Jerusalem. Mecca. Rome. Charleston? As incongruous as it sounds, our little town ranks itself with the holy cities of the world, thanks to the hundreds of houses of worship that dot its horizon. And though we use the nickname with some regularity, the truth is, most folks haven’t ventured inside more than a handful of churches around here.
Photographer Steven Hyatt is on a mission to change that. Standing in the sanctuary of the historic Circular Congregational Church back in 2009, he got the urge to photograph it. Pleased with the outcome, he was inspired to expand to other downtown churches, and his Churches of Charleston project was born. Over the last year and a half, he’s documented nearly 20 churches and synagogues, including the Church of the Holy Communion, First Scots Presbyterian, the French Huguenot Church, and Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue. His high-intensity images shed a new light on the stained-glass windows, pews, books, and frescoes that are such an important part of parishioners’ lives.
Hyatt uses a technique called high dynamic range (HDR) to give his photographs their unique look. He uses a tripod for each image, taking the same photograph between five and nine times in progressive levels of darkness.
“So effectively what that’s doing is photographing the shadows, photographing the midtones, and photographing the highlights, all in separate exposures,” Hyatt explains. “In the computer, those images are squished together, and the best parts are kept, so the part of each image that is properly exposed is kept in that image and compiled into one final image that has exposed images throughout.”
Hyatt, who works at the Imaging Arts Gallery on King Street, taught himself most of what he knows about photography.
“It was literally as simple as I went and got a camera and learned how to use it,” Hyatt says. “I took a lot of bad pictures for a long time … I learned it on my own. Just mess up and learn how to fix what you mess up. I kind of have that approach to a lot of things. … For as many things as I can get away with, I like to take it and go.”
Raised in the Presbyterian church, Hyatt studied philosophy and religion at the College of Charleston and Winthrop University.
“Things of that nature have always interested me,” he says of religion. “I like things that are considered holy or sacred. I’m just kind of drawn to them. If this was strictly an architectural endeavor, I probably would not have nearly the passion for it.”
The project is reminiscent of Joe Johnson’s Mega Churches exhibit, which Redux hosted in November 2009. But unlike Johnson’s images, which emphasized the sterility of modern churches, Hyatt embraces the history and personality of each place.
“This project will make a beautiful and useful view, for current and future generations, into the churches that have helped to make the Holy City holy,” he says on his website.
Besides that, he lets the images speak for themselves.
“I think it’s inevitable that you always make a statement or that somebody takes a statement from what you do,” he says. “Is there anything overt that I’m trying to push upon someone else? No … There are a lot of things that could be read into it because there are so many levels to it. It’s a historically relevant thing. It’s an architecturally relevant thing. It’s a spiritually relevant thing. You could say it’s a politically relevant thing.”
And while he’s on an intimate basis with many of our city’s churches, he refuses to choose a favorite.
“They all have such different things about them,” he says. “Not just visually, but experientially. Standing inside of one and standing inside of the other doesn’t always feel the same way. … Plus, your mood changes every day.”
Currently, Hyatt’s photographs are only on view at churchesofcharleston.com, though he plans to take part in a photography exhibit at Imaging Arts in early August. Plans are also in the works for a book.