Douglas Gilbert has had a long and distinguished career as an artist-photographer, first as a staff photographer for LOOK magazine during the 1960’s, then as a professor of photography in the newly established art department at Wheaton College, and then as an independent professional photographer—becoming a licensed therapist along the way. He has published four books of photographs with text by co-authors. Three evoke the worlds of the authors Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C. S. Lewis, and Flannery O’Connor. The most recent one brings to the light of day for the first time the historic set of photographs Douglas took of the budding young musician named Bob Dylan, when both Dylan and Gilbert were 21 years old. Fascinated by Italy, Douglas has sojourned here many times. The Studio for Art, Faith & History has hosted four shows of his work. The photographs featured here come from his most recent exhibitions, entitled Italian Light and Light from Light. Much of Gilbert's photographic work can be viewed on his website.
I began photographing the light in Italy in 1999 while visiting John and Susan Skillen in Orvieto. I was not prepared for the power of my response to what I found while in Italy. Since that first experience, my wife and I have returned six times. With each succeeding visit my fascination with Italian Light has grown.
No matter where I’ve traveled in Italy – hilltown or city, rural landscape or seaside – I’ve experienced the light as a powerful presence. Italian light is both strong and revealing in highlight and shadow. I can look into the shadows and see detail, color, gradations of gray, unlike anywhere else I have been. It is no surprise that artists have gone to paint in that light for hundreds of years as part of their essential artistic education.
Light is essential to the photographer’s art, revealing the world in ever-changing configurations. Light draws the forms on the film and sets the shadows dancing in the frame. Italian light is especially bold and assertive, taking charge of the photographer’s “canvas” and challenging him to discover and order what is before him. It can whisper or shout, glow ethereally or push its way to the front of the stage. This dance of light and shadow, both physical and compositional elements, defines space and creates moving, changing environments.
A more recent body of work – entitled Light from Light from the phrase in the Nicene Creed – is inspired by my experience of light’s real presence in churches and abbeys. Light, for me, is a powerful part of creation and is redolent with theological implications. Light was the first thing created by God (Genesis 1) and He pronounced it “good.” God is light (I John 1:5) and light is one of the attributes of God. Light, literally and metaphorically, holds the presence of God mysteriously—it is incarnational. It is God’s presence, but it is not God.
The churches in Italy where these photographs were made were designed for the worship and adoration of God, and included windows through which natural light would move through the church interior during the daylight hours illuminating, revealing and emphasizing the forms.
The stained glass windows, paintings and sculptured forms were the means used to both educate and inspire. Natural light would move through the church interior during the daylight hours illuminating, revealing and emphasizing the forms.
Light bursts through windows, unstoppable and glowing. A diagonal fire of light dances on a wall near ancient columns which call to the unwary visitor to look and see.
An ancient abbey with a light-filled apse, a spare altar covered with white linen watched over by a crucified Christ whose sacramental presence will be gratefully received at Eucharistic celebrations.
A sun-drenched corner of altar steps with a modest palm branch to the right, reminding the viewer of its significance in the Great Story.
And then, rounding a corner near the altar area, a sudden, almost blinding blaze of light, as it may have been in the holy of holies.
The light calls our attention to many details in these sacred spaces and invites us to contemplate what specifically is illuminated, and why.