Drawn to Light

By Steve Waring

For as long as she can remember, the Rev. Jana Troutman-Miller has been fascinated by cameras and photography. When she borrowed her father’s expensive film camera as a young girl, the flash was already broken on the camera body, forcing her to look to capture moments in natural light.

The Marion Johnson McCarthy Gallery inside St. Mark’s Church, Milwaukee, is showing “Surprised by Beauty” — an exhibit of 29 of her images — through May 8. The inspiration for the show’s title came naturally, given her backstory.

“I like to pay particular attention to times of unusual light and that will cause me to bring my camera,” she said. “It’s a spiritual practice for me. It’s not just about the light. It’s also about a feeling of wanting to experience the spiritual, and the camera helps me find that.”

Troutman-Miller was a reluctant convert to digital-camera technology. She had abandoned photography for two years when her expensive camera broke in 2003. Her first digital camera was an inexpensive point-and-shoot she bought in 2005, but she quickly came to appreciate its lower cost and the flexibility to enhance digital images with software instead of a darkroom full of expensive equipment and toxic chemicals. But she resists showing photos taken on her smartphone.

“I have a few exhibition-worthy photos that I’ve taken with my phone,” she said, laughing, “but I’ll never show them because of the principle of it all. I suppose that is a little hypocritical, because you can take a great photo on any camera and there are very good photo editing applications available now.”

Troutman-Miller said she typically uses a light touch in editing photos. All but one of 29 images in “Surprised by Beauty” use at least some editing. When she spends time reworking color balance and other image effects, it leads to some of her most striking work. A surrealistic image of the Hoan Bridge is one of the images she spent some time editing.

One evening she was on call as a chaplain at a hospital in Milwaukee that offers sweeping views of Lake Michigan.

“Out of 50 shots this was the only useable one,” she said. “It was very overcast and I zoomed in on the bridge as much as I could. On the computer I cropped it, adjusted the coloring, and enhanced the overcast sky.”

Although she was shooting to the East, her photo editing almost makes the bridge appear as if it is bathed in the dying rays of a Western sunset.

“When I’m someplace new and special, I’ll carry the camera with me,” she said, “but it’s rare that I decide to take my camera and go photographing.”

Another photo that stands out in the exhibit is one she took of a brass horse hitching post at night in New Orleans. The polished brass and long exposure time allow all the colored lights of the city to reflect off the horse, making it look painted.

This is not the first time that Troutman-Miller has exhibited her work at St. Mark’s, the parish that sponsored her for ordination to the priesthood.

After graduating from college Troutman-Miller moved from Illinois to Racine, where she worked as a chaplain until 2005. That year she met her future husband, Randy. The newlywed couple moved to Milwaukee.

After buying a house in the Downers Grove neighborhood, the couple went looking for a neighborhood church. “I realized that the Episcopal Church was my spiritual home,” Troutman-Miller said. “I felt increasingly drawn to the sacramental aspect of faith.”

She was ordained to the diaconate in 2014 and became chaplain of St. John’s On the Lake, an adult residential retirement community founded by Episcopal women. Although now a separately incorporated nonprofit organization, St. John’s maintains an Episcopal chapel on the property and the diocese provides a priest. Troutman-Miller will observe her one-year anniversary to the priesthood on Oct. 4.

Images courtesy of Jana Troutman-Miller

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