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James Downs

James Downs

Since 2014 I have been working on my research project Ministers of 'the Black Art': the engagement of clergymen with photography, 1839-1909, thanks to a three-year PhD Studentship awarded by the College of Humanities.

The subject combines two areas of long-standing personal interest, and arose out of frustration at the chasm separating photo-historical research and the study of Victorian religion. My interest in early photography began in the 1990s when I worked in the Special Collections Department of Glasgow University and had the opportunity to handle and examine such treasures as Hill & Adamson negatives from the 1840s, WHF Talbot's Pencil of Nature (1844), albumen prints of the Holy Land, early photographically-illustrated books and a selection of magic lantern slides. This stimulated an interest in 19th century photographic history which continues to the present day, and has resulted in a number of publications including A Carnal Medium: essays on the fin-de-siecle nude (2012), and several articles in the journal Studies in the Photography discussing the work of photographers such as Horatio Ross, James Graham and Ivan Szabo.

At the same time I was pursuing a deep interest in Victorian church history, which I combined with theological studies carried out at the University of Glasgow and then Maryvale Institute, while working towards a Divinity degree. Having left my job in the Special Collections library, I was later appointed archivist in a Benedictine monastery and acquired yet more experience with 19th century photographs, manuscripts and ephemera. My article 'Dom Odo Blundell (1868-1943): a different kind of historian' (2005), co-written with Alasdair Roberts for the Innes Review, focussed upon the work of a Benedictine monk who was also an antiquarian and photographer.

It was around this time that I first began compiling information on other clergymen-photographers, and the idea arose of undertaking a detailed study of their work that would combine my knowledge of photographic history with my understanding of religious thought and practices during the Victorian era. Although several clergymen-photographers have been the subject of biographical studies, these have either been the work of photo-historians with little interest in theology and church history, or pious memoirs written by family members or churchmen without any specialised knowledge of photography. As a consequence, no-one had really explored the relationship between the photographic activities of these men (and they were all men, alas) and their religious culture. Given the years I had devoted to studying both theology and photographic history, I felt I was uniquely qualified for the task. By the end of the Ph.D I trust my self-confidence will have been vindicated.

 

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