by Alison Zavos in New Photography on Monday 13 October 2008

The vibrant and intricate work of photographer Dave Jordano is full of subtle meaning and deft use of colour. His series on African-American churches is particularly illuminating. We spoke to him about it: How long have you been documenting small African-American churches in Chicago and what made you decide to embark on this project? ‘The project of documenting African American storefront churches came about quite by accident. I was working on another project just over the Illinois/Indiana border and my route took me over the Chicago Skyway Bridge. I would often look down onto a small plain industrial building that had a large hand painted sign above it’s door that read, “Cathedral of Divine Love Church.” I was impressed that this pastor felt that his little nondescript building was worthy of being called a cathedral. This notion stuck with me for quite some time and I just couldn’t shake it off. Finally, after several weeks of driving by the building, I decided to stop and introduce myself and ask if I could photograph the church. The pastor’s obvious remark was, “Services start in about an hour, you can come by after everyone has arrived.” My response was, “No, what I really had in mind was to photograph the church empty and that I was mainly interested in how he had decorated and set it up.” This threw up a cloud of suspicion as he thought my request was rather odd. I persisted, and after much discussion about my intentions, God, and religion, he granted me permission. I felt as if I had been the center of an inquisition, but rightly so. It was important that I had the trust of every pastor, that they knew my intentions were sincere, and that I had a great deal of respect for their church. I went back several times over the next month and made more photographs’.

‘After that first experience, I sensed there was a profoundly independent, eccentric quality to each of these pastors and each of them in their own way were determined to create a church based on their own beliefs and faith. I wanted to document these spaces not only for their unique qualities but also because their importance within poor black urban neighborhoods were pillars of community stability and support. After I had photographed a number of churches, I put together a small portfolio that I would present to a pastor so that they would get a sense of the project. I continued to work on the project for three and one-half years, photographing about 65 churches. I finished working on the project in 2006. The Center for American Places, Columbia College, is publishing the work next year in a monograph titled “Articles of Faith” with an essay written by Carla Williams’.

The colours are so vibrant in these spaces. Do you have to look hard to find these environments or are they reasonably common in the churches you photograph?
‘Although I found each church interesting, on average most of the interiors shared a common look consisting of plain white walls, used wooden pews or a mixed set of chairs and red carpet. This was probably for economic reasons as most pastors have little money to work with. I never knew how a church was going to look until I entered and introduced myself. Knowing when to enter a church also became an issue. I didn’t want to enter and disrupt services so I would try and time my visits before services started or enter when things were just wrapping up. Sometimes I would quietly enter and someone would encourage me to come in and sit down. When services were over the pastor would introduce me as a new visitor to the church and I would explain my project to the members. Most times there were no more that 10-15 people present. Ironically, the most unadorned, simply decorated exterior facades revealed some of the most colorful interiors. I’d walk in and just be blown away by the beauty. The churches with the most color and decoration were often run by female pastors, or there was a women who was designated the “mother” of the church who was responsible for the decorating. Some of the simple, stripped down minimalist churches were also some of my favorites as well’.

Can you briefly tell us the story about the photo of the person wearing the orange suit?
‘This is a portrait of Pastor Anderson. He was the patriarch of a small church that had no more than 8 members, all of them relatives. His daughter had recently gotten married but they didn’t have any wedding photos so I offered to do a portrait of them. For this, I brought in a strobe & umbrella light, trying to make the whole affair a bigger deal. I took portraits of other members too but in the end I felt that all the extra equipment was a distraction that created a formality I wasn’t comfortable with. After I packed up all my equipment, I noticed him idly leaning against a table, the room was illuminated by only the light in the ceiling. It was the shot that I had been looking for all day. It took no more than a minute to shoot but his gaze had an eternal quality that was powerful. I went back a few months later to visit again but found the church had disbanded with no forwarding address. This was common with about 25% of the churches I photographed’.

As a successful commercial photographer, do you find that you work in a different mindset when shooting your personal/documentary work?
‘Yes and no. I often get comments that my fine art work is completely different from my commercial work, and people are both puzzled and impressed by that. The commercial work is done to make a living and the fine art work is done because you think you have something to say about the world in which you live in. I’ve never thought about interconnecting the two, only about keeping them separate. It’s the same reason why I have two different web sites, one for the commercial work and one for my fine art projects. I don’t want to attach any commercial connotation to the fine art work. It’s strictly meant for personal expression and issues that I feel are important to me. Having said that, I think the work ethic discipline that I acquired running a commercial studio has had a positive effect on my personal work. Working toward a goal, devising a plan, staying focused, and following through with a project is equally as important whether your running a business or shooting a personal/fine art project. But none of this, quite frankly, matters unless your passionate about what you do’.

You have been in the photography business for over 30 years, how do you feel that the industry has changed over time?
‘The biggest difference I see has been the digital revolution. Art directors have so much visual material at their disposal today that when I see a layout, it’s so completely executed that I’m often wondering what it is they want me to shoot. Their client has seen the finished concept and are often so enamored by the comp shot in the layout that they’re reluctant to deviate and try something else. They’ve already made a pre-conceived decision of what the ad will look like. Instead of the layout becoming a point of creative departure, it becomes a tool of increasing restriction. Basically, I liked it much better when art directors worked with pen and prisma markers instead of a Mac.

‘The other aspect is how fast digital technology is moving. I used the same 8 X 10 Sinar view camera for 25 years in my studio. It’s still in perfect condition and makes a great door stop today. In the past four years I’ve upgraded my digital camera system three times already and next year Hasselblad announced it’s coming out with their new 50MB digital capture back. I find these kinds of upgrading expenses difficult to deal with on any professional level but for most start-up photographers just beginning their careers and with the economic challenges we face today, it has to be particularly painful’.

Are you currently working on any new projects you can talk about?
‘Yes, I’m currently working on a project about rural Illinois, small towns specifically. To paraphrase my artist statement: “Illinois is a state long monopolized by mechanized agricultural farming, creating endless fields of corn and soybeans and leaving several hundred economically challenged older small towns dotting the landscape. Within this geographic and economic framework I’m searching for strong notions of individualistic expression that are tied directly to the land and its people. As someone who is admittedly an outsider, I’m trying to discover for myself the differences that separate my own perception of rural life and what I find to be that reality, whether real or imagined.” Much like the church project in its relationship and connection to Chicago, Illinois small rural towns make up a part of the economic and social fabric of the state that gives it its character’.

What kind of camera are you using for your documentary work?
‘I went from film to a digital format about four years ago. I use a Hasselblad H3DII medium format camera coupled with a 39MB capture back. I use this camera for both my commercial and personal work’.

dave jordano
dave jordano
dave jordano
dave jordano