"The great epoch of the Spiritual which is already beginning, or, in embryonic form ... provides and will provide the soil in which a kind of monumental work of art must come to fashion," so prophesied the great Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky, in his masterful Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1914. Since then, of course, and to varying degrees, art has been replete with many aspects of the spiritual; indeed, the traditionally religious-centric interpretation of the term has on occasion been considerably expanded by art to include mysticism, ritual and myth, symbolism, the occult, and pure abstraction. A wonderful book - The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 - that chronicles much of the history of spiritual art, and contains many wonderful reproductions of important works, was published in 1985 to highlight an exhibit held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A recent Dover reprint of another classic survey - The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art - is also available; though it has only a relatively few black and white examples, the scholarship is first-rate.
The impact of the "spiritual" on photography is less clear, and has - sadly - less of a clear history. To be sure, the spiritual has never been far from photography's best practitioners; though not necessarily in overt form. Alfred Steiglitz's "Equivalents" are nothing if not quiet, soulful expressions of an inner reality, and are obviously infused with spirit in the deepest sense. Ansel Adam's portfolio of ostensibly "grand sweeping vistas" filled with Wagnerian-scale drama, are both creative affirmations of everything that is beautiful "out there," beyond the artist behind the lens, and of the poetic soul yearning desperately for a way to better communicate the transcendent beauty it sees on the inside. Adams' quest was a quintessentially spiritual one, much more so than merely aesthetic; a quest that is, regrettably (and profoundly erroneously, in my view), all-too-quickly dismissed by some latter day photographers as a product of "vision-less" Zone-system technobable and attention to irrelevant minutiae of craft. Many of Minor White's best works can be compared to those of Kandinsky, in the sense that both artists (used their respective media to) point a way toward a radically new grammar for spiritual expression. And Carl Chiarenza's visionary explorations of the "inner landscape" have been available for all to "see" for decades.
Still more recently, I've encountered the works of spiritually inclined artists such as Doug Beasley, Nicholas Hlobeczy, John Daido Loori, Deborah Dewit Marchant, and Jerry Wolfe, who each in their own way, pay homage to the spirit of Steiglitz's equivalents, and use their photography to reveal otherwise invisible realms of the soul. (Not surprisingly, Hlobeczy, Loori, and Wolfe all worked with Minor White.)
But, though there are plenty of other contemporary photographer / artists whose work is very spiritual in nature, there is little evidence to suggest that "spiritual photography" (at least in the sense I mean here) is emerging - or has ever emerged, for that matter! - as a bona-fide movement in photography. Indeed, if books such as reGeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow (published, ironically, by Aperture, a magazine founded by Minor White and Ansel Adams!) are true indicators of the direction in which photography is currently "moving," that direction is visibly leading away from, rather than anywhere near, spirit. Deliberately staged images that shock and pound the senses into a surrealistic (and often numbingly ugly) unreality seem to be the norm; pictures that invite a quiet meditation or that simply, but sincerely, ask, "Is this not beautiful?" are rarely seen today - and when they do appear, are routinely scorned by critics as unimportant "pretty pictures" that convey no lasting meaning. (Christopher Alexander has been lamenting a similar spiritual decline in architecture and urban planning for a quarter century.) I hope I am wrong, for to move away from spiritual expression is, in my opinion, to move away from the most meaningful connection we have to the spiritual world - which is our essential wellspring of existence - as physical beings. Severing this connection, even if only implicitly by focusing our collective artistic / photographic energies onto more "sterile" - and spiritually inert - aspects of the world, means we must face the specter of losing ourselves in (or devolving backwards to) the merely physical.
For me, photography, or any other creative art form for that matter, is first and foremost a language of the transcendent; it represents a way for gifted "seers" - otherwise known as "artists" - to remind the rest of us that none of us are merely creatures of the flesh.