For 30 years, Linda Connor has roamed the world searching for the sacred, and Odyssey, her retrospective show at the Center for Creative Photography, testifies to her geographic—and religious—reach.
She has aimed her large-format camera at holy places in Cambodia, Thailand, Ethiopia, Turkey, Utah, France, Hawaii, Peru and Egypt, not to mention Indonesia, Japan, Zimbabwe and Nepal. A longtime professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, Connor has photographed Native American petroglyphs, candles glowing in the cathedral at Chartres and low-relief carvings in Egyptian tombs.
Connor's photographs record a variety of religious practices and sacred sites, from monasteries high in the Himalayas to Hawaiian carvings on volcanic rock. But her project is not anthropological. What she's really trying for is a sense of mystery and transcendence. As she puts it in a conversation in the exhibition catalog, her meditative works are "an attempt to point toward the unfathomable ... to suggest the indescribable."
The images are still and hushed, and often unpeopled, or very nearly so. "Lamayuru, Ladakh, India," 1985, is a village carved into a mountainside. White-rock buildings in a dense urban settlement in the middle of nowhere have been shot from on high. Connor, casting her lens down on the tangle of white-rock buildings and courtyards, finds only a few dark-clad figures in the narrow streets.
"In the Shadow of the Pyramid," Egypt, 1989, she finds an intimate moment in a panoramic landscape. Her view of the pyramid is fragmented, askew and dark. A lone figure kneels on the slope, curving diagonally down from the giant tomb.
Often, she concentrates on nature as much as architecture. "Petroglyphs, PuuLoa, Hawaii," 1986, searches out the drawings etched into rock, but these human marks—a stick man, a triangular woman—are only a tiny element in a wide-open lava-scape. Similarly, at a petroglyph site in Bluff, Iowa, a row of little chiseled hands and dots are miniscule in a landscape of cascading rock ("Dots and Hands II, Fourteen Window Ruin," 2000).
Another Hawaiian image, from O'Hia in 1997, is pure nature, a lovely look at tree branches scraping against the sky. The photographer must have lain down on the ground beneath the trees, and looked up at the heavens with her viewfinder.
Connor uses an old-fashioned, large-format camera with 8-by-10 negatives. The big camera, which she's lugged through airports and along remote trails all over the world, allows her a contradictory luxury: sweeping views as well as extraordinary details. Back home, she does direct contact printing, putting her negatives on printing paper outside in her garden and exposing them to the light of the sun. Toned with gold chloride, and printed in a warm black that's almost sepia, the pictures seem to have captured the sun's rays.
The galleries of the CCP have been transformed for the occasion, with the white walls painted black, and partitions put up to divide the big space into small, cavelike rooms. The photos glisten on the walls like votive objects in a chapel. The viewer can move through the silent rooms in a kind of processional, a walking meditation.
The final rooms open up again into brilliant white to show some of Connor's experiments with new technology. A selection of the older, small negatives—mostly of rocky mountains where vegetation is sparse—have been digitized and printed in a large format in an inkjet printer. The detail is astonishing: Every crumbling stone is visible. To my eye, though, they lose the warmth of the earlier glowing pieces. Their blinding black and white made me want to scurry back to the dark cave.
She's especially skilled at picturing light, capturing it from reality and deploying it metaphorically. (In the catalog, writer William L. Fox notes her preoccupation with "how light is received from the heavens.") In "Votive Candles, Chartres Cathedral, France," 1989, hundreds of flames flicker in the darkness, a choir of candles dancing for the Lord.
Some of her sacred subjects are not unexpected for a project of this sort. A giant carved head from the temple in Angkor Thom, Cambodia, 1999, is beautiful but familiar, and so is the charming crocodile chiseled into the side of a tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, 1989. But many are surprising. The Christian rites Connor photographed in Ethiopia, for instance, are little-known in the Western world, and her pictures are stunning.
In "Funeral," Ethiopia, 2006, white-robed mourners are conducting a service in the open air near towering trees, on an earth floor lush with grasses and plants. Connor has pointed her camera through the natural bower, so the participants are glimpsed only belatedly through the trunks and branches. The living and the dead are at one with nature. The mysterious "Mass, St. George's Church, Ethiopia," 2006, has a giant hole carefully dug in the ground; inside, rising up to the level of the earth, is a giant cross lying horizontally.
Connor occasionally turns from religious monuments and gives full attention to the humans who made them. Her portraits are radiant.
"Sloe-Eyed Girl, Egypt," 1989, places a young girl in her own familiar haunts, on a dirt road near a rock wall, in front of a weedy tree. Dressed in an ankle-length dress, she stares steadily at the photographer with her dark eyes. She clutches a taut rope that extends out of the picture frame. A stubborn animal apparently is pulling on its leash. Connor's choice to leave the creature out of the image is funny, setting up a guessing game about the girl's occupation. But the animal's absence also leaves a viewer's full attention on the girl.
In another "environmental portrait," a blind musician plays a sitar, sitting outdoors on a plank floor in Kashmir, India, in 1985. His eyes are blank, but his face expresses his peaceful spirit, his oneness with his music. Sometimes, Connor singles out body parts, like a new baby's pure, unused feet in "Baby Feet, Hawaii," 1978, or, in "Mudra, Mindroling Monastery, Tibet," 1993, the hands of a gleaming statue, curved into a prayerful gesture.
And Connor doesn't shy away from finding the holy in the everyday. "Woman Winnowing Wheat, Turkey," 1992, captures a peasant performing a never-ending task. She raises a basket high above her head, and bending her body slightly, she pours the wheat into a pile on the ground, separating it from the chaff. She'll do it again, and again, and again, her repetitive motion a daily prayer of love and care for her family.