A theologian. With a camera. Exploring nature. In Chicago.
Those four elements introduce intriguing possibilities. I know, because I am that theologian-photographer who made photographs in Chicago.
I say I “make” photographs. Good photography often results when a photographer works from a vision and uses a camera to portray an intriguing subject. Good photography is art.
I don’t “take” photographs. “Take” sounds like I just happened to click the shutter at an opportune time. Good photographs are rarely the product of happenstance; they reflect a vison, photographic skills, and intentional experience.
How I think God acts in the world also influences the vision that I, as theologian-photographer, bring to my visual art. In my opinion, God is an invisible, omnipresent Spirit whose presence a digital camera’s pixels cannot directly capture. It’s pretty difficult to photography that which is incapable of being seen. But my theology can still inspire my photography.
I think God is a creative cause in every moment of creation’s history. I also think creation plays a co-creative role in making the world what it is. Creaturely co-creating is uniquely expressed in urban areas. Consequently, my theology prompts me to wonder how and how well Chicago’s various creatures cooperate with their Creator.
Walking the streets, paths, and out-of-the-way places in Chicago has raised new questions for me as theologian-photographer. It has altered my vision and prompted new ideas.
For instance, I know that birds create nests. Other creatures also act creatively. Among all creatures, humans possess highly advanced creative capacities. As I see it, God inspires and empowers all creatures in their creating.
So I wonder, how well do creatures cooperate with God’s working for a better world? In particular, are humans cooperating well or poorly with God in their urban co-creating?
I’ve noticed Chicago animals adapting to human creativity. I’ve found plants retaking neglected city lots. In some cases, this symbiotic relationship seems to be working. But I wonder, Is human creating helping or hindering God’s diverse creatures?
Wild Nature and Natural Humans
One highlight for me was the afternoon I made photos of plants growing on the edges of Chicago’s Northerly Park. The area was formerly an airstrip. It is now partly re-landscaped to create a managed habitat for native plants and birds.
A sliver of land near the Northerly Park, however, is yet to be developed. Some of the “weeds” in that land grow as high as my shoulders. Diverse and beautiful plants burst from this unmanaged strip of soil, watered well by nearby Lake Michigan. The downtown Chicago skyline looms less than a mile away.
Meandering in this undeveloped land, I worked my camera to capture a vision emerging in my mind. I tried to re-present well the juxtaposition of wild, unplanned nature before me and the impressive human craftsmanship in the distance. Wildflowers in the foreground, an architectural silhouette behind.
As I see it, both unplanned and planned elements can express beauty. Both types of creatures – intelligent agents and nonintelligent organisms — respond to their Creator. The photo attached to this essay is the result of my artistic imagination that day.
Lea’s Wild Sparrows
My experience as a photographer-theologian was made possible by Lea Schweitz, a professor at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Lea is also director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. She has a grant in the Enhancing Life in the City project, and she provided the resources to make my time in Chicago possible.
Lea explores spirituality and nature in the city. She’s interested in how we experience nature – in various forms – in Chicago and other urban areas. To learn more about her project, visit her website: wildsparrows.com
Before photographing in Chicago, most of my experience as a theologian-photographer has been in the open places of the northwest. (See one of my photo books here.) But making photos in Chicago has provoked new thoughts in me about God and nature in urban spaces.
My perspectives on making photos, on God as Creator, and on created co-creating creation have expanded.
Tom, your first subtitle caught my attention, since I had noticed on Facebook that you would share a photo and call it “a photo I made.” I wondered what you meant by that. I think your expanded perspective on “created co-creating creation” has the potential to help us move beyond “creation care” done out of duty and guilt (often leading to anger) and embrace the joyful perspective of cooperating with our loving, re-creating, always-seeing-multitudes-of-possibilities Creator. Thank you.
Hi Tom. I love your work. You definitely have the gift of a “photographer’s eye”. I grew up very isolated in the country and became infused with nature’s “power and presence” in all its many forms from the rolling thunders to the whispering breeze. Lately I’ve become involved in political policy affecting land, water, air, energy, and good earth practices in both urban and rural areas. I might encourage you in your work to keep presenting the presence of God in nature through your gifts through this medium of art that your are so talented in, that it might continue to encourage the presence of the land and its connection to our souls. I think of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, even the poets like Walt Whitman, who found connection with God through the “ground” of His being. Preservation is a large part of this work as civilization continues its sprawl across all forms of land as we re-teach ourselves how to live by leaving a “smaller footprint” of existence through good sustainability practices. Any art which promotes God’s creation re-visualizes for humanity its connection and responsibility to become good stewards. It is a pleasure to know yet one more soul beats with vision and love.
Beautiful, Tom. Thanks for sharing!
I love the juxtaposition of wild/nurtured nature and wild/nurtured city.