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The art of contemplation

By NCR Staff


The traditional nun picture was an action photo. The photographer shot the nuns teaching, healing, cooking or, on certain breezy occasions, playing soccer - invariably doing something, an anomaly considering the contemplative impulse that inspired all the action.

Photographer Clara Gutsche’s “The Convent Series” shows something else:The sisters slowed down. In a sense they stopped their world. Twenty-five convents, most of them cloistered, in the province of Quebec, Canada, opened their doors to the photographer. “Rarely have we seen a camera approach a world so silent and render images so evocative and full of meaning,” writes museum director France Gascon, who first exhibited the photos in Quebec.

They are on exhibition through June 11 at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, a prestigious museum and research center that houses the collections of such greats as Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon.

Gutsche was born in St. Louis but has been living in Montreal for the past 30 years. “At the beginning, she was interested only in convent interiors,” Gascon explains. “However, as the project progressed during the 1990s, the photographer increasingly focused on individuals as she began to devote her attention primarily to contemplative communities.”

The nuns she depicts are more traditional, or perhaps timeless, than contemporary or trendy. They represent a part of the Catholic church that may be departing for good. Gascon again: “[Gutsche] often photographs an era that - for social, political, cultural reasons - has collapsed into the past or escaped the present. … It is not about holding onto time past but about exploring what time has left behind for us. … Time exists primarily as it is experienced in relationships between people, and between these people and their milieu.”


National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000