Friday, March 12, 2010

Look: Some Thoughts On Look It's Jesus

Released in 2007, Madonna of the Toast was the first book of its kind. When I first started researching the project in 2006 international media had disseminated the tales of people seeing Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mickey Mouse, the Pope and Bob Hope in unusual places and on unexpected surfaces. Like everyone else, I’d heard about the $28,000 Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese, and I had some vague memory of an eccentric collection of potato chips spoofed on The Simpsons. As I’ve said many times, a friend presented the idea of a book about people seeing the Virgin Mary. I thought, What does that book look like? A bunch of photographs with regurgitated copy from local interest news items? I didn’t find that particularly interesting, but the idea stuck with me and I began poking around, and quickly became fascinated.

What hooked me was how when I began peeling back the layers on some of the stories, these objects – some of them uncanny, others difficult to discern, bizarre and/or questionable – served as fascinating points of entry into broader, richer ideas about contemporary culture. At lease that’s what I found. So I just kept looking.

Why am I telling you this? Because I have gotten my hands on the just released Look It’s Jesus, a book of “Amazing Holy Visions in Everyday Life” – a familiar theme in these parts, right? Compiled by Harry and Sandra Choron and published by Chronicle the book definitely relies on the same kinds of stories as Madonna of the Toast but the two books couldn’t be any more different.

Here’s the tale of the tape: both books are 96 pages; Madonna of the Toast is a larger book; Look It’s Jesus contains 60 examples of these visions (most of them Jesus), while Madonna of the Toast has 20; of the 60 examples, five of them can be found in my book, and 13 of them were reported on this blog.

There’s no doubt that with the passing of every year more of these stories surface and patterns emerge, like the oil stain faces, the wood grain forms and gnarled bark on trees. As those familiar with Madonna of the Toast know, I credit the increase in these sightings to technology’s hyper-accelerated ways, driving images and information around the world, fast enough to get everyone’s attention without remaining in many people’s memories. Something else will always come along.

This isn’t the sole idea I attach to these stories. You can’t ignore the psychological phenomenon pareidolia, the act of random visual stimuli being mistakenly perceived as recognizable. This is an intrinsic human trait that influences how we view the world. These stories have also claimed permanent spots in pop culture, especially American pop culture, and that’s interesting. In fact, these stories can be weaved into contemporary issues ranging from separation of church and state, immigration, politics, e-commerce, media studies – you get the point.

Here’s the thing, though: Look It’s Jesus doesn’t mention ANY of this. No mention of pareidolia, or anything other than a brief introduction that skims the phenomenon’s history, mentions cell phone cameras and then pairs a caption with each image.

So what’s the point of this book?

One thing is for sure: it has a great cover, a lenticular cover to be precise. But I’m not sure the point of hanging a book on a flashy cover (the Jesus image fades in and out as you move the book). A number of the photographs are of dubious quality (admittedly also an issue in Madonna of the Toast and a reason there are fewer examples), but what makes things worse is that the captions seem like for the most part they’ve been lifted from the original news item.

An example: On May 3, 2007, I posted this entry about Jesus, or Gandalf, appearing in a flash memory chip. I linked to this article, in which one Dick James says: "We often get dark fringe lines in the silicon, and in this case it looks like there was some holy influence." Guess what? James “says” the same thing in Look It’s Jesus.

This is probably where I need to make clear that I’m not accusing, or suggesting, that the Chorons have done anything wrong. They haven’t. Many subjects have many books dedicated to them. And it’s no secret that book publishers try to cash in on trends – one or two successful graffiti books unleashed a torrent of them, and be sure that over the next year there will be ample titles that mash up classic public domain literary texts with zombies, werewolves, robots and vampires. Some such projects work, others don’t.

In their dedication, the Chorons thank those who served “as a constant source of inspiration during the creation of this book.” Look It’s Jesus is certainly their creation but their creation is a rickety raft of repurposed material. It fails to tell any sort of story. Person unexpectedly finds Jesus/Mary – everyone knows that story, even if you’ve never heard of Madonna of the Toast (and believe me, most people haven’t).

In researching Madonna of the Toast I interviewed most of people that made these discoveries, met some of them and was lucky to have Mark Batty Publisher (MBP) foot the bill for some great original photographs. This resulted in stories that became about much more than material objects and what they may or may not resemble.

Furthermore, because of how the Chorons approached the content, they don’t always get the facts straight, even when it comes to two of the most famous of these stories: the Nun Bun and Diana Duyser’s Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese.

The four sentences dedicated to the Nun Bun do not even bother to mention its creator, Ryan Finney. I interviewed him, and Bongo Java owner Bob Bernstein, over the phone, and when I went to Nashville to read at the cafe, Finney picked me up at the airport. Long story short, the Nun Bun was stolen on Christmas Day 2005 and was MIA for a couple of years until it turned up via a ransom note. In Look It’s Jesus the last sentence in the paragraph about the Nun Bun reads: “When it eventually turned up in a thrift shop, Bernstein was delighted to find it intact.” Bernstein didn’t “find” the Nun Bun, he received some bizarre photographs of it. The wording implies that the Nun Bun has returned to Bongo Java, but it hasn’t.

In the cursory overview of the Diana Duyser Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese saga, the book reports that she stored the sandwich half in a freezer. This is not what she told the BBC, or me when I interviewed her on the phone and in person during a great photo shoot at a Times Square hotel. One of the “miracles” of the sandwich is that it never rotted, even though it nested in cotton swabs and stored in a plastic case.

Now, Madonna of the Toast is not a perfect book (very few books are), but I had a goal: to examine these stories and their relationships to contemporary culture. Look It’s Jesus is a product of the gawk and forget about it culture that consumes those of us, myself included, who spend way too much time in front of screens that are gateways to limitless information and distractions.

Sitting here trying to figure a way to wrap this up I can’t help but think of the news stories that report these visual manifestations of religious and secular icons. Because of 24-hour news cycles and cell phone cameras much of the media has become a continuous distraction, with no shortage of content though most of it is totally without substance. In this way, maybe Look It’s Jesus is a suitable vehicle for transporting these tales to more people. But if all you want is a peek, might as well just keep surfing the web.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

All About the Light

In Mercedes, Texas, according to this KRGV report, Merced Mendoza spotted this image of Jesus on her pants and her husband was there to photograph it using his phone. As she drove, Mendoza spotted the image on her thigh. By virtue of the sun’s location, how it landed on her otherwise plain jeans and matters of physics beyond my ability to describe, the form took shape, just long enough for it to be digitized, and then submitted to the media. The Mendozas “lead a small church” and find the fleeting face a blessing that inspires them, and they hope it does the same for others.

Now to Puerto Rico and the pale winter skin of a New Yorker on vacation. Not just any New Yorker, this arm marked with a sunburn shaped like a hand belongs to my pal and the internationally acclaimed champion of charaben, Christopher D Salyers. Christopher missed out on last week’s snow, preferring to laze on a beach. He did get a little local culture in, however, including a stop in a store where he noticed a photograph of clouds shaped like hands folded in prayer. When Christopher inquired about the image (thinking of yours truly) he was told that these were believed to be the hands of God. And then, later that day this shape emerged on his arm. But, says Christopher, he neither napped nor drunkenly passed out in the sun, leaving in question the source of the unique marking.

Back in April I explored various interpretations of “hand of God” should any of you want to read up on the concept.

In both of these examples the sun was the cause. But what was the reason?