Shooting for Salvation

Photos and Article by Al Stegeman AKA “Al in Philly”

Reverend Billy.

When my friend, Jean Merritt, began showing me snapshots of him, and his Church of Life After Shopping (now morphed into the ecology-focused “Church of Earthalujah”) , which she joined a couple of years back, I knew I had to shoot some of my own photographs of the man.  More precisely, I had to shoot his hair.  His pompadour should be showcased in MOMA, or perhaps discussed in the Journal of the American Society of Civil Engineers.  I was planning on going up to NYC to shoot him and his performance troupe this Summer; then my friend Jean told me that he was coming to give a show at Drexel University, where I work, at the end of March.  That is where I got my first stab at shooting “The Rev.”

Reverend Billy Talen isn’t your average, day-to-day minister.  He’s an apostle preaching an evangel, complete with a back-up chorus, but don’t expect him to be found behind a pulpit in a church with a crucifix behind him.  Reverend Billy is to organized religion what John Stewart is to journalism.  And like Stewart, his scathing criticisms of the hypocrisies of the world which we all live in are both incredibly funny and painfully true.  Damn, is he funny.  He’d be disturbing too, except that with the crowd at Drexel, he wound up “preaching to the choir” about the differences between the balance of man and nature and the balance found on a corporate ledger sheet.

When I first came across Rev. Billy, about an hour before he was scheduled to start the show, he was pensive.  It was written all over his face.  I had contacted him earlier in the week, introduced myself as a friend of Jean Merritt, and asked if he minded my taking some pictures.  He was more than gracious about it.  But when I began shooting, I could tell that his uneasiness wasn’t helped in the least by my shooting away at him.  Still, he was a great sport about it and let me snap away.   Apparently Rev. Billy is pretty extemporaneous in his evangels, and tries to concretize his sermons in his head, just before the show.  I’d look pensive too.  I actually like some of those shots the best, as they show just a bit of the man hiding behind the minister’s collar.

I first began shooting with a strobe, alternating between my 7-14mm f4.0, and 12-60 f2.8 Zuiko lenses on my Olympus e-30.  I just had to snag a photo of him doing his hair at 7mm.  But before the performance started I decided to go with the available lighting in the hall where the performance took place, mainly alternating between the 12-60 Zuiko and a 50mm f1.4 Sigma prime, depending on how shallow I wanted the depth of field to be.  Shooting the performance was a challenge, as I had placed myself in the front row, about 5 feet (sometimes less) from Rev. Billy and his chorus.  While that gave me a great vantage point to create a sense of intimacy between my camera and subject, it also made it more than a bit of a challenge locking focus on the cast as they literally ran towards and away from me.  Challenging, but also way fun.  Praise the Lord for big memory cards.

“Fun” is the key word for describing what it was like to shoot the show.  Total orchestrated mayhem, and a lot of cynical laughs.  And on more than one occasion, a bit of poignancy thrown into the mix as well.  That sense of very human, very silly, seriousness was what I tried to capture in this series.  God knows what the next set I do of the Reverend Billy Talen and his Church of Earthaluja will bring when I shoot him on his home turf in New York.

Al Stegeman AKA “Al in Philly” 2011

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