Clouds as a gateway to God

RedLodge Montana

Red Lodge Montana

I spent 20 years of my life running from God. I won’t go into the reasons here – for a long time I blamed poor religious education, but that was just an excuse – but I began my adult life in full flight from questions about God, faith and spirituality. Obviously I didn’t run fast or far enough. I wonder now if I ever could.

I don’t know if the profession I chose ended up making my exodus into agnosticism doomed from the start. I do know that choosing to become a journalist and photographer didn’t lead to riches, but looking back from the far side of my life’s midpoint, it’s obvious now that it amplified my doubts about being a doubter, often during the simple process of trying to take a beautiful photograph.

Two years ago I began excavating work I hadn’t looked at in decades from the binders where 20 years of film had been gathering dust. Encouraged by my wife, I set out to discover if any of it had value, either aesthetically or as a document of the times during which I’d lived and worked. I knew, as I began scanning the old negatives, that it would force me to confront the young man I was and the worldview I was building with what was at hand – meagre as those materials might have been.

Last year I found a bunch of negatives shot at the turn of the ‘90s, when I was living in a loft studio in a dodgy Toronto neighbourhood whose great attraction was its proximity to the lakeshore. Apparently I spent a day wandering around with a camera and a bunch of film shooting clouds and sky – a technical challenge, first and foremost (it’s not easy to capture a really detailed photo of clouds and sky on film without a decent knowledge of light, film speed, lenses and filters) but also a creative one. I had become fascinated by clouds and sky, and whenever possible I made them a feature in my work – not just landscapes or cityscapes but portraits as well.

I became a photographer – this is a joke I like to tell, but like most jokes it’s basically a confession – because I was a lousy painter, and I had always loved landscape paintings by English artists like John Constable and especially J.M.W. Turner, paintings that celebrate the beauty of the British countryside under wildly dramatic skies (Constable) or the primal power of sun, wind and weather (Turner.) I loved making clouds part of my photos so much that I constantly rented a painted backdrop of clouds and sky for studio shoots, when I couldn’t take my subjects outside.

I can’t speak for anyone else who’s lost and regained faith, but rediscovering God wasn’t unlike hitting a reset button on the human religious impulse – I had to return to the most basic stirrings of spirituality and recognition of the divine and re-trace thousands of years of longing for God by myself. I suppose that’s why I fixated on skies, but not just skies – blue and cool and bright – but skies curtained with clouds, where light is obscured and everything changes constantly, the clouds looking serene at one moment, portentous and threatening the next.

Beartooth Valley Montana

Beartooth Valley Montana

The striving for God has always focused on things we can see or visit; we’re literal people, and humankind always invests itself deeply in metaphors, often past the point at which they’re useful. Early human civilization found the sacred in caves, out of some instinct that the eternal was below the earth, and so we ended up with the underworld, and all the rich symbolic and literal imagery that this place in our minds has given civilization for millennia.

I like to think that we only began looking past ourselves when we looked to the sky for the divine. It was a place far more abstract than the soil and what lay beneath, and until barely two hundred years ago it was a place we couldn’t begin to visit. We imagined heaven as a home in the sky, only better; that vision can still be found today, lingering behind the rational science of astronomy as we search for – even palpably long for – a better place in the universe; somewhere to start over, or a place in the stars where more of our questions about life and its meaning will be answered.

It’s not surprising that J.M.W. Turner’s reputed last words when he died in 1851 were “The sun is God.” For a man living in an age of reason, who had witnessed so much history and progress, he also longed for a deep spiritual connection to the world, and you can feel it in his canvasses, where light burns somewhere beyond the landscape, buildings and fevered human activity in the foreground, dwarfed by boiling skies or a glaring sun searing through the paint.

We can debate all we want about what Turner meant by his last words, or even if he actually said them. He certainly wouldn’t have been the first person who mistook the life-giving sun for a deity, though it’s easier to imagine him reaching out to the most powerful thing he had ever witnessed in a life acutely attuned to nature’s majesty and the transforming qualities of light.

RedLodge Montana

Red Lodge Montana

Perhaps that’s what I was doing when I began taking my cloud pictures, and trying to devise ways of putting clouds and sky behind and above my subjects. It was a difficult time in my life; both my parents had died and I was often overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness; some real faith would have provided solace, but I had to take what I could get, and if that meant peering through the constantly shifting curtain of clouds, trying to discern some meaning or purpose, I can only say that there’s always a lifeline available for anyone, even if they can’t see it.

I still take pictures of clouds and sky. Contrary to the sarcastic jibes of militant atheists, I’m not imagining God somewhere beyond the clouds and stars, though I suppose that when we start thinking about the universe and its vastness, the concept of eternity is impossible to ignore, and many scientists, with minds much greater than my own, have been brought around to faith after staring intently at this point beyond space and time.

I suppose my photos of clouds and sky, at this point in my life, are a way of acknowledging something great and majestic, not just in nature, but in life itself. I once felt frightened and alone in the universe; today I have finally begun to feel my place in it again, not alone and not afraid, thanks partly to faith and the Church, but also the scant talent and skill that’s allowed me to make pictures of something vast and mysterious, above and behind everything from mere humans and our cities, but also mountains and forests, seas, and vast prairies.

I can only describe it – tritely, I’ll admit – as a sense of wonder, and it’s my small gift to be able to share it.

All photos on this page by Rick McGinnis.