On a late-summer morning in 1975, photographer Red Morgan waded into Clear Lake in Cocoa, Fla., deep enough that the water level licked his kneecaps, and pulled out his Nikon just in time to capture an all-black church performing an immersion baptism ceremony.
"I had waded out into the lake after the flock, and it was surreal, like a movie unfolding right in front of me," the 65-year-old freelancer recalls from his home in Wellington. "I got my shoes and pants sopping wet, and they were so into their spirit and praising God, I was compelled to participate. Powerful, powerful. There was even one faithful who waded to shore and collapsed on the sand, just overcome.”
So enamored was Morgan of his black-and-white photographs that in January 2012, when he got the chance to shoot the members of the New Zion Holiness Church on the outskirts of Pahokee, he aimed to re-capture the spiritual intensity of the baptism. His resulting 24-image photo project, "Witness: Gospel by the Cane Fields," consists of shots from the baptism and the recent New Zion project, and is on display at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach.
The older images, shot for a routine newspaper assignment, turned out to be stark, spiritual, transformative and, at least to Morgan, anything but routine. The photographs show about 40 white-robed parishioners, walking hand in hand with eyes gazing up to God, sloshing toward the lake’s center while guided by ministers. One by one, each parishioner is dunked underwater, re-emerging with arms raised in spiritual triumph. “One cried out, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ ” Morgan says.
Morgan's conversational style is fast but excited, eager but humble, and the transplant from Jackson, Miss., and a Palm Beach County resident since 1977, has neither lost his drawl nor his vernacular (“newspaper” becomes “birdcage linin,’” for example). Morgan considers the exhibit, his first, to be his best achievement in 40 years of photojournalism, a weighty avowal coming from a man whose photographs have appeared in Newsweek, People, the Miami Herald, the Palm Beach Post and twice on the cover of Time. (His Oct, 10, 1988, cover includes a shot of the first U.S. space shuttle to blast off from Cape Canaveral since the Challenger disaster.)
"I've been really lucky, but it no longer felt like being like a fly on the wall to capture things as they occurred," Morgan says. "So I stopped chasing the almighty dollar two years ago. Now, I'm the happiest poor man you'll ever meet in your life. Things fell into place, and it scared the hell out of me."
The first “thing” was randomly running into blues-rock guitarist Hughie Burns (“my idol, he’s beyond great”) at a repair shop in West Palm Beach. Over coffee and reminscences of Palm Beach's music scene, Burns revealed his side gig: playing gospel for the all-black New Zion Holiness Church. Speaking to Bishop Nate Holmes, Burns vouched for Morgan’s professionalism, and the photographer brought his digital Leica to Sunday Mass.
“My brain started doing somersaults. I kept thinking about the church baptism I shot way back when. It all felt so zen,” Morgan says, pausing before the last word. “They totally turned me loose out there. They paid no attention to me, I’m shooting all this movement, with no depth of field, no ambient light. I either get it sharp or it sucks.”
The result: More than a dozen color shots snapped at five different services (the most recent was early September), showing parishioners deep in prayer. One photograph, “Hands of Comfort,” strikes the closest parallel to Morgan’s earlier series on baptism, in which several concerned parishioners lay their palms across the face of a woman overwhelmed with spirituality.
Morgan says Bishop Holmes and the faithful came to trust and embrace the photographer by degrees. Particularly meaningful to him was his image of Burns’ gospel trio ("they’re the only white guys, other than me showing up”), framed with a nearby female parishioner moving to the spiritual rhythm. Morgan says reuniting with Burns made him recall his college years, when he plugged in with a 10-piece R&B group called the Royal American Showmen.
"We did covers of Otis Redding and Booker T and the MG's,” says Morgan, who performs with Burns on occassion. "This was up at Ole Miss. Black music, basically, but people said we were damn good at it. I guess God blessed me with an ear for music and an eye for the camera, like it or lump it."
And Morgan’s eye for composition courted the interest of Talya Lerman, the Armory’s curator and director of education, who considers the series, composed of images snapped 38 years apart, a “beautiful and intimate slice of life… worthy of public scrutiny.”
“He captures the soul of a culture few have ever seen in Palm Beach County,” says Talya Lerman, the Armory’s curator and director of education. “Red’s a very humble person, a gracious and wonderful man, and the two series are also about a glimpse into the lives of humble people.”
Witness: Gospel by the Cane Fields
When: Through Oct. 26
Where: Armory Art Center, 1700 Parker Ave., West Palm Beach
Contact: 561-832-1776 or ArmoryArt.org