Heavens Apart

Clara Gutsche Reveals Images Of Intimacy And Insight In 'The Convent Series.'

AN EX-NUN OF our acquaintance, a member of a teaching order for some 30 years and still a devout Catholic, has particular views on photographs of nuns. When newspaper photographers snap nuns to fill a feature slot, she says, the women come in just two varieties: childish and silly.

"They love pictures of nuns eating ice cream cones," the ex-nun points out. "And then riding on roller coasters is another one."

She's right. Nuns in the popular press are an instant joke, comical creatures not to be taken seriously. Lacing the humor, of course, is a nasty brew of ingredients. Take contempt for women who choose celibacy, mix with a hint of anti-Catholicism, and top off with amazement that anyone would reject the materialism of modern secular life. It's a recipe for dismissive pictures that portray nuns as humans only half-formed.

So it's a great pleasure to find serious photographs of nuns over at the Center for Creative Photography in the traveling exhibition Clara Gutsche: The Convent Series. Gutsche's pictures are everything the standard newspaper photographs are not: insightful, curious, respectful. Some 43 photos, 28 of them black-and-white, the rest in color, offer a rare glimpse of nuns in their intimate spaces. In these serenely beautiful pictures, the women do all sorts of things: pray in the chapel, dine in the refectory, meditate in the cell (bedroom), read the paper, even paint. An elderly nun in "L'atelier de l'artiste/Artist's Studio" poses proudly, paintbrush in hand, before the portrait she's made of the sainted founder of her order.

Sometimes the nuns Gutsche pictures are alone, like the Sister of Visitation lost in thought in the golden "La salle de communauté/The Community Room." More often they're together, their identical habits emphasizing their dedication to a group undertaking. The cheerful red-aproned Sisters of the Adoration of the Precious Blood have been framed in classic perspective in "Les cellules/The Cells," a wonderful composition in stark white and red. Lined up along a bedroom corridor, each nun smiles at the door of her cell, and each one is tinier than the last in the receding white hallway.

An American who's lived for many years in the Roman Catholic stronghold of Quebec, Gutsche got unprecedented permission to take photographs in about 25 different cloisters. In these convents, unlike those whose nuns go out to work, the members seclude themselves from the world in favor of prayer and contemplation. The spare architecture is one of her pictures' greatest allures. Soaring windows, sweeping corridors, sitting rooms remarkable for their absence of clutter all stand in for the simplicity of the religious life. (Nuns take a vow of poverty.) Gutsche heightens that sense of the holy by composing her images classically, with central focal points and symmetrical arrangement of objects. And she photographs only by day, to take advantage of the northerly Canadian light streaming through windows, literal light that becomes a metaphor for grace.

Another "Salle de communauté/The Community Room," at the Grey Sisters' motherhouse, offers a gorgeous view of a gathering room. Light from four tall French windows splashes onto the warm pale-wood floor, empty except for the rows of straight-back chairs at far right. Two white pillars rising to the ceiling, framing a single plain table at center, make of the space a harmonious geometry. No nuns are in it; they don't have to be. Their room speaks eloquently for their values. Gutsche's work helps outsiders understand the appeal of a quiet life spent in austere spaces.

Hints of the outside world do creep in. Televisions occupy prominent spots in community rooms, though they're diminished by their placement among paintings of saints and popes. One sister keeps her knitting wool handy in a plastic shopping bag printed with a picture of a standard secular model--a woman with heavily made-up eyes and pouty mouth. And a Cistercienne sister, in one of the show's most appealing photos, eagerly leans over the day's newspaper.

A few photos do picture the women at play, roughhousing with a dog, wielding croquet mallets. These pictures are harmless in the context of the show, but they have uncomfortable links to those ice-cream licking newspaper stereotypes. And a couple examples of Catholic kitsch are at odds with the otherwise pleasing convent aesthetic: a life-sized diorama of the Fatima apparition, for instance, its Madonna and three shepherd children captured in living color. But the dispassionate lens of Gutsche does not discriminate: she shies away from no aspect of convent life, or death.

Photos of a basement burial ground etch in somber detail the life trajectory of many nuns. Stacked up in rows, the crypts bear such telling details as these: "Sr. Therese Marie of the Sacred Heart, died 31 December 1945, aged 27 years and 2 months, in religion 4 years and 6 months." And a wake for a nun, at the convent of the Daughters of Jesus, marks the only time Gutsche abandons her usual observer role. She's used some printing tricks to impose a ghostly image of secular mourners on a shot of the sister lying in the coffin. Does she mean to show that even in death the nun is apart from her family?

Cloistered nuns are so separate from the outside world that they typically receive visitors from behind "grills," checkerboard metal bars that physically divide them from those who love them. Gutsche has made some memorable photos of these notorious bars. The nuns pose serenely on the far side of the grills, voting by their feet, as it were, embracing their isolation. Despite the helpful insights offered by Gutsche's camera, that choice remains a mystery to those of us on the outside. We can only wonder at the intensity of the devout young nun in "La salle du chapître/The Meeting Room." Eyes closed, hands clasped, she frowns. Deep in prayer, oblivious to the photographer, she's in another realm altogether.

Clara Gutsche: The Convent Series continues through Sunday, June 11, at the UA Center for Creative Photography, at the south end of the pedestrian underpass at Speedway Boulevard and Park Avenue. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call 621-7968.