Whether it’s a crucified Christ’s downcast eyes, the serene smile of the Buddha, or the quixotic grin of a Hindu god, Jewish photographer Andy Romanoff has a way of capturing the ineffable beauty of religious imagery, and the striking similarities in the iconography of different faiths.
“Why have we all decided to do it this way? Almost from the first moment we know about human beings, we know they make images, and almost as quickly as they can, to make images that are of religious significance,” he said. “So there’s something really powerful here.”
Beginning Feb. 22, many of his images will be displayed in the Shatto Chapel of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. The show, called “Sacred Faces,” includes 30 large photographs lit by candles, and a projection of several hundred images from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism.
Every Sunday morning for seven weeks (for the entire season of Lent, which ends on Easter Sunday), R. Scott Colglazier, senior minister of First Congregational, will preach meditation sermons based on the images. Colglazier said the topics will relate to different aspects of spiritual life, such as gratitude, solitude, suffering and joy.
“These are the different dimensions to this human journey, this spiritual journey, that we’re on,” Colglazier said. “My plan is to use the photograph as a kind of iconic image to help people touch something a little deeper within themselves.”
The origins of this project began over a year ago, when Romanoff walked by a Buddhist temple near his home in Mid-Wilshire. Something compelled him to go inside, where a monk welcomed him.
“There was this beautiful seven or eight-foot-tall golden, glowing Buddha. A wonderful face. I knew I wanted to take a picture of it. I didn’t have a camera on me,” Romanoff said. “But I knew that that was important.”
The monk offered him two books on his way out, including one of Korean art. While reading in bed, Romanoff stumbled on an image that grabbed his attention: a Koryo Buddhist painting entitled “15,000 Buddhas.” The painting depicts the seated Vairocana Buddha, but on closer inspection, one sees that the entire image is made up of rows of hand-drawn Buddha faces, each about one-fifth of an inch in diameter. He was stunned by the level of patience and devotion the painting must have required.
“And in that moment, lying in bed in the middle of the night, I knew what this project was going to be. It was going to be to make thousands of images in this process, and to let them take the shape of the larger thing,” he said.
His so-called “15,000 Buddhas” project brought Romanoff to New York and Seattle, and then to Europe, where he took photos of religious imagery in Poland, Hungary, Germany, the Czech Republic, Bratislava, Paris and Amsterdam.
Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, where Romanoff attends services, said the two have known each other for over 25 years. Romanoff shot many of the religious images while on a group trip that Rosove organized to Central Europe to explore Jewish life and culture before and after the Holocaust. He said that while Romanoff had a Jewish upbringing, he’s “a universalist in his thinking,” seeing bridges between faiths rather than walls.
“Whenever I study other religions, I am clearer, it’s almost like shining a light on my own tradition of Judaism,” Rosove said. “I’ve always seen all of our religious traditions as one color of a rainbow refracted through a prism, on the other side of which is the pure light of God. But each of us is a different color. And God isn’t the color. God is the totality of the color. And in concrete form, this is what he’s doing as well, with imagery.”
Relatively few of Romanoff’s photographs are of Jewish or Muslim icons, partly because those religions use less of a representational and sculptural approach to sacred art. In fact, idolatry is strongly prohibited in Judaism. Romanoff actually approached Rosove with the concern that his photography of sacred objects could be considered idol worshipping.
“And he said, the prohibition is not about seeing idols, it’s not about photographing idols. The prohibition is about making them real, giving them powers that they don’t have,” Romanoff said.
The project has brought Romanoff into sacred spaces of faith traditions that he knew little to nothing about. But rather than conducting extensive research into the religious images he’s photographing, he decided to approach his subjects with an open mind.
“What I wanted to do was to respond very directly to the thing that was in front of me, and to not know what it symbolized,” he said. “And only later, because it’s inevitable, then you learn what it symbolizes. But that wasn’t where I was starting from. Where I was starting from, was just to experience it and try to capture my experience in front of it.”
That’s why, he said, his first visit to a church, monastery or other religious place starts with a few minutes of calm, meditative rest, as he absorbs the site. Eventually, an icon may draw his eye. He then approaches the object and talks to it, asking for its help – “I know it’s a little crazy,” he confessed with a laugh – to understand what the creator of the object intended. Only when he thinks he’s found the right angle, he said, “I pick up the camera and shoot.”
This is Romanoff’s second long-term photo project. In 2013, he was given permission to document the Pacific Design Center – the “Blue Whale,” as the West Hollywood landmark is affectionately nicknamed. He spent six months working there, photographing the art and furniture galleries, parties and events, and portraits of building employees, and even the dogs who come to work with their owners. More than 200 of those images were featured in “Seeing the PDC,” which was displayed in the building.
Romanoff was raised in Chicago and discovered photography as a teenager. He photographed weddings and bar mitzvahs, as well as took pictures on the street. He was part of the hippie movement in the 1960s, at one point living on a bus that traveled across the country with former members of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, as a member of the Hog Farm commune. He later had a long career in Hollywood, as a camera operator, cinematographer, and a specialist operator of remote control equipment. He also owned an equipment rental company and invented some camera technology. He returned to still photography about five years ago.
First Congregational is a fitting setting for this exhibit, as the church often hosts interfaith discussions with other religious leaders, and places an emphasis on social justice actions that transcend barriers between communities.
“I think all religion is pointing us to this deeper human experience of understanding ourselves and building community within the human family, ” Colglazier said. “And so I think there’s ways for people to distinctively hold on to their faith and their faith tradition without diminishing it, without watering it down, while at the same time opening one’s self to understand their neighbor. To me, that’s just so important to what it means to be a person of faith.”
While Romanoff has already produced hundreds of photographs of sacred objects, he’s already planning future trips to gather more material.
“I’ve been in eight or nine countries at this point, and I can’t tell you how many churches, monasteries, roadside shrines, and more. This is not the end of this project at all. This is the beginning,” Romanoff said. “I’m a year in on something that I intend to continue doing for years and years.”
An opening reception for “Sacred Faces” will be held on Sat., Feb. 21 from 5 to 7 pm, at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, 540 S Commonwealth Ave. The First Worship services will run every Sunday at 9 a.m. for seven weeks, from Feb. 22 through Easter Sunday, April 5.