Elaine Maisner: Announcing a Multimedia Collaboration between UNC Press and Mavcor on Material Religion

Elaine Maisner is Executive Editor at UNC Press.  A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, is available now in both print and e-book editions.


Rachel Lindsey, Communion of ShadowsAs the UNC Press editor responsible for our list in religious studies, I am delighted to announce that Rachel McBride Lindsey’s book, A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, has just been published.

I am also delighted to announce that Rachel’s compelling book is the inaugural book in a multimedia collaboration with MAVCOR—Center for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion—at Yale University.

MAVCOR is directed by Yale professor Sally M. Promey, a pioneering scholar in the study of what has come to be known as material religion. Working closely with Sally and UNC Press in this collaboration is Emily C. Floyd, MAVCOR site editor and curator, as well as a Ph.D. candidate in the joint program in Latin American Studies and Art History at Tulane University.

The study of material religion recognizes that religious practice is inherently as sensory and material as it is textual. It is intimately engaged with “stuff.” It encourages consideration of the everyday sensory, material, and aesthetic practices of religions as well as of the world’s prominent art and architecture.

In A Communion of Shadows, Rachel takes readers inside the world of everyday nineteenth-century U.S. religious life right at the moment when the revolutionary technology of photography erupted as a vernacular practice in American culture and took its place as marvel and mania for people of all types and classes. 

Photography captured many of the signal scenes from that era, from the gold rush to the bloody battlefields of the Civil War. But, Rachel argues, for a vast number of Americans photography also became inscribed with spiritual meaning, disclosing, not merely signifying, a power that lay beyond. Digging through thousands and thousands of photographs, Rachel came to see that what ordinary people beheld when they looked at a photograph had as much to do with what lay outside the frame—divine expectations, for example—as with what the camera had recorded. Rachel traces how everyday photographs came to be curated, beheld, displayed, and valued as physical artifacts that functioned both as relics and as icons of religious practice.

A book about materiality must have images of material in it—they make up the key flow of evidence and argument.

Rachel’s book is richly illustrated with more than 50 photographs, including studio portraits that were tucked into family Bibles, postmortem portraits with locks of hair attached, “spirit” photography, stereographs of the Holy Land, and magic lanterns used in biblical instruction.

“Locks of hair” sounds simple, but people became known for full-blown hairwork, described by a writer in an 1863 issue of Photographic Journal as “the weaving of hair into bracelets, lockets, and similar articles” as “mementos of friends, both living and deceased.” Hairwork often framed special photographs, as Rachel shows in a full chapter devoted to the spirit photography of William Mumler, one of its original proponents and practitioners. Examining the fierce debates around such photography, which was commonly viewed as a Spiritualist-inflected phenomenon, she writes, “The seam in the communion of shadows was . . . less between Spiritualists and anti-Spiritualists, or between religious orthodoxy and heretical humbuggery, than in the confidence invested in the visual authority of photographs in modern America. What did they—what could they—disclose?”

But I’m getting drawn (as many times before) into Rachel’s mesmerizing narrative.

To get to the point of our collaboration with MAVCOR:  there are so many, many more amazing photographs that could have gone into the book! That is the reason for the collaboration between MAVCOR and UNC Press: a wealth of additional images—more than 100—for A Communion of Shadows is featured online in the new MAVCOR Collection available here

The book—both print and e-book—includes a link to Rachel’s MAVCOR Collection, which in turn features a link directly to the Press’s online web page for the book.

Sally and Emily’s comments, as follow, on our collaboration illuminate its development and the unique value and opportunities it provides for understanding religion.

“We began publishing MAVCOR Collections in 2016 in response to a common scholarly problem: many researchers accumulate large databases of images, audio files, and video over the course of their investigations. The vast majority of these are never shared with the scholarly community—or general public. Academic monographs, the typical venue for publication of long-term projects, set limits to the numbers of images they can include, even if greater numbers might be relevant to the argument at hand. MAVCOR’s Collections provide a space for curated display of the full set of these materials accompanied by introductory text. As with our other categories of contribution, the scholar/author retains copyright to the work and displays images with appropriate permissions taken into full account. Demonstrating the parallel and complementary character of MAVCOR’s work, in October 2017 we publish our first Collection in concert with the University of North Carolina Press’s publication of a scholarly monograph, Rachel McBride Lindsey’s A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America. While MAVCOR has from the start planned to archive such assemblies of images and research project materials (audio and video), it is largely thanks to the initiative of UNC Press Executive Editor Elaine Maisner that we now imagine Collections as a means of establishing formal and mutually advantageous relations with scholarly print publications. Rachel McBride Lindsey proved to be the perfect inaugural author for our collaboration, contributing innovative, outstanding scholarship along with a deep understanding of the value of our project.”

Rachel observes about our rewarding collaboration, “As a scholar and a teacher, working with Emily, Sally, and Elaine on the MAVCOR Collection has yielded far more than simply another platform for promoting the book or adding additional images to the narrative the book weaves. The Collaboration has pressed me in new, sometimes painful ways to think about and imagine what digital cultures contribute to the study of religion and, more directly, about interpretive relations between the richly material archives of nineteenth-century photographs and hyper-visual media of advanced digital technologies. I am thrilled to be part of this new partnership and excited to see how it will continue to shape scholarly excellence in the increasingly entangled fields of material religions and digital studies.”

Allow me to salute Sally Promey, Emily Floyd, and UNC Press author Rachel McBride Lindsey. We hope that readers will enjoy immersing themselves in A Communion of Shadows and in its beautiful amplification in the MAVCOR Collection. We look forward to future such rewarding collaborations.

–Elaine Maisner, Executive Editor, UNC Press