Capturing baptism

Published 10:22 pm Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Caroline Davis’ underwater baptism photographs so impressed those who attended the “Celebrating Contemporary Art in Alabama: The Nature of Being Southern” exhibition at the Johnson Center for the Arts in 2009, that Richard Metzger, executive director, said a second showing was imperative.

“I was intrigued with Caroline Davis’ underwater baptism photographs, as were many people,” Metzger said. “In talking with her, I found that she had 20 of the black-and-white underwater baptism photographs and I wanted to see the entire grouping. Her work had been so well received that I knew the public also would appreciate the opportunity to see the entire body of work. I’m extremely proud that we were able to bring this exhibition to the Johnson Center.”

The exhibition is featured in the Lower Level Gallery of the Johnson Center and will run through May 16.

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Davis’ background is as an underwater, commercial photographer but her interest in baptisms may be traced back to her childhood when her African-American “second mother” sang the songs of river baptisms to her.

“The comforting sound of her voice and the beautiful words of those songs have remained deep in my heart,” Davis said.

Those songs of river baptisms and her love of the deep water were the source of Davis’ intense interest in photographing baptisms underwater.

“I started scuba diving when I was nine years old,” she said. I have the joy that only comes from diving into the unknown landscape of the deep waters of this planet.”

On a commercial photo assignment in the Caribbean, Davis just happened upon a baptism while underwater. A short time later, back home in Alabama, she was flying over the Black Warrior River and, from the air, she saw a baptism in the river.

That increased her fascination with river baptisms and brought about a never-ending chase to capture these sacred moments.

“Doing this type of photography takes me to a place deep within myself,” Davis said.

“By going underwater, I’m searching to find out what’s not visible to other people. Beneath the surface with the songs and prayers reverberating all around me, I go into a deep meditative state in the immediacy of the second revealed to me.

“I try to combine the body under the water, the reflection and line of the water and the line of the surrounding congregation above. This all comes together in a single moment. The photograph, I hope, will make that moment eternal.”

Davis said the urgency of her work is that these ritual passages may soon vanish.

“River baptisms are in decline,” she said.

“These age old-baptisms could soon end. So, I’m trying to cover as many Southern states as fast as I can to photograph as many of these river baptisms as I can.”

Davis is now playing a role other than that of a fine art photographer. By the forces of nature and society, she has become a historian, too.”

Metzger said few people will have the opportunity to see a river baptism and even fewer will ever see one from an underwater perspective.

But through the lens of Caroline Davis, it’s possible to envision something so special and so sacred that some people can’t help but cry.

Davis photographs are not religion driven but, the often-emotional response from those who view them, keep her searching for those images “that come once in a lifetime.”

Davis’ “Wave Series” photographs are also on exhibit on the Lower Level of the Johnson Center.

“The dramatic colors of the Wave photographs are in amazing contrast to Caroline Davis’ black-and-white photographs and are a great complement to Sandra Hicks Barnes’ artwork, which is also on exhibit,” Metzger said. “Barnes is from nearby Dublin and her local landscapes are extremely colorful. Her work has a post-impressionist feel. Lush would be a good word to describe her work.

“The exhibitions in the Lower Level Gallery are outstanding and we invite everyone to visit the Johnson Center and view the work of Caroline Davis and Sandra Hicks Barnes.”

The Johnson Center is located at 300 East Walnut Street in downtown Troy. Hours are 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free.