In conjunction with the White Light Festival's special 12-concert program The Psalms Experience (November 1–11), we invited the award-winning photo editor Mark Bussell—former Picture Editor of The New York Times and currently a teacher at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts—to curate The Psalms Experience Gallery, a slideshow that pairs each psalm with an image from the archive of The New York Times. Bussell's selections illuminate the continued relevance of the ancient texts, and, as he puts it, our connection to "a long line of people trying to appreciate our existence."
Eileen Willis: Walk us through the process of selecting these images. Did you read all the texts first, make selections as you went, or was it a combination?
Mark Bussell: I read three different interpretations of all the texts: The Book of Psalms by Robert Alter, A Book of Psalms by Stephen Mitchell, and Opening to You, a Zen-inspired translation of the Psalms by Norman Fischer. Then I created a research script based on possibilities in terms of historical events, locations, and atmospheres. I discovered from reading the texts that there are various themes that repeated themselves: the singing of songs, the beauty of existence, and the horrors that humans perpetrate on others. I translated that into specific situations, like recent earthquakes, hurricanes, helping others, forced migrations, religious celebrations. I then went to an online archive to go through the contemporary, mostly color images that The New York Times created. I also entered The Times's "morgue," or archive of original prints, collected from the beginning of their use of photography.
EW: Were there any images that you knew (from your own memory bank) would have to be included, even before you assigned them to a specific text?
MB: There were definitely images that I thought of, and photographers that I thought of, like Angel Franco, Ashley Gilbertson, Don Hogan Charles, Jim Estrin, Lynsey Addario, Fred Conrad, and Tyler Hicks. But I felt I needed to gather them all before I made any final decisions.
EW: Selecting 150 images from a massive archive seems like a daunting task. How did you go about narrowing down the choices?
MB: It wasn't daunting. Connecting beautiful images to spiritual ideas for a curious audience seeking enlightenment, engagement, or respite is an enjoyable honor. I began the process by researching and selecting an image and alternatives for each of the Psalms. Creating image juxtapositions is important, and sequencing can enhance the meaning of both the individual and overall relationships between the Psalms and photographs. So some were removed, some replaced, and some remained. It was time consuming, but very gratifying.
EW: What surprised you the most as you went through the curation process?
MB: The incredibly sad, undeniable fact that not only do people still treat each other very poorly, but that they use advanced technology to do it.
EW: Any new favorite images that you discovered as a result of this project?
MB: Yes. There are images and photographers that I became more aware of. I wouldn't use the word "favorite" —I'd use the word "appreciate." Both for their original intent of telling the world what's going on now, but also in this specific context, where they referenced both the past and present. I had appreciated the professional work of Sergey Ponomarev, Monica Almeida, Meridith Kohut, Ruth Fremson, Damon Winter, Nicole Bengiveno, and others, but viewing them in conjunction with the Psalms increased my appreciation. There were also incredible images by soulful photographers that did not make the final edit.
EW: Before this project, did you have a relationship with or knowledge of the texts of the Psalms?
MB: The song "Rivers of Babylon" has swum through my head for most of my time on Earth, but I can’t really say that I applied the Psalms to the understanding of life. Until now.
[Editor's note: For more Psalms-related songs, see The Psalms Mixtape: 34 Pop Songs to a Higher Power.]
EW: Did reading these particular translations change your relationship?
MB: Yes. In fact, all three translations that I read offered significant insights into not only what they had to say, but also why they said what they said.
EW: If you had to pick only five images to point people to, which ones would you choose?
MB: These images resonate deeply: Psalm 3 (September 11, 2001, by Angel Franco); Psalm 30 (Lesbos, Greece, 2015, by Sergey Ponomarev); Psalm 46 (Rescuers and volunteers working on a collapsed building in the Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City, 2017, by Adriana Zehbrauskas); Psalm 88 (Coffins of the victims of Srebrenica, Bosnia, 2016, by Andrew Testa); and Psalm 109 (National Guard clearing Newark streets after the 1967 riots, by Don Hogan Charles).
EW: What do you hope readers/viewers come away with?
MB: An understanding, or a better appreciation, of how deeply our ancestors felt about the glories and horrors of life, and that it was expressed in melody. And now, by experiencing this through contemporary images, viewers could feel like they are deeply connected to a long line of people trying to appreciate our existence.
EW: Has your relationship to the texts of the Psalms changed in any way as a result of this project?
MB: I must admit, yes. I am definitely viewing current events, and life immediately around me, with a deeper understanding of our connection to the past.
Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.