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S. Smith Photography — spiritual images imbued with beauty, grace — and faith

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A deep faith radiates in inspiring images of religious art and church-event photography…

"You see many Flight Into Egypt windows," Scott Smith says, "but in this depiction — which is the opening image of my Home Page — there's such an intimacy between the Christ Child and Our Lady. They're fleeing, but the artist has portrayed the connection between Mother and Child so powerfully." Flight Into Egypt, Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Augusta, Georgia. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 
The Christmas Crèche, St. John Cantius, Chicago. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 
A message in my inbox that mentions St. John Cantius in Chicago gets special attention.

Not long ago, when I entered its doors, this venerable Downtown Chicaco church touched my heart. I wasn't just moved by the beauty of the sacred art, but by the warm welcome of the Canons Regular St. John Cantius.

With Brother Nathan Casswell as my guide, I discovered The Nativity stained glass window, the beautiful Neapolitan Praesepio, and The Marian Altar of Wit Stwosz, a stunning replica of the magnificent original in The Basilica of our Lady of Crakow, Poland, to mention just a few of St. John Cantius priceless treasures.

When St. John Cantius was built in 1898 by Polish immigrants, its congregation numbered over 1,500 families. But, by 1998, Ogden Avenue and the Expressway had cut a swath through "the Polish Patch" community, and the new Pastor, the Rev. C. Frank Phillips, C.R., preached to fewer than 70 souls on Sunday. But Father Phillips realized that the roads that took people away could also bring them back.

I remember a shiver down my spine when all this was being related to me by Brother Nathan Caswell, my guide to St. John Cantius sacred treasures that includes a radiant window of The Nativity.

And now, I was hearing about St. John Cantius from a fellow photographer.

My name is Scott Smith, and I am religious art photographer working in Chicago. I recently did a series of images of the Christmas Crèche at St. John Cantius and I thought you might like a look, since your video came up when I posted mine. I enjoyed your video and blog very much. I've also attached an image of The Nativity from St. Ann Parish in West Palm Beach, Florida.

God Bless!

Scott Smith

A click of the mouse, and Scott's Web site, S. Smith Photography, fills the room with the divine music of the Tallis Scholars. And, against a soft dark gray background, there are images of incredible beauty: luminous stained glass windows, soaring sanctuaries, marble altars, sacred statues, sacred liturgical moments, precious chalices.

And why do I have this feeling that it is all so eerily familiar? Have I looked at another photographer's images before, and feel as though I am seeing them through the viewfinder of my camera? If I had taken these shots myself, these wouldn't these be the images I would have captured?

"What the The Rev. Frank Phillips, Pastor of St. John Cantius, has done," Scott says, "is nothing short of miraculous. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 
Then there's the radiant Nativity from St. Ann's Church (see photo, below, left) that Scott attached to his message. Did he know that I was flying to Florida to a Miami Shoot the very next day — and that St. Ann's was on my itinerary?

Scott and I had to talk.

Hello, Scott? This is Alexis. I Loved your images, your esthetic, your unique vision.

"Thank you. It's always good to have someone get my work; good to have a kindred spirit. Alexis, I completely understand where you're coming from. There are times when I look at an image and think the same thing. There's a photographer who's in a religious order here in Chicago…"

Are you referring to Brother Nathan Caswell's brother?

"Yes, Brother Joshua Caswell, S.J.C. Sometimes, when I see his photos, I also think, 'I would have taken that same shot.'"

When I was shooting the St. John Cantius Neapolitan Praesepio — and dealing with glare on the glass case — I thought how lucky Brother Joshua was to be able to photograph those magnificent figures before they were placed behind glass.

When did you get into religious photography?

"About three years ago; I had become burned out as a pastry cook."

Pastries, really? I love to bake.

Photographer Scott Smith at the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima, Fatima, Portugal. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 
"Doing it professionally is a little different, and I decided I wanted to leave. It was a bit of naïvette, and being around people who had started their own business, and who all they talked about was following your passion.

"I said to myself, I don't want to leave to find another pastry position, to perpetuate the cycle. I wanted to be more artistic, and I already had some experience in photography through my father, who had a studio for 40 years.

"I have always been devoted to the church and religious art, so, if I were going to do this, I would have to combine my two great passions, faith and photography. So I invented this job, to give myself something I could be truly passionate about.

"I remember the moment at my old job, in September 2007. We'd been working very hard, and they kept asking for more. You get to the point where you say to yourself, I'm giving everything I can, and to what end? I always thought of my profession as a calling, always filtered my work if it's in accordance to what God wants from me. And I came to the decision that if I continued in this, I'd be selling myself short emotionally and spiritually. Or, I could set out on my own — and stop talking about wanting to be an artist, stop talking about wanting to serve God more actively.

"With photography I could literally start from the ground up. So, I took my severance pay from my old job, bought my first camera, started shooting, started making myself known.

What camera did you buy?

"You're going to laugh. A Canon Rebel XTi."

A Canon? You're my kind of photographer!

Natural light photography is one of the hallmarks of Scott's work. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.)
"It's what I could afford. My guiding principle was, I can buy all this fancy equipment, but if I don't have an idea of how to use it, it would be a lot of debt without a lot of performance. So I decided to let the pictures come first, and then, as I went along I could get better equipment, so the pictures could become better, and better."

What are you using now?

"A Canon 5D, 20-135mm lens, a 50 mm f1.4, and I rent 70-200mm f2.8, and I rent a 16-35mm f2.8. I would love to own those lenses, but I don't work with them every day, so laying out two grand for a lens is cost-prohibitive."

Don't feel bad. None of my assistants in Miami Beach, Chicago, or New York own their own telephotos. But I need, because I often shoot in remote areas.

"I hear you. I would love to have a 5D Mark II, for better performance in low-light situations. With liturgy, all I do is low light. And I want ISO 200 quality when I'm shooting at ISO 800."

Do you shoot mostly hand-held?

"I would say, 99.9 percent handheld. Because I have to be so mobile within the context of the liturgy, that I don't have time to use a tripod. In the liturgy, as in sports photography, you have a moment you need to capture. But when I shoot windows, I have time to compose the shot — and use a tripod."

So, you got your camera — what was your next step?

"I started at 'home,' in my own parish, the Church of the Ascension, in Chicago. I shot a lot of the architectural details, the liturgy, and put my images on my Web site.

The response to this photo, Scott's first published image, was extremely positive — Church of the Ascension, Chicago. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 
"One of my first successful images was a still life of chalices and cruets that had been laid out for the low mass the next day. That shot ended up being a print that many people have responded to. This chalice would have been used in the liturgy the next day, provided the blessed sacrament, and so it represented the sacredness of salvation. It's a chalice that has been used in our parish since 1927, so, too, behind it there's the history of all the people who have received consolation, spiritual refreshment, hope.

"After my work at my home parish, my next stop was St. John Cantius. I knew of their reputation as being one, profoundly beautiful, two, of a great music program, and three, that they were a "Latin Mass" parish. I have an admiration for tradition, and for the Latin Mass, that is so visually rich. So St. John Cantinus was a church I wanted to get to know.

"But when I was first started out, I was intimidated — and I still am — to approach churches. You might meet resistance, they might not understand where I'm coming from. I wanted them to see that I wanted to provide something of value, something to benefit them. But how could I ever get the courage to talk to anyone there?

"That's when I saw in their program that the Canons Regular were having a benefit, and were calling for donations, including art — and I'm an artist. I wrote to them, that I was a photographer, that I wanted to donate a large format art print to their silent auction, and that I thought it would be especially meaningful for the people attending the auction if it were an image of their church. Could I come and and take photos, and create this art piece?

"Father Brendan, with whom I first had contact, was thrilled. I produced two very beautiful images: one of St. John Cantius sacramental rose window on the south side of the church, and one of the Pieta, in the North Side of the church. One family actually bought both pieces at the silent auction, and from there I was able to approach them about other projects, because my donation had significant meaning.

"It's all about if you give, you get back manyfold. That's what happened with St. John Cantius, and now I have a wonderful working relationship with them. Doesn't the Lord works in mysterious ways? The Canons Regular are the warmest, most welcoming people in the world. They live their vocation — their monasticism — with depth, love, and chariy. They're very good people."

I hear you; they even teach Greek! At a time when Greek is fast disappearing from many Orthodox churches in this country.

The glorious Nativity window of St. Ann's Catholic Church, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 
"They teach Greek because they dig very deep, and are very serious about restoring the sacred. And restoring means looking back to the roots, in this case the New Testament Greek."

Amen! I shivered when Br. Nathan told me that Father Phillips realized that the roads that took people away could also bring them back.

"Yes, the coming of the interstate pretty much destroyed the parish. What Father Phillips did was God-inspired, and nothing short of miraculous. And also very wise, and astute. There's an old phrase, If you set yourself on fire bright enough, people will come from miles to watch you burn. Meaning, if you make this church to be a beacon, people will flock to come bathe in the light.

"That is what has happened at St. John Cantius. People are responding to the restoration of the sacred, the beauty of the church, the beauty of the mass. People have come from miles around: those I went on pilgrimage with to Portugal and Spain easily live thirty to forty-five minutes away from the church, in the suburbs. But they find their way to St. John Cantius from all of these different zip codes.

"Church is not just a place you visit every week: church is the life that you live. Church is not just a place to visit, but a place within your heart. We are the church, the people are church. We all form the church within our own hearts and souls. We are the body of the church, at mystical union. It might sound high-fallutin', but I really want people to live church at home as vibrantly as they live church at church."

So you decided to become a church photographer. What about weddings?

"I love photography, but I don't like wedding photography, because I've been a pastry cook, made so many wedding cakes, and the whole wedding industry is not something I'm interested in.

"God gave me the courage, the faith, to pursue religious photography. I try to capture the Mass, baptisms, confirmations, special events in the life of people and the church, but these functions don't get the attention that weddings get. My concept is that people respond to images, and that opens a door of restoring the faith. And if a church presents itself online or print media in a way that truly captures the true essence of what it means to wosrhip in that space, it might lead people through the door.

"If more people knew about these beautiful churches that are being closed, they might be more inspired to attend, and attendance would give the church the funding and the support it needs to stay open. That's the high goal, to increase the faith through the art; to inspire people through the art; to appreciate, and know the beauty of the church."

S. Smith Photography, Scott says, captures, "The glory of a solemn High Mass, or the quiet grace of a private baptism; the heart of the event, while remaining discreet and unobtrusive." (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 
Beautifully said. Where do you get your esthetic vision?

"The liturgy is the focal point, and I'm there to document it as inconspicuously as I can. Capturing moments of significant spirituality within the mass or event it's what it's all about: the Elevation of the Blessed Sacrament, or the preaching from the pulpit as the sunlight is streaming through the window: what does that mean? The word of God, the faith, and the sunlight bathing the priest are like the presence of God within the sanctuary."

Speaking of light, have you seen a bricked-up stained glass window? Makes you want to cry.

"The most dimly lit window at St. John Cantius is the window of the Resurrection. The stairway to the south balcony was built in front of that window, and it is unfortunate that there is not enough natural light to fully light it like the others. Lights would have to be installed behind it. If I had the money, I would love to see the window lit up like the others with lighting designed to imitate natural light, installed behind the window.

"Getting back to my event photography, I basically try to make myself invisible within the liturgy: find places to hide, vantage points that allow me to take photos unnoticed. I'm almost like a spirit hovering about.

"Some of my favorite shots are intimate moments that people from the pew normally don't get to see: the more they see the mass or event from the inside-out, the more it acts to inspire them."

I never know what I'm going to shoot until I get there. Is it the same for you?

"Definitely; one-hundred percent. One of my real examples of that is my pilgrimage with the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius to Portugal and Spain this past September.

"We landed in Lisbon, and our first liturgy was a Mass of Thanksgiving at Our Lady of the Holy Martyrs, in Lisbon. I had to walk in with my kit and start shooting. I had never been to this church before, and I had about ten minutes to get the lay of the land, before proceeding to shoot. I examined the nave, the sanctuary, quickly figured out I could hide here, here, and here, and then I started shooting.

"I also let the flow of the mass guide how I'm going to shoot. Do I need to get further away for the Elevation of the Sacraments? Do I need to get up-close for the Gospel? And so on. What will paint the best picture of what it was like to worship here, at this moment?"

When shooting in a church, do you feel on auto-pilot? An invisible hand guiding you?

"Absolutely. I always shoot with God's hand; I don't think about it, it just happens."

Do you feel that, through your telephoto lenses, people are discovering familiar sacred art for the first time?

St. Clare, holding a monstrance, graces St. John Cantius, Chicago — and Scott's Home Page. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 

"Definitely. It's a lot like the image of St. Clare from St. John Cantius. There's a group of four windows that pre-date the church. On one side there's St. Clare and our Lady of Lourdes, and on the other St. Hedwig, Queen, and St. Louis, King. These windows are underneath the north and South balconies of the church, and not especially well-lit from the outside. You can see them, but they appear very dark. Through photography, you can take an image that an image that brings them to life, make the light almost appear supernatural.

"I made two large format images of St. Hedwig, Queen of Poland, and St. Clarre, of Assisi, and people told me they looked even more captivating than they do in the church — because of the light. Because they're hard to see under the balconies. That's what I'm working to build — to encourage the seeing."

Photograhy is so well-suited to placing images in front of people's eyes; images that might be found high in the church, and be hard to see.

"Yes, the camera pulls them down from heaven. God is not some far-away concept, and His Saints are not floating on a cloud apart, they're right here. They're as close as your hands to your face. And, sometimes, a photograph facilitates that connection.

In the Orthodox Church, icons are considered windows into heaven.

"That reminds me of a lecture on Byzantine iconography. An icon represents a single perfect moment in time. I try to spin that philosophy in my work, how I capture my windows: captured in a perfect moment in time, with the perfect lighting that accentuates, creating not just a physical depiction of the window, but a spiritual image that conveys the power and grace in that event. Turning stained glass windows, so to speak, into gates of heaven. I've always been fascinated by stained glass windows. That's why I got so deeply into digital photography."

What is the longest you've spent in a church, shooting?

"That's a good question. Maybe four, five hours. I get tired after that, because my level of concentration is so intense. I'm viscerally engaging with the window or the subject, frame after frame, pouring all my energy into capturing this moment in time. By four or five hours I'm pretty exhausted, and I step outside. If I need to, I go back again. Sometimes my stay is limited by how long the church is open, and I have to make the best use of the time. But there are churches where I could literally could spend most of a day."

You're speaking to the choir. Do you feel you must record these beautiful images in order to preserve them? I have seen bullet holes through stained glass windows!

"Yes; I want to preserve these sacred images for the parish. But what motivates me is, how can this image create a moment of worship — a moment of God's presence — in the viewer? When I'm taking these pictures — even photos of the liturgy — I always think: when someone sees this, will they appreciate the Mass more? Will they feel something inside that brings them closer to God?

Scott's camera captures the serenity of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 
"That's where my tag line, 'Images from the heart of worship," comes from. Every scene of The Nativity that you take, you bring yourself in adoration to that moment. You're able to adore the Christ Child. Every frame that you take behind the camera is an act of adoration."

Nothing concentrates the mind like a beautiful photo.

"Oh, yes, the devaluation of concentration in our society. If you're not doing something; saying something; or experiencing something, then you're not living! To sit in a room, to just breath, and reflect, is so foreign, such a high-art concept."

What I love is having people look over my shoulder at my carmera's large display as I shoot, and be enthralled with discovering The Nativity with me. Has that happened to you? See people who have attended a church for years discovering its sacred art for the first time?

"Yes. But then there are people, like a wonderful nun at the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta, Gergia, who let me in and with whom I had a spiritual conversation. She got it, and at the end, she said, 'God bless your work,' gave me a big hug, and let me carry on.

"She saw where I was coming from. My love for the art, and the desire to preserve it through my work. And that was a high point, a great moment for me, because I want people to see that my work is generative, not meant to exploit or to take away. But meant to create a deeper faith experience."

"I want to work for a church, to make my images for the glory of God, I want my pictures to bring people closer to God. That's why I want to get my work in front of people. And I want people to realize the beauty in their own back yard. Because the people who build that church were inspired by their faith to hire the best artists. Everything they had was given to the glory of God. They saved, and they scrimped, and they made it happen. And we need to honor that."

I know exactly what you mean. The poor villagers of my church in Greece gave from their meager earnings to build and adorn the Church of Our Lady with glorious icons. I have in my home a late 1800s icon of the Mother of God from my village church. Life-size and printed on canvas, it was assembled in Photoshop from about 50 photographs of the icon. I can't quite describe what its presence means to me.

"I had a similar experience a couple of weeks ago. At the Art Institute of Chicago, I came upon the 15th century Virgin and Child with an Angel of Botticelli. I hadn't seen it before, maybe overlooked it. As I rounded the corner and saw it, and the way it was 'written,' to use an iconographic term, I burst into tears.

Scott specializes in pilgrimage photography, and accompanied the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius to Spain and Portugal — The Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima, Fatima, Portugal, with inset photos of the pilgrimage. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 
"It's an image of Our Lady cradling Our Lord, so profoundly moving, and beautiful. I went back this week and took a picture of it, because I needed to have this image in my home. So I know what you're talking about: you have this image that is so inspiring — and you can't believe that it's in your house."

Would you believe that the logo of Crè is Raphael's Sistine Madonna? A paper nativity interpretation of the Vatican original?

Tell me about your pilgrimage photography.

"I'm creating a book from the pilgrimage to Spain and Portugal, that I think people will respond to, because some people find digital files as too intangible.

"Someone told me that pictures seem more real when they're in a book, and I can appreciate that. I created a book with a series of photographs of Holy Week and Easter at my Parish: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday. I included excerpts from the Mass and the Propers, and the response was huge. I sold a fair amount of books.

"So, I think, once I publish the book of the pilgrimage, people will respond. I want to become a pilgrimage photographer, take care of all the photos, and give the people a body of work they'll remember forever. As one family said, 'We're glad you're here, because you can take photos of all of us.' This woman was traveling with her husband, 13-year-old son, 8-year-old, and 2-year-old daughters. She said, 'I'm so glad that you're here, because I don't have to worry about trying to take photos — I can take care of my family and be part of this spiritual experience.'

"I said, 'That's exactly why I'm here, why I'm doing this. I want to be the invisible photographer that's documenting everything for you so that you can have a true, deep, spiritual experience in this holy place."

Scott, I need some photos of the Church of The Nativity. If you ever head to Bethlehem, please let me know; I'll carry your bags.

You'll enjoy browsing Scott's site, S. Smith Photography, and seeing his inspired images. And if you're planning to document your church, a religious event, or pilgrimage with photos you'll treasure, Scott is your man: 1-800-218-2919,

Superb closeup photography of an embroidered cope, a processional vestment. (Photo © S. Smith Photography.) 

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