Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – 22 November, 2019

This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – the book fest continues with David T. Hanson’s The Cloud of Unknowing.

Book Review:

The Cloud of Unknowing – David T. Hanson

The Cloud of Unknowing Cover

The images in this new book are in stark contrast to American documentary photographer David T. Hanson’s long term study of the apocalyptic impact of the Industrial Age on the American landscape – you may recall my review of Hanson’s book Waste Land at the end of last year.

In The Cloud of Unknowing Hanson turns his astute mind and enquiring eye to sacred sites of worship in the United States and South Asia. The title of the book is taken from “an anonymous fourteenth-century Christian mystic’s vision of divine communion, but it also suggests the dark side of religion,” writes Hanson, who began the project with a skeptical, perhaps cynical view. “Over time my portrayal of these sites became less distanced and ironic, and more sympathetic and deeply personal.”

The Cloud of Unknowing #47
Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Los Angeles, California, 1999 © David T. Hanson

Hanson is a master storyteller, who uses his camera to create images that exist in order to make us think beyond what we know. As I make my way through the book’s 252 pages and 133 colour images, I experience a shift in my response to these pictures.

Once I move past the physical beauty and intrigue of the images and their documentary import, I enter a different realm of consciousness to ponder humankind’s long relationship with the mystical and the need for places of worship and sanctuary. What do these monuments to the imagined, or make believe, tell us about ourselves? One can take a cynical approach to reading these images, but if you do you will miss a deeper encounter not only with the spaces, but the rich human narrative that lies within. 

The Cloud of Unknowing #79
Kailasa Temple, Ellora, Maharashtra, India, 1999 © David T. Hanson
The Cloud of Unknowing #55
Grotto of the Blessed Virgin, Holy Ghost Church, Dickeyville, Wisconsin, 2011 © David T. Hanson
The Cloud of Unknowing #147
Gomateshvara, Vindhyagiri Hill, Sravanabelagola, Karnataka, India, 2008 © David T. Hanson

Most of the pictures are without human presence, but when people are in frame often they appear as diaphanous figures moving through a space that feels as old as time itself, yet these images also talk of the impermanence of life. It is a beautiful contradiction that is intriguing.

In contrast to Hanson’s other works that have fired my activist heart, The Cloud of Unknowing invites a meditative reading. This is not a book to flick through, but one that demands you spend time not just looking, but seeing.

In the introduction to the book, Hanson quotes from the French mystic and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who more than 80 years ago wrote: 

“Humankind is being brought to a moment where it will have to decide between suicide and adoration…Someday after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love, and then for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

This quote beautifully sums up Hanson’s book, which is ultimatley a story of hope that comes at a time when we need it most. 

The Cloud of Unknowing #231
Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California, 2011 © David T. Hanson
The Cloud of Unknowing #23
Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, New Mexico, 2011 © David T. Hanson

The Cloud of Unknowing, Taverner Press

Clothbound with jacket, 10.25 x 11 inches, 252 pages, 133 four-colour photographs.

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