Photography emerged in 1839 at the intersection of science and art, technology and aesthetics, and empiricism and the imagination. The practice involves an optical device overseen by a human operative and a two-stage procedure: capturing the image with a camera and processing the capture thereafter. At each stage the photographer is able to control or manipulate the image. In this way photography enables both the objective recording and subjective reshaping of reality.

Photography, Religion, and the Biblical Mind.

In relation to the Bible, photography’s dual capability has been used to:

  • • Document extant sites and artifacts associated with the biblical history
  • • Record places, objects, and people belonging to cultures and communities influenced by the Bible
  • • Engender a reimagining of the biblical past
  • • Convey visual interpretations and critiques of biblical concepts
  • • Foster artworks informed by prior Christian art and a biblical outlook

While grounded in the physicality and mechanics of instrumentation, substances, lenses, and light, photography at its inception possessed religious and occult associations. The chemical means of early photographic processing, by which the latent image is made visible, had its roots in the fifteenth-century alchemical development of a silver and marine salt compound to transmute off-white to black. Ocularly, the camera’s ability to concentrate the appearance of things in and through the curved, glass surface of the lens recalls the action of the scryer’s crystal ball. In the nascent period of photography the camera was regarded (by those who had no understanding of its mechanics or transformative processes) to be almost magical in its operations.

Photography is well adapted to the biblical mind. The camera has an “eye” that lets light enter a darkened body (Matt 6:22). It acknowledges the dualism of darkness and light, upholds the notion of “truth” (in terms of an unmediated, nonintentional, and veridical representation), and possesses the capacity to create an “exact representation” (an imprint) of reality on the plate or film (Heb 1:3). Analogically, the polished silver-coated copper plate of a daguerreotype—buffed to a mirror finish—evokes the “dark glass” through which Christians see dimly and imperfectly. Not all religionists were convinced of its compatibility with biblical concepts and values. Hardline Calvinist Christians in the nineteenth century and some contemporary Orthodox and Hasidic Jews have asserted that the second commandment’s restriction on making a “graven image” forbids any association with photography. Consequently, they refuse to have their portraits taken for fear of idolatry.

Bringing Near That Which Is Remote.

Photogravures (which predate photography), together with steel-plate engravings of paintings by Renaissance and Baroque artists illustrating popular Old and New Testament stories, were bound in quarto-size pulpit and family Bibles. These reimaginings of the biblical past were later supplemented by photolithographs derived from present-day photographs of the Holy Land. In the mid-nineteenth century, as the Middle East opened to tourism, scholars, clerics, artists, and photographers were able to see and record at first hand the sacred sites and landscape mentioned in the Bible. For a Western readership, the photographs vivified these historically and geographically distant places, architecture, objects, and customs and, in so doing, provided evidence of the context (at least) of the biblical characters and events associated with them.


Nebi-Samuel, or the Plain of Mizpah, Israel (ca. 1890–1900). In the mid-nineteenth century, scholars, clerics, artists, and photographers were able to see and record the sacred sites and landscapes mentioned in the Bible.

Detroit Publishing Company/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

view larger image

Perhaps the most notable use of photography to bring near that which is remote and to clarify what is only vaguely perceivable is Secondo Pia’s (1855–1941) revelatory photograph of the Shroud of Turin, taken in 1898. The Christ-like stain, it has been suggested, is the flash imprint of a nuclear emanation from his body at the moment of resurrection. Similarly, Christianity’s other significant relic, the Veil of Veronica, is, some conceive, a proto-photographic transfer of Christ’s image onto the surface of the napkin. Thus, the very concept of photography is profoundly biblical. The Bible is itself a photographable subject and has its own relics. Photographs showing fragments of ancient autographs and codices and of rare and antique Bibles preserve and disseminate their form and content for scholarly study.

Early photography adopted the genre, subject matter, composition, and lighting of western European painting. Biblical photographs followed suit. Stories and events such as the Lord’s Supper and Christ preaching were acted out as a static mime in tableaux vivants on studio stages and in the open air. Most notably, the American photographer Fred Holland Day (1864–1933) explored the theme of the crucifixion in which he played the principal role. In his photographs, the subjective reimagining of the Bible (and of its prior representation in painting) is allied to an objective rendering of reality as actors dressed in period costume strike poses taken from Christian art in a contemporary landscape.

Photographing the Bible’s Secondary Manifestations.

Photography has also served to document and disseminate the Bible’s secondary manifestations, expressed through the practices and material culture of those committed to its values, proclamation, and teaching. During the second half of the nineteenth century, congregations commissioned photographic portraits (as they had done painted and engraved portraits prior to the commercialization of photography) to commemorate the achievements of ministers, priests, rabbis, officers, and missionaries. Photography permitted the production of images relatively cheaply and in great numbers. It nurtured the coterminous rise of the celebrity clergy in the late nineteenth century by enabling their likeness to be disseminated widely and adapted as picture postcards, calendars, and framed prints to be hung in places of worship and the home as examples of lives worth emulating.

Another secondary manifestation of the Bible was the contexts of its reading, preaching, and teaching. Photography captured the buildings and architecture of worship both as a subjects in their own right and as the settings for services, religious festivals, and civic and ecclesiastical commemorations. In this context, photography created visual memories of, and (like the standing stones in the Hebrew Bible in Joshua 3:7–17) tangible memorials to, the congregation’s history and the work of God among them.

Photography also bridged the vast physical and conceptual distances between the homeland of the empire and the far-flung lands of missionary endeavor. Magazines published by, for example, the British and Foreign Bible Society (formed in 1804) were, from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, replete with photographs taken by missionaries of tribal objects and costume, domestic rituals and dwellings, and of the missioners sitting proprietorially among African and Far Eastern families. Incidentally, these photographs also conveyed an unnerving sense of the incomprehensible “other”: an alien world in need as much of civilization as of conversion.

Amateur Photography and the Bible.

In the nineteenth century, photography was the province of professionals. Taking pictures was a highly technical, slow, and very expensive procedure involving the dexterous manipulation of large cumbersome studio cameras, exacting chemical processes, and a sophisticated pictorial sensibility. With the rise of leisure photography in the 1920s, amateurs and hobbyists from all walks of life enthusiastically took up the technique in the millions. The revolution was facilitated by Kodak’s issue of the small, simpler, and relatively affordable Kodak No. 1 camera in 1888, the Brownie camera in 1900, and roll film (in contrast to the earlier, sensitized glass plates), together with the company’s processing provision for consumers. Informed by dedicated magazines and supported by clubs, amateur photography extended the medium beyond the bounds of science and art to become a pastime and a means of documenting a personal experience of the world. With the growth of leisure travel in the period beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, middle-class religionists made a “pilgrimage” to the Middle East to see and “snap” the sites associated with the Bible for themselves and, in so doing, to situate themselves and their traveling companions in contexts where once saints and patriarchs had walked.

Photography also encouraged characters from biblical places and times to travel in the opposite direction. For example, a number of studio photographs from the United States and United Kingdom in the second half of the nineteenth century claim to show apparitions of angelic forms and characters from the Hebrew Bible. (Angelic apparitions were a subgenre of spirit photography, a mediumistic enterprise that claimed to preserve a permanent scrutable visualization of ghosts, fairies, and demons as well.) A century later, amateur photographers laid claim to a host of angels, along with visions of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, “snapped” in informal contexts such as the living room, kitchen, parks, and also in the clouds. The photographs (along with cine, video, and digital capture) show the diffuse, translucent, and luminous forms of figures or, more abstractly, mysterious intensities of light. The characters appear either fortuitously and without a rationale or else to oversee and sometimes heal those who are suffering and to portend blessings to come. Because these photographs were believed to preserve a visual residue of the persons depicted thereby, they, like the Shroud of Turin, were regarded as supernatural and evidential artifacts.

Unlike Pia’s negative (which was a photograph of a proto-photograph), amateur pictures of biblical characters—while unextraordinary in respect to their prevalence and authorship—are remarkable in that they purport to offer a direct indexical link to the subject that had been before the lens. The identification of biblical characters in the photographs is established with reference to their sanctioned manner of representation in Christian art. For instance, the appearance of Christ in spirit photographs is consistently that of a bearded, pale-skinned western European in robes, following a tradition of portraiture that goes back to the first century C.E. Thus, while the technology and the visual codes of representation peculiar to photography are relatively recent, the iconicity and iconography of the photographic subject is ancient: a case of old wine in new wine skins.

More mundanely, religionists photographed the landscape and particulars of the natural world, God’s second book (Rom 1:19–21). In the second half of the twentieth century, photographs of the natural world were reproduced commercially by companies serving evangelical, fundamentalist, and Roman Catholic communities as the basis of pictorial calendars, posters, and greetings cards designed to encourage and proclaim. These were not biblical photographs as such but, rather, images that drew attention to God’s creation and articulated a biblical mindset: a view of the world seen through the lens of faith. Many of the photographs have a textual appendage to direct and make explicit the viewer/reader’s interpretation. Photographs of sublime landscapes such as sunsets and waterfalls are coupled with texts extolling the beauty and greatness of God. However, there is a cognitive dissonance between image and text in some cases. One example shows a photograph of pink magnolias in bloom captioned with a text about mortifying the deeds of the body (Rom 8:13).

Fine Art Photography and the Bible.

Such arbitrary relationships between image and text (indicative, perhaps, of the makers’ fundamental failure to comprehend the principles of iconicity) stand in stark contrast to the knowing and nuanced response of modern-day fine art photographers to the Bible. Andres Serrano’s (b. 1950) Immersion (Piss Christ) (1987) is an enlarged photograph of a crucifix immersed in a bottle of the artist’s urine. It engages the ambivalence of both text and image. The title may read as either a descriptive statement or a pejorative comment; for its part, the image is either a seductive and theologically astute articulation of Christ’s abandonment on the cross or a visualization of iconoclasm and blasphemy.

Most recently, David Mach (b. 1956) has explored the themes and legacy of the King James Bible on its 400th anniversary. In photo collages such as Noah’s Ark IV (2011) he conflates images of divine judgment and biblical cataclysms with today’s neuroses about climate change and global disaster. The images are composed of thousands of photo samples clipped from their original context and spliced together as a tableaux vivant on a scale commensurate with John Martin’s (1789–1854) end-time trilogy of paintings. In manipulating the photographs, drawing upon and reimagining the tradition of biblical painting, and fabricating visions of the past and future culled from clichéd iconographies of biblical narratives and disparate fragments derived from contemporary and commonplace photographic sources, Mach returns to the roots and encapsulates the breadth of photography’s historical relationship to the Bible.


Part of the first photograph of the Shroud of Turin. The face can be seen more clearly in the negative. From Arthur Barnes’s The Holy Shroud of Turin (1934).

Mary Evans Picture Library

view larger image



  • Behdad, Ali, and Luke Gartlan. Photography’s Orientalism: New Essays on Colonial Representation. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2013.
  • Crump, James. F. Holland Day: Suffering the Ideal. Santa Fe, N.M.: Twin Palms, 1981.
  • Harvey, John. Photography and Spirit. London: Reaktion, 2007.
  • Mach, David. David Mach—Precious Light: King James Bible, a Celebration, 1611–2011. London: Revolution Editions, 2011.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present. 5th ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984.
  • Perez, Nissan N. Focus East: Early Photography in the Near East (1839–1885). New York: Abrams, 1988.
  • Spence, Jo, and Patricia Holland, eds. Family Snaps: The Meaning of Domestic Photography. London: Virago, 2000.
  • Warburton, Nigel W. R. Mirror with a Memory? A Philosophical Analysis of Photographic Representation. Cambridge, U.K.: University of Cambridge, 1989.
  • Ware, Mike. “On Proto-photography and the Shroud of Turin.” History of Photography 21, no. 4 (1997): 261–269.

John Harvey