Thursday, 18 October 2012 17:45

The Story Telling Photographer

Written by  Audrey Edwards, BC '13
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Abbot Barnabas Senecal expresses himself through the art of photography. 

When written reflections accompany photographs, the image itself becomes a captivating text; the image becomes a story. Abbot Barnabas Senecal reveals his love of God, as well as his love of storytelling through photography.


While never experiencing the advantage of a photography class, he has  acquired a natural sense of background and context within his photos.Abbot Barnabas incorporates lectio divina, or divine reading, into his photography. He draws his interpretation from what the photo instills, nature provides the scenery and his thoughts provide the written framework.

"The skill is to name the pictures in one to three words," said Abbot Barnabas. "For each picture I select a passage of scripture, one that influences the photo. I am interpreting that scripture through the photo."

Abbot Barnabas said the beauty of the photos inspire the beauty of his words. "The photos give me that thought-provoking text along with the scriptures," he said. The Apple Cider Press, a painting by Father Angelus Lingenfelser, inspired his reflections. Accompanying the photograph is Psalm 148, "Praise the Lord from the earth... all mountains and hills, all fruits and trees and cedars, beasts, wild and tame, reptiles and birds on the wing." Abbot Barnabas contemplates the word, then the photo, combining the two in a meditation of both as he writes of Father Angelus. "He was a farmer at heart, a lover of all fruits and vegetables...Few of us knew him as a painter, but this photo of a watercolor painting of an apple cider press is his."

From architecture to human anatomy, Abbot Barnabas depicts an artistic lure in everything he photographs. One of his photos, titled "Attraction," is of a young girl innocently looking up at the camera. "The composition of her eyes is fascinating," he said. It is a beautiful way of capturing young humanity. It is hard to say where the photos will go after the Abbey gallery, perhaps incorporated into the Abbey halls, into churches, or purchased by guests.
More than 40 of Abbot Barnabas' work will be unveiled in the Art Gallery on Oct. 19, located on the lower level of the St. Benedict's  Abbey Church in Atchison, Kansas. The gallery will open at 7:30 p.m. after evening prayer and will remain open following the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass through the end of the year. Abbot Barnabas said the point of the art gallery is to attract people into the Abbey and its beauty, not to flaunt the accomplishments of the artist.

Each wall of the Abbey gallery through Abbot Barnabas' photos presents a unique theme, ranging from floral-flooded snapshots to sculptures from Italy, all the way back to the beauties of the Abbey.  One of Abbot Barnabas' reflections explains a photo of a group of brothers crouched over one another, intensely watching a golf ball, landing inches in front of the hole. "I was the principal of these young men," he said nostalgically. It’s an example of his love of storytelling through his photos.

These photos of his fellow monks, nature and recreational sports, are dedicated in memory of John, '62, and Bill, '75, Henningsen. The two brothers, alumni of Benedictine College, died in 2010 and 2011 after battling pancreatic cancer. The art display is not related to the brothers, but is set in remembrance of their lives, a memoriam supported by a gift from sponsor JoAnne Henningsen.
Judy Valente, the voice of NPR radio in Chicago, told Abbot Barnabas that "lectio devina" is fulfilled through his camera work. It is a way to see God's glory; striving to find the sacred in the ornate. “Judy Valente saw what I was doing and she said ‘you should do an exhibit on your pictures’.” Over a casual lunch, the two artists talked about a possible display. Abbot Barnabas was curious as to how a bunch of simple 4x6 pictures might be displayed. "They aren't," Valente said. "You have to enlarge and frame them on the wall." In 2010, they did just that and his first exhibit, titled “Beauty in Faces & Places, Through the Lens of a Monk,” became the subject of a PBS interview. "I capture what I see," Abbot Barnabas said. "I don't go out on a photo shoot. Typically I take pictures, put them in albums and then go back and chose the ones I like most."

During a casual metro ride while enjoying a 10-week sabbatical in Rome, Abbot Barnabas found himself conversing with a woman named Zita Zidyca, a Lithuanian artist form Ohio. From comments about the noisy children to small talk about the weather, their conversation migrated to the topic of photography. She asked him to look out the window and tell her what he saw. Eventually, Abbot Barnabas showed her his photos taken while in Rome. "Barnabas, you have a good eye for taking pictures," Zidyca said. "You should continue shooting." Her encouragement was exactly what Abbot Barnabas needed to continue his work. Upgrading his camera from a 33mm Minolta camera, Abbot Barnabas now uses a Nikon D90. He’s been shooting photos for Celebration Magazine—a publication of the National Catholic Reporter—since 2003.

Abbot Barnabas also met Elizabeth Zeller, an iconographer, at a show in Kansas City where she had a display of her own. Zeller helped sift through his collection of photos and chose the best ones. "An icon is a religious art, a depiction of a saint or another individual, usually painted on a board," he said. "It is an act of prayer to 'write the painting'." In the summer of 2010 the two spent hours working to crop and frame the photos.

Abbot Barnabas intends to continue his photography. Even though he has sold several of his pieces, financial gain is not his focus. "My work sells only accidentally," he said. It is more his love of the art, his love of photography, his love of storytelling, and his love of God that compels him to continue his work. It is through the camera that he is able to capture stories. It is something he said he has always loved, and will always continue to love.
Read 6160 times Last modified on Monday, 14 January 2013 11:26

St. Benedict's Abbey

St. Benedict's Abbey
(913) 367-7853
1020 N. Second St.
Atchison, Kansas 66002


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