Soul Searcher

Text by Caroline Cunningham Photography by Christopher Churchill

Images of the ordinary take on a transcendent, almost mythic, quality through the lens of Boston photographer Christopher Churchill.

A young couple, both teachers, decide to sail around the world for a year. They want a family adventure beyond the coastal town in Maine where they make their home. Academic instruction in the evenings, when the boat is anchored in a safe harbor, will keep the children current with their school programs. Everyone agrees that this is a thoughtful and well-organized plan, except for the nine-year-old, who has little interest in a formal curriculum. After the sails are furled and the boat is prepared for the night, he hops into an inflatable dingy and sets off, alone, to explore the villages and meet people along the shore. His parents understand the child’s restless soul, his need to wander. They allow him to go.

That boy grew up to be photographer Christopher Churchill, whose luminous images chronicle individual experiences within manmade institutions. Given Churchill’s view of society and its conventional expectations, there’s some irony in his decision to address these themes, but this is also what gives his work great strength. You know where he stands; you know whose side he’s on. As Allison N. Kemmerer, Mead Curator of Photography and Curator of Art after 1950 at the Addison Gallery of American Art, in Andover, Massachusetts, observes, “It is Chris’s respect for his subject and his audience that gives the images their resonance. Whether documenting a person, landscape or interior, he approaches his subjects with an openness and sincerity that makes tangible the inner spirit of the depicted and makes room for the viewer’s own reflections and responses.”

Churchill first picked up a camera when he was sixteen and attending an alternative high school in Pennsylvania. He and some friends fulfilled a course requirement by driving cross-country, taking snapshots along the way; he returned to campus to take a photography class and fell in love with both the process and the medium. An associate’s degree at Rockport College (now Maine Media College) followed, where Churchill studied under photographer John Goodman and honed his craft in the darkroom. He also completed his first portfolio, images shot at the Augusta Mental Health Institute that stand as an unflinching record of the mysterious beauty found in such a place.

Churchill then moved to Boston and worked for Palm Press Atelier, printing images for artists like Abelardo Morell and Nicholas Nixon. He had several opportunities to work in the studios of local photographers, but this lacked any real appeal. “I wanted to be that person, not that person’s assistant,” he explains with a laugh. Commercial work for local publications led to contracts with national such publications as the New York Times Magazine, GQ and Travel & Leisure.

In 2004, Churchill took his 8×10 vintage Deardorff camera and set out on a pilgrimage across America to uncover the meaning of faith in this country. He had no set route, but followed an instinctive path, photographing subjects that caught his eye and imagination. He spent many lonely days on the road, wondering if the work would ever feel whole and complete. It’s no coincidence that his meandering, often difficult, artistic process mirrored an intimate exploration into the nature of belief. The two journeys were one in the same.

Five years of shooting led to a series of black-and-white photographs published in a book by Nazraeli Press last fall. American Faith is a lyrical document of the human spirit. Churchill’s deft use of natural light and rigorous attention to framing and composition elevate his portraits and landscapes into something profound and almost mythic. An Oklahoma father and his small boy in a go-cart is a moving symbol of familial bonds; a prostitute in Nevada, photographed from behind and suffused in soft afternoon light, transcendent. The accompanying text—carefully edited transcripts of recordings Churchill made while photographing his subjects—is concise and revelatory. “After traveling with nothing but faith and the kindness of others to guide me, I felt connected to the world in a way I would never have found on my own…,” he writes. “I came to realize that this is the essence of faith, not a faith in religion but a faith in something greater than ourselves.”

Churchill is now at work on an examination of economy, capitalism and class structure in America. His photographs are already in major private collections and museums across the country, and his commercial work is in high demand, but he’s still restive, searching for meaning in an often-unfathomable world.

Editor’s Note: To see more of Christopher Churchill’s work, visit his website, christopherchurchill.com.

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