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The Mysterious Photo Album of a Country Priest

Published in the New York Times December 7, 2003

My parish! The words can't even be spoken without a kind of soaring love. . . . But if only God would open my eyes and unseal my ears, so that I might behold the face of my parish and hear its voice."
So wrote the protagonist of George Bernanos's novel of rural spirituality, "The Diary of a Country Priest." But for the priest who made the photographs in the lovely and mysterious album now on view through Dec. 17 at Charles Nes Gallery in Lower Manhattan, God perhaps did provide a means to open his eyes to his parish.
It was a camera.

"Oui, Mon Pere" presents approximately half of 50 extant photographs made by a Catholic priest (and found among his personal effects after he died a few years ago) in a rural village, perhaps in the Auvergne in central France, around 1950. Most are of girls 4 to 16; one is of a group of boys. From the range of ages, it is possible that all the children were classmates in a one-room school, common in rural France until recently. Many of the children would have been in the priest's catechism class. He knew them all, and they knew him. Whatever he may have been as a curate, as a photographer the priest was a careful and affectionate amateur, experimenting with props, poses, backdrops and even print formats.

Of course, that is not the only way to regard these pictures. When Charles Nes purchased the album last year at a flea market outside Paris, "the dealer was guarded," he said. "He would tell me only where it came from, not where it was made, and I sensed from him that it was vaguely disreputable that a priest would do such a thing."
Since controversy has recently surrounded both photography and the church in matters involving children, it is easy to understand this unease. And any photographic gesture, repeated often enough, begins to look like obsession. Yet the pictures don't tell a story of prurient manipulation. Above all, they reveal how complex a role photography can play, even as a mere hobby practiced in an out-of-the-way village.
The priest experimented with different picture sizes and formats, so it seems likely that these were more than snapshots for an album; they were probably meant to be distributed or at least displayed. The photographs may have been a private indulgence, but they have a public, even ceremonial presence. Nearly all the girls are posed either in dance postures, in half-curtseys or in religious tableaus, dressed in angels' wings and in costumes of the Virgin Mary.

Given the widespread disruption in France after World War II, and the effort to reassert French culture and sovereignty in the face of American and British influence, it's seems possible that the priest was using his camera to uphold community and religious values by documenting local customs and familiar rites of passage. John Merriman, a professor of French history at Yale University, has also suggested that the photos can be seen as an attempt by the priest to strengthen the local credibility of a church whose hierarchy, at least, had been tarnished by its support for the Nazi-backed Vichy government. "The priest could be trying to place himself at or near the center of rebuilding French institutions in the widest sense," Mr. Merriman said.

Unless the subjects — who would now be in their 60's — see these pictures, recognize themselves and come forward with their recollections, we will never know how they came about. But that doesn't detract from their power. Unmoored from their original settings, such vernacular photographs draw us in with tantalizing details even as they withhold the full truth of the moments they represent.

We can see, for example, that this priest had ambitions that went beyond documentation. He knew only the photographic language of the small-town studio, but he clearly tried to elevate, even transform his subjects, even though he used props the way photographers did nearly a century before him, posing the girls with prie-dieus, high-backed chairs and oriental rugs. For some reason, he often wanted them taller, and so he balanced them on a rock or a book. He swapped his costume dresses and wings, often using his models in different situations, sometimes in costume, sometimes not. He was part anthropologist, part yearbook photographer, part aesthete.

And the girls were not only subjects; they make the pictures come alive. Perhaps because the priest knew them all and — if the pictures can be taken as evidence — had a deep affection for them, they engage the camera with a directness and joy that is common in snapshots but so rare in art. The lesson of vernacular photography, of the hundreds of millions of anonymous images that clog scrapbooks and cardboard boxes, is that anyone can take a great picture if the time, place and subject are right and the photographer is truly empathetic.

For all their sweetness, the quality of a deeper attentiveness gives these photographs a special intensity. Most people think of photography as a secular enterprise, born of a mechanical age. But to a priest, it might have been more than that. He was telling a sacred story and encouraging people's participation in it. Enduring long after the priest and even the girls themselves may have vanished, these photographs offer not only the traces of what has visibly passed, but the evidence of things unchanging and unseen.  

Lyle Rexer is writing a book on outsider art, to be published by Harry N. Abrams in 2005.