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The Spirit Realm 

In New Orleans it was always here but almost invisible. Voodoo was a presence, in the air but hard to see. Equally mysterious were the spiritualist churches that once dotted the inner-city back streets, some with signs identifying them, others unmarked and looking much like any other house in the block. To find out about them and their services, you had to be a member or a friend of a member.

Today voodoo exists on a more scholarly if self-conscious level while the spiritualist churches have waned as big churches with a radio or television presence have gained favor. Years ago, photographer Michael P. Smith documented a number of our spiritualist churches in a visual survey that may have been his best work. Now a young photographer, Elizabeth Bick, has picked up where Smith left off, photographing some of the surviving voodoo temples and spiritualist churches, but with a difference -- instead of the usual documentary views, she often goes for fleeting, essential impressions that evoke the emotions of spiritual expression. Because many are rather fragmentary, they are often less self-explanatory than conventional documentary images. Even so, they display a distinctive, poetic style that is unusual in a youthful emerging artist.

Fortunately, the titles include background information that offers insight into images that might otherwise seem elusive. Some of the most oblique reveal people of various ages and races taking part in esoteric rituals. Bick's artist statement suggests that many are members of La Source Ancienne Temple founded by voodooienne Sally Ann Glassman. These oddly rhapsodic scenes show initiates taking part in rituals involving conch shells, rattles, ceremonial ablutions and invocations of the loas, the spirits that "possess" voodoo practitioners in ceremonies in their honor. It's what Glassman calls "connecting with the spirit," a process "achieved only through a complete circumvention of the intellect that holds us back Š Once this occurs, the body and spirit have the ability to enter an ecstatic trance Š to enter the realm of the sacred." Her words, quoted in Bick's artist statement, go a long way toward explaining the tranced out and transient scenes on view.

Bick excels in atmospherics that have parallels with Maya Deren and David Lynch in seemingly simple compositions that evoke extra shades of meaning if you delve more deeply into them. So Realm of the Sacred, a blur of white fabric and pale flesh, conveys the dance movements that attend trance and possession. And Motherhood of the Spirit, a view of a woman holding a child as seen from the waste down, tells us something about the wearer -- especially if you know that the long white skirt is part of the emblematic regalia of a voodooienne, an impression reinforced by the print's eerie luminosity.

Ecstatic trance is also seen in the spiritualist churches, where possession by the holy spirit is recorded in images such as Bishop at Revival. This charged setting provides the backdrop for some of the more interesting portraits, for instance, In Prayer, a view of an elderly black man sitting in serene revery in a pew of the St. Benedict Spiritual Church. Bishop Gore and The Bishops of St. Benedict are informal portraits of some of the female elders, women with a certain timelessness about them. Bick says our spiritualist churches and voodoo temples have often been led by women (including some pretty famous ones, like Marie Laveau). Other noteworthy portraits include Glendoris, "also known as Lovely," a member of La Source Ancienne Temple, dressed all in white and sitting in pensive reverie, a study in mahogany and mother of pearl. Yet even these can seem fragmentary. Oungan Edgar is a pair of clasped hands like a fine mahogany carving. An oungan is a priest, and Edgar is a visiting oungan from Haiti, a devotee of Ogou, the warrior-magician spirit. While Bick's spiritualist church and voodoo series is obviously still developing, it displays an integrity of style and content that is not as easy to come by as you might think at a time when so much of what propels the art world seems based on cold calculation and intellectual artifice. By contrast, these photographs reflect a refreshing sincerity of purpose and respect for their subjects even as they document old local traditions that could all too easily slip through the cracks of history.

click to enlarge Photographer Elizabeth Bick's atmospheric sensibility draws parallels with Maya Deren and David Lynch, as we see in Motherhood of the Spirit with its voodoo trappings.
  • Photographer Elizabeth Bick's atmospheric sensibility draws parallels with Maya Deren and David Lynch, as we see in Motherhood of the Spirit with its voodoo trappings.
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