For Summit grad Rowan Gillson, every day is an opportunity to encounter God’s design and mentor others in how to communicate it through the medium of photography. Just 30 years of age, Gillson’s accomplishment as a photographer and entrepreneur have enabled him to travel the world instructing others through the Institute of Photographic Studies (IPS) and equip a rising generation of culture leaders through a nonprofit ministry called World Changers.
Photography is perhaps the most popular and broadly accessible medium today through which people encounter aesthetic truth. It’s also a trade Gillson thinks rich with opportunities to relate to others, discuss ideas, and live out the biblical worldview. “I’ve discovered the camera is either a very effective bridge or a very effective barricade,” Gillson said. “As soon as you pull out a camera, people are really interested in who you are and what you’re doing. The camera becomes an opportunity for you to connect with people.”
Gillson’s own ideas about beauty — and what he tries to instill in his photography students during seminars with IPS — were profoundly shaped by his years at Summit. Gillson came as a student in the summer of 2005, stuck around that summer as a staffer, and continued volunteering with Summit though 2010 as time permitted. “Summit helped me understand that if who I am and what I do have meaning, then I can make a difference in the world I live in,” he confessed. “Summit’s tagline — ‘Ideas have consequences’ — comes up regularly [in photography]. I can trace things I see in everyday life back to the ideas.”
IPS, which uses Summit’s Manitou Springs facilities for several classes throughout the year, is a program that focuses on the technical aspects of the craft: lighting, composition, and color. But Gillson and his staff also talk with students about what makes a particular photograph meaningful — what the photograph is communicating and how its purpose can be communicated better. “We don’t take it from an approach of trying to define or describe beauty,” Gillson recently explained. “The way it comes out is when we’re looking at images. We often use words like ‘stronger,’ ‘more successful,’ or ‘better.’ We’re describing the image’s impact on a viewer.”
So in Gillson’s estimation, a particular photo’s aesthetic quality comes not only from the use of the technical photographic aspects, but also its teleological fidelity — its purpose. For a standard idea of what general beauty is, Gillson looks to the created order for perspective. “I think it goes back to the nature or character of our designer,” he said. “We appreciate, we recognize — even when we don’t necessarily know why — loose things we might call God’s fingerprints. I think visually we’re designed for this world in a way that allows us to recognize common things as beautiful.”
Gillson explained that the commonly known “Rule of Thirds” — the idea that visual artifacts are more appealing when the subject of the image is placed where imaginary lines dividing the image into thirds intersect — is a product of God’s created order. The idea has its roots in a philosophical and mathematical notion known as the Golden Mean. So the aesthetical standard isn’t arbitrary; it’s a product of purposeful design.
That’s why Gillson emphasizes at IPS that photographers — and artists in general — have a design to their photos, besides static self-expression. “It’s the worldview behind the photography that says, ‘Yes, there are objective truths. There’s reality. There’s a meaning to things. The pictures that I take have meaning.’”
And it’s for that and its relational potential that Gillson sees photography as an increasingly valuable craft for Christians to take up. “Photography is a legitimate trade,” he said. “If we can use it to impact people’s lives, that’s a really powerful way to impact the Kingdom.”