Art: Sacred Light
Photographer A.J. Meek Embraces the South
Baton Rouge photographer A. J. Meek was not born in Louisiana or anywhere else in the Deep South. But, like many writers and artists from other places who visit the South with their imaginations open to the landscape, Meek’s images of burning sugar cane fields, decaying sugar mills and the interiors of houses of prayer are possessed with the spirit of place and moment. He approaches the landscape with the sensitivities of a visual artist who understands the importance of light, shadow and form that can transcend the literal.
His photographs are a masterful balance of technique, aesthetics, visual content and the mystical. He describes himself as “a project-oriented photographer” working within the documentary tradition. “I am interested,” he explains, “in combining a self-expressive connection with service to the field thus contributing to the awakening of a moral consciousness, the social issues of our time and the enlightenment of the spirit.”
Born in 1941 in Beatrice, Neb., Albert James Meek, who resides with his wife, Belinda, in Baton Rouge, spent his childhood moving with his family from one state to another before settling in Denver. Following a hitch in the Air Force, where he learned photography, Meek studied art at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and later at Ohio University. After college, he taught for a few years at Utah State University and then in 1977 joined the art faculty at LSU where he founded the photography program and had a distinguished career before retiring in 2005. It was during his years in the classroom that he gradually discovered his “passion, love and bliss” for art.
Although Meek drew inspiration over the years from various historic figures in photography, thoughts and words – not images – helped shape the essence of his art. In the mid-1990s, he read Frederick Buechner’s essay “The Calling of Voices” in which the American writer and theologian described an “aesthetic experience” he had while walking along a windy beach and observing a seagull in flight. Meek realized he “had a sacred purpose in life – a ministry – through the medium of photography.” That sacred purpose continued to evolve after his teaching career ended. “It wasn’t until after my retirement from academia,” he explains, “that I felt my spiritual development in my work came to its full realization.”
Teaching or not, Meek has had a productive career. His photographs can be found in such major museums as the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and in numerous private and public collections. He has co-authored and authored numerous exhibition catalogs and six books, including Red Pepper Paradise: Avery Island, Louisiana; Exploring Black and White Photography; Gardens of Louisiana: Places of Work and Wonder; Gettysburg to Vicksburg: The Five Original Civil War Battlefield Parks; and a 2007 biography of the famed Louisiana surrealist photographer Clarence John Laughlin.
In his most recent book, Sacred Light: Holy Places in Louisiana, Meek explored his “sacred purpose” in the interiors of churches and synagogues in the cities, towns and back roads of South Louisiana. In this journey, people are not present in the images, yet in the warm glow of natural light that fills these peaceful, sacred spaces, one can sense a presence. “It’s a kind of ministry for me,” he explains. “I put the camera gear in the church, sit a bit and perhaps say a little prayer. I tried to get the quietness.”
He selected these “holy places,” especially in New Orleans, for the beauty of the architecture and the richness of the ecclesiastical artwork. Other choices were more serendipitous.
The project neared completion when Hurricane Katrina struck South Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005. “I had been photographing the interiors of churches and synagogues for seven years prior to Katrina,” Meek wrote in the book’s introduction. “This was the contrast, the shadow side I was looking for. However, I could not bring myself to make photographs in New Orleans for more than a year after the storm. There had been too much pain, too many photographs of the damage. It took courage for me to enter the city for the first time after the hurricane. Then, to hear the stories of people who had lost their communities took even more courage. … Photographing in New Orleans, driving by the damaged structures and sacred buildings leaves a definite scar on the psyche.”
In an essay for the book, LSU art historian Marchita Mauck described a human and spiritual presence in Meek’s images: “Meek’s photographs unveil the often overlooked facets of the mystery of the holy and the human. … Viewers of Meek’s photographs will be drawn to see things anew, or perhaps for the first time, to catch a glimpse of a long-forgotten moment’s revelation that can touch the heart and renew the dialogue with the holy. In remembering encounters they have had in places such as these, Meek’s photographs may inspire them … to proclaim surely God is in this place.”
John Lawrence, a noted photographer and director of museum programs at The Historic New Orleans Collection, sees the clarity and ethereal vision in Meek’s work. “His attention to craft in the service of vision is exceptional,” Lawrence says. “His photographic style emphasizes the visual richness of his subjects, one that employed by a less talented individual might seem outdated or even quaint. In his hands the results are revealing, direct, plainspoken and honest. His use of color photography to capture the subtleties of church interiors illuminated by light filtering through stained glass results in an elegance of presentation that attempts to bring a metric of documentation and precision to subjects that are inextricably bound to the spiritual.”
Meek is currently working on two new series. In one, titled The Healing Presence, he began photographing dramatic cloudscapes in 2009 while teaching an honors class at the University of New Mexico. After the one-year appointment ended, he returned to Baton Rouge and continued the project. He then asked children to write poems and comments about general themes. “They did not see the picture,” he says. “I didn’t want illustrations. I wanted the pictures and the writing to stand independent of one another.”
As in Sacred Light, The Healing Presence brings on a sense of what the Navajos called “hozro,” a sense of harmony and peace with nature and one’s environment. “In the Native [American] culture,” Meek wrote in a statement describing the project, “the meaning of what makes a mountain or a place sacred is that it is so mysterious and beautifully inspiring that one cannot hold a bad thought when observed or meditated upon. Likewise, these photographs by their nature will promote a positive feeling and, therefore, evoke a shift or a healing energy within the viewer.”
The second new series, Vanishing Sugar: Photographs of Louisiana’s Declining Sugar Cane Industry, is another long-term project. To capture these rich black-and-white and later color images of decrepit sugar mills and burning cane fields, he first used a large format camera that produced 8-inch-by-20-inch negatives. He later switched to a less cumbersome 4-inch-by-5-inch camera.
Meek first became interested in the sugar cane industry shortly after arriving in Louisiana in the late 1970s. “When I was in Utah, I had wonderful mountains around me,” he says. “When I came to Louisiana, all I could see on the horizon were smokestacks, belching smoke, burning and processing cane. That drew me in. I kept doing it year after year.”
Meek hopes to have both projects published.
Fortunately, The Historic New Orleans Collection will soon become a repository for his negatives and prints. “I feel fortunate having my work accepted by the HNOC,” he says. “On the one hand, giving away my life’s work is like dying a little bit, but it’s also comforting knowing it’s going to a good home.”
Summing up his career, Meek recalls the words of Clarence John Laughlin: “I didn’t find photography; photography found me.” He laughs and then adds, “I stuck with it like a prize fighter knocked on the mat and was too dumb to get up.”
For more information about Meek’s work, visit www.ajmeek.com.