A Communion of Shadows

Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America

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Rachel McBride Lindsey
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Even after the initial shock of daguerreotype and its magical connotations waned, photography continued to offer religious consumers novel ways of engaging death, time, and embodiment. In Communion of Shadows, Rachel McBride Lindsey skillfully traces developments—primarily in the late nineteenth century—that contributed to this largely neglected aspect of religious media culture. Lindsey’s source material is expansive. The book itself contains over fifty images, but the source material spills out of the book into a digital database of over one hundred additional images, viewable at the MAVCOR Journal website. In a refreshing way, the book treats this rich photographic collection as concrete material objects that were once beheld with particular, and often religiously inflected, techniques.

Lindsey christens the nexus of photography and religious beholding “a communion of shadows.” Although similar to the concept of the communion of saints, Lindsey seeks to anchor the communion of shadows in material objects and the practices they conditioned, including mourning, exalting genealogies, investigating, imagining, and bridging space and time. Under the rubric of “beholding,” Lindsey is less concerned with biological vision, but rather the “fuzzy mechanics of perception, recognition, and imagination” that accompany the act of viewing images (7). Beholding was often a means of seeing through an image. It was looking for and seeing deeper truths not initially recognizable. This mode of attention helped photography with a religious valence to traffic both “presence” and experience.

Lindsey deliberately focuses on vernacular photographs that have garnered less attention in histories of religion. The focus on portraits, mourning pictures, spirit photographs, halftone reproductions in print, and stereographs keeps Lindsay’s analysis close to the end users who consumed and cherished the artifacts rather than the technicians or artists who created them. This approach is both illuminating and needed. Because of the occasional lack of sources from individual beholders, some of Lindsey’s attempts to reconstruct the communion of shadows are less convincing than others. But the overall argument and her theoretical rigor allow Lindsey’s analysis of neglected photographic media and their conditioned uses to shine once again and illuminate new paths in the study of religion, media, and history.

By approaching the topic from various genres of source material, the book has a montage effect. Chapters complement each other, while progressing into new terrain. Chapter 1 expands the work of Paul Gutjahr and Colleen McDannell to show how portrait galleries in family bibles provided an opportunity for beholders to shoehorn race and nation into sacred history. The chapter hinges on the loaded term of likeness. If external appearances signaled interior characteristics (divine, racial, national, etc.), then portraiture included in family bibles did important cultural work to construct and maintain proper genealogies, while integrating them into biblical pasts.

The second chapter treats mourning photographs of the dead and the significance of corporeality. Lindsey argues that hairwork and photography helped signal presence and create modes of beholding to cope with loss, death, and the absent body of loved ones. When rendered properly, these likenesses could promise glory and redemption. But some images also claimed to capture spectral figures just beyond human sight. The third chapter uses detailed analysis of William Mumler’s spirit photography and trial to suggest the ways photography charged the practices and expectation of beholding. If those beyond the veil of mortality were perceptible to sensitized technologies, then both religious and Spiritualist beliefs could be challenged or supported. It was precisely the possibility for belief and investigation that allowed spirit photography to haunt the communion of shadows.

The last two chapters work nicely as a pair. Chapter 4 examines halftone photography of Palestine. By utilizing recent developments in mechanical reproduction, halftones could print and spread images of the Holy Land that both ethnographically documented the area and people, while simultaneously inviting a practice of beholding that mapped the images onto an imagined biblical past. This was possible through tendentious commentary and photography meant to flatten time by emphasizing the continuity between the biblical past and the Palestinian present. Lindsey skillfully connects the colonial impetus with the devotional function of James W. Lee, Robert E. M. Bain, and John H. Vincent’s 1894 tour that captured (through pen and camera) the locations of The Earthly Footsteps of the Man of Galilee, as the published photographic views were titled. Discourses and modes of gazing became complementary in novel combinations that suffused religious engagement with photography and invited viewers to look beyond the contemporary to the real essence of the image: the material environment of Jesus.

The promise of virtual entrance into the biblical imaginary via Palestine only heightened with the utilization of stereography. Lindsey argues that the effect of three-dimensional photographs of the Holy Land was in the eye of the beholder and allowed for a presence and experience beyond the senses. When stereographic producers claimed their images were superior to single photographs and that they made the biblical past experiential and the holy sites present it was a technological argument. And unlike actual travel or the land itself, which one cannot keep materially with them, stereographs highlighted the power of mediated religious experience at one’s fingertips. In some practical ways, the mediated stereographic image was better than the real thing. Lindsey’s chapters all seem to pay off here when her analysis of stereography’s role in ushering beholders into the biblical past builds on the premises of the previous chapters to a persuasive and insightful climax.

Although Lindsey might word it differently, Communion of Shadows helps document the technologization of religious practice. If readers behold its chapters as earlier viewers beheld photos, the book captures lived religion becoming increasingly intertwined with photographic media practices, which required renewed navigation, engendering all manner of odd, surprising, syncretic, and modern modes of beholding.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mason Kamana Allred is a Historian and Editor at the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Date of Review: 
December 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rachel McBride Lindsey is assistant professor of American religious history and culture in the department of theological studies at Saint Louis University.


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