August 19, 2019

‘Sacred Faces’ photos find inspiration in religious imagery

Whether photographing a crucified Christ’s downcast eyes, the serene smile of a Buddha or the grin of a Hindu god, Jewish photographer Andy Romanoff has a way of capturing the ineffable beauty of religious imagery as well as the striking similarities in the iconography of different faiths.

“Why have we all decided to do it this way? Almost from the first moment we know about human beings, we know they make images. And almost as quickly as they can, (they) make images that are of religious significance,” Romanoff said. “So there’s something really powerful here.”

Many of Romanoff’s photographs of sacred images are on display in the Shatto Chapel of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, just west of downtown. The show, titled “Sacred Faces,” includes 30 large prints of Romanoff’s photographs as well as a projection of several hundred more images taken from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism.

Every Sunday morning for seven weeks (continuing through the season of Lent, which ends on Easter Sunday, April 5), Scott Colglazier, senior minister of First Congregational, will preach meditation sermons in the chapel, based on the images. Colglazier said his topics will relate to different aspects of spiritual life, such as gratitude, solitude, suffering and joy.

“These are the different dimensions to this human journey, this spiritual journey, that we’re on,” Colglazier said. “My plan is to use the photograph as a kind of iconic image to help people touch something a little deeper within themselves.”

Icon at St. Marie Madeleine Orthodox church, Warsaw, Poland, Oct. 19, 2014. “We were returning to Warsaw from Stawiski, the town where my mother was born. Just at sunset, we came to a beautiful church at the edge of the road. Our guide, Hubert, asked if I wanted to see it, and when I said yes, he pulled over and took us inside. It was late and the priest was just closing the doors, but when Hubert brought us in and introduced us, he invited me to make pictures, including this one.” 

The project began more than a year ago, when Romanoff walked by a Buddhist temple near his home in Mid-Wilshire. Something compelled him to go inside, where a monk welcomed him.

“There was this beautiful 7- or 8-foot-tall golden, glowing Buddha. A wonderful face. I knew I wanted to take a picture of it. I didn’t have a camera on me,” Romanoff said. “But I knew that that was important.”

The monk offered Romanoff two books on his way out, including one of Korean art. While reading in bed, Romanoff stumbled on a painting that grabbed his attention: a Koryo Buddhist painting titled “15,000 Buddhas.” The image depicts the seated Vairocana Buddha; but on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the entire composition is made up of rows of hand-drawn Buddha faces, each about one-fifth of an inch in diameter. Romanoff was stunned by the level of patience and devotion the painting must have required.

“And in that moment, lying in bed in the middle of the night, I knew what this project was going to be. It was going to be to make thousands of images in this process, and to let them take the shape of the larger thing,” he said.

In the process of creating his “15,000 Buddhas” project, Romanoff traveled to New York and Seattle, and then to Europe, where he took photos of religious imagery in Poland, Hungary, Germany, the Czech Republic, Bratislava, Paris and Amsterdam. 

Shoes along the Danube River, Budapest, Hungary, Oct. 21, 2014. “The place where 20,000 Jews were murdered during World War II. They were brought here, tied together three or four at a time, and then one was shot and pushed into the river…”

Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, where Romanoff is a member, said the two have known each other for more than 25 years. Romanoff shot many of the religious images while on a synagogue trip Rosove organized to Central Europe to explore Jewish life and culture before and after the Holocaust. The rabbi said that while Romanoff’s upbringing was Jewish, he’s “a universalist in his thinking,” seeing bridges between faiths rather than walls.

“Whenever I study other religions, I am clearer; it’s almost like shining a light on my own tradition of Judaism,” Rosove said. “I’ve always seen all of our religious traditions as one color of a rainbow refracted through a prism, on the other side of which is the pure light of God. But each of us is a different color. And God isn’t the color. God is the totality of the color. And in concrete form, this is what he’s doing as well, with imagery.” 

Relatively few of Romanoff’s photographs depict Jewish or Muslim icons, partly because those religions tend to avoid a representational approach to sacred art. Islam prohibits any images of Muhammad, and in Judaism, anything that might be confused with idolatry is prohibited. Romanoff actually approached Rosove with the concern that his photography of sacred objects could be considered idol worshiping.

“And he said, the prohibition is not about seeing idols, it’s not about photographing idols. The prohibition is about making them real, giving them powers that they don’t have,” Romanoff said.

The project has brought Romanoff into sacred spaces of faith traditions that he knew little to nothing about. But rather than undertake extensive research into the religious images he’s photographing, he decided to approach his subjects with an open mind.

“What I wanted to do was to respond very directly to the thing that was in front of me, and to not know what it symbolized,” he said. “And only later, because it’s inevitable, then you learn what it symbolizes. But that wasn’t where I was starting from. Where I was starting from was just to experience it and try to capture my experience in front of it.”

That’s why, he said, each first visit to a church, monastery or other religious place starts with a few minutes of calm, meditative rest, allowing him to absorb the site. Eventually, an icon may draw his eye. He then approaches that object and talks to it, asking for its help to understand what the creator of the object intended — “I know it’s a little crazy,” Romanoff admitted, laughing. Only when he thinks he’s found the right angle, he said, “I pick up the camera and shoot.”

This is Romanoff’s second long-term photo project in recent years. In 2013, he documented all three of the buildings at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, spending six months working there, photographing the art and furniture galleries, the parties and events, and making portraits of the building’s employees and even some dogs that come to work with their owners. More than 200 of these images were featured in an exhibition titled “Seeing the PDC,” which was displayed in the building.

Romanoff, 72, was raised in Chicago and discovered photography as a teenager, photographing weddings and bar mitzvahs, as well as taking pictures on the street. He was a hippie in the 1960s, at one point living on a bus traveling across the United States with former members of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters as a member of the Hog Farm commune. Romanoff went on to have a long career in Hollywood as a camera operator, cinematographer and a specialist operator of remote-control camera equipment. He also owned an equipment rental company and invented some camera technology. He returned to still photography about five years ago.

First Congregational is a fitting setting for this exhibit, as the church often hosts interfaith discussions among religious leaders and places an emphasis on social justice actions that transcend barriers.

“I think all religion is pointing us to this deeper human experience of understanding ourselves and building community within the human family,” Colglazier said. “And so I think there are ways for people to distinctively hold on to their faith and their faith tradition without diminishing it, without watering it down, while at the same time opening one’s self to understand their neighbor. To me, that’s just so important to what it means to be a person of faith.”

Although Romanoff has already produced hundreds of photographs of sacred objects, he said he’s planning more trips to gather additional material.

“I’ve been in eight or nine countries at this point, and I can’t tell you how many churches, monasteries, roadside shrines and more. This is not the end of this project at all. This is the beginning,” Romanoff said. 

“I’m a year in on something that I intend to continue doing for years and years.”

The exhibition “