Photographs feel the spirit; Art: Ken Royster of Baltimore wins kudos for his images of African-Americans at worship in Maryland.


As a youngster, Baltimorean Ken Royster hated to go to church.

Yet today, his photographs of African-American religious services in Maryland are getting some very impressive attention: This spring Royster, 54, won the 74th International Competition sponsored by the Print Center in Philadelphia, a non-profit organization that supports printmaking and photography as vital contemporary arts.

Lenswork magazine published a portfolio of his photographs in the February-April issue. His work has been shown in the Baltimore Museum of Art, and last year, Royster's photographs were included in a group show called "Locating the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in African American Art," at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

Royster's portfolio in Lens-work, entitled "Saved, Sanctified & Filled with the Holy Spirit," includes 11 photographs taken over the last decade, during which the artist visited dozens of African-American church ceremonies in Maryland and recorded the rituals practiced by their congregants.

He received his earliest exposure to African-American religious practices while growing up in a church-going family in Baltimore.

"My mother often dragged me to church kicking and screaming," he recalled.

"I didn't want to go. But early on I was fascinated by the spirituality of people, and as an adult I'm attempting to photographically communicate the cultural phenomenon of black charismatic churches."

Some of Royster's most striking images document the river baptism ceremonies of the charismatic black churches -- Southern Baptists, Holiness, Pentecostal, Apostolic and African Methodist Episcopal -- whose impassioned congregations freely invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit in their services.

These solemn ceremonies of spiritual cleansing and renewal, many of which which have remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century, are a testament to the enduring role the rituals of the black church play in the religious lives of contemporary African-American communities.

"I hope that these images will inform as well as challenge the viewer to keep on looking, and appreciate the unique role black churches have played for generations in the survival and spiritual wholeness of African-Americans," Royster said.

All Royster photographs are made with a medium-format camera that produces a 2 1/4-inch-square negative on black-and-white film.

He is one of the few photographers -- think of Harry Callaghan, Diane Arbus and war photographer Constance Larabee -- who seemingly effortlessly imbues the inherently static square format with a powerful emotional impact. Royster says that his subject matter is inherently dynamic.

During each ceremony, "there is a point at which they simply give their spirit over to the Holy Spirit," Royster said, "It's a complete and total giving over of body and soul ...

"The church is a place where lives are transformed, where there is often hope for the hopeless."

Haussner donation

A painting from the internationally famous Haussner art collection has been donated to Baltimore's Center Club to honor the city's 83-year-old Flower Mart.

Francie Haussner George presented the watercolor painting to Russell LaGreca, general manager of the Center Club, to be displayed in the club facilities.

The Haussner picture is a watercolor painting of a floral arrangement by Frederic Schuler Briggs, a descendant of former Maryland Institute, College of Art director Hans Schuler Sr., whose family established the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore to continue the tradition of classical-realist painting handed down by their forebears.

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