Interview with Rich Gregg:
On a morning when it was pouring down rain in Riverside, California Rich Gregg looked out his front window to see a photographer standing in front of his house photographing roses. Curious about this he opened his front door and invited me in. As we sat in his office he began to explain to me his “Psalms Pain to Praise Photo Project. To quote him, “Athanasius of Alexandria has been credited with saying ‘Most of the scriptures speak to us; the Psalms speak for us.’ The Psalms give eloquent voice to the reality of the human situation–injustice, catastrophic loss, grief, guilt, betrayal, illness. The photo series of representational images (Pain, Plea, Prayer, Promise, Presence, Pleasure, and Praise) illustrates or ‘illuminates’ expressions from the Psalms.”
Crammer: What was the background experience behind this project?
Rich Gregg: Two things: Grief and the digital camera.
Our three-year-old son was killed by a drunken driver on our front lawn in 1976. The grief my wife and I shared together was intense and deep. For ten nights we fell asleep crying in each other’s arms. We drifted through the dark valley together. By God’s grace the experience strengthened the invisible bonds between us. We learned later that this is not always true for other couples.
My wife, Sue, turned her attention to researching and writing healthy whole foods cookbooks. In 1999 I was introduced to the digital still camera. As my wife prepared recipes I shot each step and then edited the demonstration. I was shooting hundreds of food demonstration photos.
We discovered that Ann Chandler, a former high school and college classmate, was also interested in healthy whole foods cooking. I was looking for opportunities to add guest cooking demonstrations to the website [link] I was building for my wife’s cookbooks, so I asked Mrs. Chandler’s if she would allow me to shoot some of her ethnic German recipe preparations. That was the beginning of photo work with her.
My father died in January of 2003. Several months later I called the Chandlers expecting Ann’s husband, Roger, to answer as he usually did. Instead, Ann answered, and I told her about my father’s death not expecting her to respond with the news that her husband, too, had passed away. That was the first time I had experienced hearing those words directly from a new widow. It was as if I were suddenly transitioned into a world where “widowed” would become the new norm.
As my wife and I absorbed the news of Ann’s widowhood we reflected on the fact that my wife had acquired a book titled “Widowed” which shocked her with the real possibility that she, too, could be widowed. She had not seriously contemplated the implications for herself before. For us this was a signpost that we were crossing through one of life’s reminders of the passing of time. We had known grief before, but we knew, however, that the death of a spouse could be quite a different thing. Our son was gone, but we were still in the same house together supporting and sharing. A widow is alone.
An opportunity to interview Ann Chandler came later. She had entered Washington State University on scholarships. At the same time I entered WSU disillusioned by the do’s and don’ts kind of religiosity I was taught as a high school student. “If there is a God,” I speculated,” “He have to find me on this campus.” At the semester break I was invited to join Rosalind Rinker and Paul Byer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff, in a study of the “Sheep Story” in the tenth chapter of the gospel of John. The revelation to me was that the “hearing” and “following” words in the text described a different perspective. Jesus, the shepherd in the story, was inviting me to commit to a personal relationship with him not just a religious preference, behaviors, reformations, or even a set of beliefs. It is the relationship connection that brings about radical transformation from the inside out.
Ros Rinker’s book, “You can Witness with Confidence” describes the conversion of a freshman girl at WSU, Sue Carstens, who was to become my wife. I realized that I probably would have introduced any girl I knew on campus to Ros. So now I asked Ann, years later, “Did you meet Rosland Rinker your fresheman year? Her answer, “Yes.” Did you pray ‘The Prayer?’” I queried. “Yes” was her reply.
Ann Chandler read from her husband’s private journal written during the last few months of his life describing his spiritual quest. She spoke of the joys and challenges of 43 married years. Of pain and forgiveness. She spoke of her apprehensions about her future. We cried together. While describing her journey through grief she referenced an article in The Spokesman Review indicating that it could take as long a six years before a widow experiences a day without a reminder that her husband was not there. It is a long, long road to travel.
She gave me permission to continue photographing her recipe creations–sauerbraten, red cabbage, spatzle. [link] In subsequent photo sessions I discovered, however, that creating floral designs is to her what music is to others–an act of imitating the creator, an expression of worship, of honoring God and showing appreciation for the artistic gifts he has given her. Again she gave consent for me to capture the creative process with the digital camera.
At this time digital photography was going through the explosive megapixal development that paralled the race for speed and disk space in computers of the preceding two decades. A new camera was better than the old but never quite good enough. I was learning by trial and error occasionally gaining a few tips from more experienced photographers.
Gradually I discovered that in Ann I was fortunate to have found a lens-friendly subject possessing the kind of patience and perseverance necessary for extended photo sessions. A rare quality indeed. My wife makes no bones that this is not her gift! At the same time I began to realize that the camera was friendly to her. Her expressions were not static but ranged widely like that of singer with a multi-octave voice range. They reflected a dynamic span of inner emotions quite unlike the poses of a trained model. As she explained, “My mother told me I could never get away with a fib because she said she could read my face like a book.” So I began to see her as the woman with “The Face That Launched a Thousand Expressions.” Wikipedia’s expanded definition of “photogenic” certainly applies here. [link]
As our 50th high school reunion was approaching in 2006 I began questioning about how we could communicate to our classmates, probably for the last meeting in this lifetime, about something in our lives, a crises or event perhaps that profoundly shaped our thinking or direction in life.
Ann had battled an excruciatingly painful life and death struggle with the cancer. She had experienced a miraculous healing. Fortunately I had accumulated a stock of photos that I could use to tell her story. For my story I chose to introduce my wife, her cooking venture, and how her meeting 17 year old Alex Krutov, an orphan, in St Petersburg, Russia [link] had impacted the direction of our lives. We were experiencing a new understanding of the meaning of “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . . “ James 1:27 NIV.
Ann agreed to let me tell her story. I invited classmates to send photos and their stories which I assembled into a 45 minute sequence of short PowerPoint presentations with sound clips and musical accompaniment. At the showing attention was riveted to the screen, and the response was often “I never knew that about ______.” Women related their cancer stories to Ann, and two of my classmates and their spouses accepted invitations to hear Alex tell his story as a orphan survivor with a vison to transform the destinies of young adult orphans in Russia. The impact of the photo stories surprised me.
The class reunion project was a bridge to further photo projects. For Ann I proposed that the photos could become legacy albums–gifts to her sons, granddaughters, grandson, and great grandchildren. For me it was accumulating experience through trial and error. Smaller projects emerged: “Questions & Answers” illustrating Job 38 & 40 with Dry Falls in Sun Lakes State Park in Washington State as a background [link]; another at the same location titled “Celebrate Creation” using Psalms 65 & 66 as texts; a portrait character study representing the fruits of the spirit verses from Galatians 5; and an album titled “A Good Woman is Hard to Find” with photo representations of the woman described in Proverbs 31.
As I reviewed photo sequences of Ann at work arranging flowers, I became gradually aware of a graceful flow, a coordination and balance in her movements reflected even in the still shots, that seemed to mirror the floral designs, a kind of dance. That prompted me to ask Ann, “ Don’t I recall that you took modern dance classes in college?” “Yes,” was her reply, “All four years.” I reflected, “Then you had enough background to pursue getting your masters degree in choreography? ” “Yes, she said, “that might have been possible” She explained that she did continue to dance alone. For her it was an private expression of worshipping God just as engaging in floral arrangements was. That led me to propose, “Could we explore capturing your “worship in motion as still shots?”
Crammer: When did all of this begin to shape into what became the Psalms Pain to Praise Project?
Rich Gregg: What happened next is what I’ll call the raspberry moment. That was when Ann explained, “Raspberry is my color.” She produced a long sleeved blouse with a soft feminine drape that illustrated the point. On March 3, 2009 we began shooting the “raspberry photos” with most of the shots caught in action not as posed studio stills. It is easy to accumulate a sequence of 200 or more shots in a session. Some suggested the idea of prayer. Some of pain or pleading. Others of praise. At the time I was reading and rereading the Psalms. I gave some of the proofs to my cousin, Tom Gregg, and he came back with an expansion of the “P” list with references from the Psalms that linked to the photos. That is how the Psalms “P” theme began to take shape.
I’ve found attempts to direct Ann’s posing for the camera rather awkward and for the most part unsuccessful. What happens in front of the camera has to come from within her. We found it better to read a few Psalms and discuss the feeling and flow of the themes. She did the interpretations as she worked her “worship in motion.” I just needed to be alert with an ready finger on the shutter.
With a sequence of “P’s” as the unifying theme from the Psalms taking shape the next challenge was the editing and graphics. Would a title be enough? How large should it be? Should a verse accompany the title? I remember standing in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia before “David and Uriah,” and “The Return of the Prodigal,” two of Rembrandt’s works. Both depict a story and Rembrandt’s audience knew the stories well. Unfortunately we live in an era of Biblical illiteracy. A title isn’t enough. So I needed to provide enough information for the modern viewer to identify what the representations illustrate. My wife urged me to include the verse texts.
Crammer: What audience are you trying to reach with the photo representations?
Rich Gregg: I found an opportunity to visit a grief support group, and I heard some very sad, even distressing stories. That supported my belief that those who are grieving and those who suffer pain could discover that the Psalms reflect what they are going through. They resonate the thoughts and feelings of those in deep distress. This was confirmed when Ann was asked to substitute as a grief group leader. After hearing a new widow’s story for the first time Ann reached into her resource folder and handed her the Psalms photo album. As the widow paged through the book she began to weep. Looking up she asked, “Ann, is that you?” That was a powerfully empathetic moment.
`I think, however, the Psalms speak to an even broader audience. All of us experience a little pain everyday. Some experience a lot of pain all day. But for all of us the time will come in our lives when we experience something which we are not prepared for and cannot prepare for that overwhelms us. The Psalms address these situations. My wife suggested that I design a smaller photo album notebook with blank pages between the photos and quotations so people could journal their own thoughts.
I envision the framed sets with 5 x 7 photos being hung in the hallways of homes in sets of threes as for example: prayer, promise, praise/plea, promise, pleasure/or pain, promise, and presence. In houses of worship, retirement centers, medical offices, hospitals, and care facilities I would like to see all nine framed photos hung in hallways or reception rooms in the 8 x 10 or even 11 x 14 sizes. I believe viewers will recognize, appreciate and identify with the path the Psalms lead us through. I want people to discover the power of the Psalms to provide a guide to understand that much as we want to avoid pain and grief we can’t. Reality says it is part of the human situation. If we understand the Psalms then we learn not to pray “God, take me out of this!” but instead, “I’m at the end of my resources. Please walk me through it.” That is the promise the Psalms offer.
Crammer: Why didn’t you use your wife as your photo subject?
Rich Gregg: Well, I’ve shot lots of photos of my wife and she has certainly experienced deep grief and is well acquainted with experiences the Psalms reflect. But she has made it clear that she doesn’t feel comfortable spending hours in front of the camera. Reflecting those kinds of expressions would be torture for her. It would be putting her in a decidedly “nonphotogenic” situation. Her short answer to that question is “No Ann, no Psalms project.” I value her input. She is very supportive.
Crammer: What kind of responses have you had from people who have viewed the Psalm Pain to Praise Photo album or the framed prints?
Rich Gregg: Responses range all over the place. I presented a copy of the album to my son’s father-in-law, a retired pastor one evening. The next morning he said he used it as a devotional guide and suggested ways to expand it along that line.
A reconstructive plastic surgeon and his wife, seatmates on an airline flight, viewed the photos with great curiosity. Even though they were unacquainted with the Psalms, they saw the connection between the pain depicted in the representations and their patients. They requested that I contact them when the project was completed.
A nurse in a hospital: “I can use these!”
Young wedding videographer. His profession, of course, thrives on what is traditionally considered the most beautiful moment of a woman’s life–as a young bride. He questioned:” Why did you choose an older woman as your subject?”
In reality I didn’t choose. As I’ve mentioned the project simply developed over time. But in response to his query my first thought was “pain.” An older women has lived long enough to have been tested with many painful potentially life altering experiences. That led me to consider that cultural views of beauty must be diverse e.g. Egyptian (reserved for royalty) or classical as in John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn (the athletic youth and shapely maiden).
Later contemplating his question I typed into Google “ancient Jewish concept of beauty” to see if I would get something different. A particular article by Rabbi Shmidman who teaches Talmudic Law and is on the faculty of law at McGill University came up at the head of the list. It lays out how in the Jewish concept of beauty there is the concept of permanence and endurance not just of a fleeting moment of glory. It has more to do with something that lasts. In it he states:
“What, then, is distinct and singular about the Jewish concept of beauty? To answer this, one looks to the Torah to find the sources of the Jewish idea of beauty. Like all abstract theories in Judaism which ultimately find their expression in concrete mitzvot, the idea of beauty, as well, finds a tangible.realization in the central mitzvot of the holiday of Sukkot. The Torah requires: “And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day (of Sukkot) a fruit of a beautiful tree — pri etz hadar.” The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a beautiful tree by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar. The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word “hadar” is interpreted to be a fruit which “dwells continuously all year on the tree” (ha-dar, literally, “that which dwells”). Thus, they understand the word “dar” to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French “duree” or the English “endure”). The etrog tree fulfills this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm — it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.” Continue the article at http://www.ou.org/publications/ja/5758/spring98/beauty.htm [link]
He goes on to reference the ancient long lived olive tree as symbolic of the Hebrew idea of beauty. When I was in Israel this summer I found one just outside of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. [photo]
Shmidman goes on to say that it is the old face that is beautiful because the key concept is “enduring” as in “been through life’s hard times, tested!”
We say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but there is the possibility that the mind behind the eye could be adjusted. I don’t think the Psalms Project will trigger a perceptual cultural seismic shift, but I’d be gratified if a few minds were nudged. I think of the photo project as an opportunity to challenge the culture. Old doesn’t have to mean ugly. Sometimes when you meet a person who has been through a lot of life’s tests you can sense that they are blessed. That is beauty. I think my maturing feminine friends would appreciate that.
I told Ann, “I think you are an olive tree.” She took that as a compliment.
This summer I not only photographed an ancient olive tree in Jerusalem, I also met by chance an elderly gentleman. He was perhaps just a bit over five feet tall as he approached the table where I was enjoying some heart warming Middle Eastern soup after a Messianic church service. Introducing himself as Zvi he was trying to ascertain if I were French. No, “American.” Since the service had been translated into seven languages, he must have wanted to find the right mode of communication. He related what I later discovered was the very short, short version of his life story as he unfolded his discharge papers signed by five Israeli generals along with photos of his military unit. As a boy he had survived the Polish holocast. As a soldier he had engaged in all the Israeli wars. His wife was Iranian and his son was pastor of the church. Our meeting was quite brief, but it left me with a nagging curiosity. Really who is Zvi? At home an internet search revealed that several books have been written detailing the story of how he not only survived the holocaust as an eleven year old orphan but also as a sapper (planting and clearing mine fields) in the military and as a minority Jewish follower of Jesus, The Messiah, who openly professes his faith often in potentially hostile circumstances. He was a man who had been through unimaginable life and death tests again and again. Truly a father of modern Israel.
If I were to redesign the ancient figures on the Grecian urn of John Keat’s poem, I’d put Zvi in place of the athletic youth and Ann Chandler’s representation of “plea” and “praise” in place of the young maiden.
For more information about The Psalms Pain to Praise Photo Project contact Rich Gregg at email@example.com or at 8830 Glencoe Dr., Riverside, California 92503-2135 Phone number 951-687-5491