these works evoke strong emotions in me, and I am sure they will in many others. The gospel is for every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, and talented artists are found in many places and cultures. Consider Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life as conveyed by Juan Escobedo, Robert Yellowhair, Victor de la Torre (wood carving), Harrison Begay Jr. (blackware pottery), and Tammy Garcia (fired clay).

Henri-Robert Bresil’s Baptizing in the Waters of Mormon and Ljiljana Crnogaj Fulepp’s Early Morning Baptism near Belgrade capture something that evades even the skilled photographers of The Mission. And for simple depth and reverence it will be hard to surpass Thomas Polacca’s The Faithful History of Tom Polacca, a ceramic. A photograph, however excellent, is of course inadequate for the full appreciation of such a three-dimensional work. It may be useful to remind ourselves that photographs of paintings are also inadequate, offering a diminished experience. Diminished, but still quite good. One hopes that more than a few who come across this book will “hie” to the Church museum “in the twinkling of an eye.”

It would be both undiscriminating and unconvincing to maintain that all Mormon art is meritorious. But it is more vital and diverse than most people realize. This book does what a book can—instructs and shows much of the best of the artistic production within the Mormon community.

All three of these books are selective, but, come to think of it, so is life as we individually experience and remember it.

 

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About the author(s)

Davis Bitton is Professor Emeritus of History, University of Utah.

Notes

1. Ernst Hans Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (New York: Pantheon, 1960).

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