A photographer's 'sanctuary'

Jason Miccolo Johnson documents worshipers around the country in book

Books

August 06, 2006|By TIESHA HIGGINS | TIESHA HIGGINS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IT WAS JUST A HOBBY WHEN JASON Miccolo Johnson began photographing life within African-American churches in 1995, but Johnson says he always knew the 10-year project would serve as a historical marker of one culture's spiritual experience.

Published this year, Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African American Worship Experience (Bulfinch) is a pictorial documentary book that led Johnson to 200 Christian churches in 25 states, including 13 in Maryland.

"Sooner or later, everybody comes through, comes by or comes around the black church," Johnson says.

His book, whose foreword was written by the late photographer Gordon Parks, includes photographs that document a day in the life of black churches across the country, from preparation for service to the benediction.

Through his lenses, Johnson turns the viewers' attention to overlooked but telling details, such as an elderly man seated on a near-empty pew, along with the more obvious ones, such as the preacher glowing with beads of sweat and gripping the microphone tightly.

"I just wanted to find churches that told the story," Johnson says.

The former newspaper photographer shot all 15,000 images without a flash -- a challenging practice for photographers -- so the texture and tone of skin, and even the pleats in a white skirt, could be captured.

Several of the photographs are a visual version of the call-and-response singing and preaching style popular in many churches.

A two-page spread shows the Rev. Vashti McKenzie preaching from the pulpit at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, while on the opposite page parishioners responded to the message by standing, raising their hands or moving into the aisles.

Each image either has three focal points or is in a group with three connected focal points to represent the trinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, Johnson says.

In photos taken at Ebenezer AME Church, the trinity is represented by the positioning of the choir, pulpit and congregation.

"I wanted people to learn that this book is layered with more than great images," he says. "Everything is a system, nothing is by accident."

Johnson photographed the traditionally popular denominations among blacks such as AME, Baptist and Church of God in Christ.

The stereotypical images of black worshipers passed out on the floor or dancing wildly are nowhere to be found. Johnson says he intentionally left out what he believes are inaccurate and distorted portrayals.

"I wanted to show the balance and maintain the dignity of the worshipers," he says.

The idea for Soul Sanctuary was inspired by a rash of African-American church burnings around the country in the 1990s.

"I felt the urgency to document our most important treasures," says Johnson, who financed the $50,000 project with his own money.

Johnson, who has a studio in Washington, spends most weekends flying city to city for book signings.

His goal is to make Soul Sanctuary a staple of every church library and every preacher's coffee table.

unisun@baltsun.com

JASON MICCOLO JOHNSON

Jason Miccolo Johnson, who is in his 40s, is a native of Memphis, Tenn., and a graduate of Howard University.

His work has been published in more than 15 books, including Songs of My People and Standing in the Need of Prayer and in such magazines as Glamour, Essence, Ebony, Time, Newsweek, Jet and Black Enterprise.

His work is in the permanent collections of the St. Louis Art Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He has worked as a photo editor at USA Today's Sports Weekly and as a production assistant at ABC's Good Morning America.

Johnson will have a book signing during the Baltimore Book Festival in Mount Vernon Place, Sept. 29-Oct. 1.

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Information: visit miccolo.com.

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