the light of the world

The Beauty of Ansel Adams’ Vision


Here is one image of Ansel Adams’ encounter with the evocative forms, textures, and light-sensitive surfaces of the historic church in Taos, New Mexico.

Here is another of his images of the same church, from the east end:

Adams’ attentiveness to the features of the natural world, and with his particular eye to the dynamic interrelationship between light and dark, helped him to create a legacy of compelling photographs that continue to be a source of allure for those who love photography. Many of us find especially compelling his winter images, as well as those of Yosemite and northern New Mexico, where he spent so much time in the field.

Adams’ photographs often prompt me to think of John’s Gospel. This is because of Adams’ and John’s mutual interest in the juxtaposition of light and dark, and the dynamic relation between the two in our perception and experience. Given our present physical as well as spiritual existence in this world, and considering the terms of successful photography, the presence of the dark helps us appreciate the beauty of light.

A technical inquiry into Ansel Adams methods, about how he photographed scenes with film-based cameras, helps us appreciate the significance of his technique. He used lens filters to highlight visual contrast, and was equally attentive to the composition of the chemical baths used for developing the negatives and the subsequent prints made from them. Noticing and considering these aspects of his creative work helps us appreciate how the ‘given-ness’ of what he saw was also shaped by how he came to render and present it. If he had been a religious man, he might have attributed some of this ‘rendering process’ to the shaping power of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel writer, John, in receiving, interpreting, and then presenting Jesus and his ministry, as well as Jesus’ life and death, had a similar challenge. There was the ‘given-ness’ of Jesus’ teachings, signs or mighty acts, and his powerful presence in the eyes of many. Yet, John, led by the Holy Spirit, has given us a marvelous Gospel shaped by the spiritual dialectic between light and dark. And this is what brings to mind the ostensibly secular parallel provided by Ansel Adams’ portfolio. Among several passages in John, consider the marvelous account of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus by night in chapter 2. And John, alone among the Gospels, records Jesus as saying, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Perhaps, when we are brought to the hoped-for ‘other side,’ we won’t experience a contrast between light and dark, but rather something more like a contrast among various captivating colors. Yet, while in this world, and while our lives remain colored by sin, we see, and we see better, when we are blessed by the perception of contrast between light and dark.

A ‘both-and’ approach to what we encounter in life may be congenial and even comforting when we deal with paradox and contradiction. But, an either/or challenge to our preferred ways of seeing things can be bracing and helpful for our perception. This is one reason why, even though most of us see the world in color, black and white photographs can be so evocative. As John recognizes in his Gospel, the darkness that has not overcome the light helps us recognize the Light of the world.


In memory of Robert (Bob) Bolton of Albuquerque, NM (1948-2022).


The Beauty of Light


“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John states this forthrightly in his Gospel (1:5). Light draws our attention, particularly when set against contrasting darkness. Our inclination to seek light seems to be a near-universal aspect of human nature. Notice how often people are drawn to well-lit rooms and sunlit places to sit or work.

This truism, discerned in natural human experience, is paralleled by a similar phenomenon in our experience of the sacred and of divinity. We often speak of these encounters by employing the metaphor of illumination, of ‘seeing the light.’ A popular contemporary hymn, based in part on imagery from the book of Revelation, has this refrain: “In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” These are biblically-inspired, and faith-shaped, prayerful words.

Our created natural humanity is therefore disposed to seek the light, both physically and spiritually. We yearn to discern, to see and to know. And in so many ways, light is the key to perception. Light enables us to discern physical presence from absence; things that are large as compared with those that are small; things that are near as compared with things that are far; and, perhaps most experientially significant, the panoply of color as compared with the mere difference between light and dark. (This is one reason why I buy full-spectrum light bulbs, such as halogen bulbs).

Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation of part of Matthew 5 prompted me to think along these lines. He renders Jesus’ familiar words, “You are the light of the world,” in this way: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”

Having shared his vocation with his disciples and first followers, Jesus shares his calling with us. In part, it is rooted in the prophet Isaiah’s vocation. When Israel was called to be a light to the nations of the world, Isaiah found that he was called to be an exemplar of this role. We know from history that neither Isaiah nor God’s people were able to fulfill that lofty and sacred summons. Jesus then accepted and fulfilled the same vocation. As members of his Body, he shares it with us, with all its holy responsibility.

Jesus’ sense of his vocation may have been founded upon his appreciation for several texts from Isaiah:

I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations… (Is.42:6)

I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Is. 49:6)

And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Is. 60:3)

Matthew appears to have understood this, and quotes Jesus in this way:

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Mt. 5:15-16)

Luke confirms this same understanding of Isaiah’s words when he reports on Paul and Barnabas at Antioch. In Acts he portrays Paul as contending for the mission to the Gentiles while applying Isaiahs words to Barnabas and himself:

I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth. (Acts 13:47)

Though we often seek the gift of light for ourselves, for our own sake, God gives light for the life of the world.


The image above is by Isaak Levitan, Near Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery. The hymn, “I want to walk as a child of the light,” can be found (among many other places) in The Hymnal 1982 (#490).