When Spencer Museum of Art curatorial intern Elissa Anderson undertook her first assignment to assemble an art exhibition, it was to produce this fall's annual photography exhibit. A doctoral candidate in art history, Anderson's specialty is 17th century Dutch and Flemish art. As such, she's spent a lot of time studying religious imagery in art, since devotional iconography is central to European art of this period.
When it came time to determine a theme for the photo exhibit, Anderson began to explore a curiosity about the role of spiritual and religious imagery in photography.
As she began to do research for the show and pull photographs from the Spencer collection she discovered two interesting things. First, not only hadn't the Spencer done a presentation of religious imagery on photography, she could find little evidence that much attention had been paid to the subject by other museums.
Secondly she came to the discomfiting discovery that the Spencer Museum's collection contained few representations of images pertaining to non-Christian faiths.
The decision was made to limit the show to Christian imagery and to begin educating the Museum's patrons and supporters to the pressing need to broaden the collection rather than present the only the token representation of other faiths the current collection would necessitate.
Anderson writes in her curator's statement, "After culling every photograph of a religious subject, I found that the collection has so few images that represent non-Christian religions that to show them would possibly minimize their significance. One result of this exhibition is that these non-Christian subjects have been identified as a priority for future acquisitions."
The show itself is divided into two sections, photographs of religious architecture, and depictions of religious practices. There are approximately 50 photographs in the show by 19th and 20th century photographers and the images were made of subjects across Europe and North America.
Images by such notable photographers as Diane Arbus, Andres Serrano, Walker Evans and Gordon Parks are included.
Images in the show cover a wide range of themes from the whimsical to the earnest. There's Jim Alinder's wide-angle image of a supermarket frozen foods section decorated for Christmas, and Diane Arbus' "Mr. And Mrs. Santa Claus."
More serious are Manuel Alvarez Bravo's ethnographic studies of Catholic artifacts in his native Mexico.
The show "Signs of Faith: Photographs from the Collection" runs through December 30 in the North Balcony Gallery of the Spencer Museum of Art on the University of Kansas Campus. For more about this show please visit arts.ljworld.com.