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Local photographer documents spiritual treasures

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

By Mary Caffrey Knapke

ARCHDIOCESE — Think, focus, click — these are the fundamental steps of any photographer’s process. But for Russ Martin of Shelby County, it’s also the name of one of his photography websites. Since he took up photography just a few years ago, Martin has honed his art, shooting everything from his grandchildren’s sporting events to senior photos and weddings. But it’s the Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches that Martin calls “my Yosemite.”


 
“To me, it’s like opening a box and not knowing what’s in it. When I walk into a church, I know I’m going to see something I’ve not seen before,” he said. “I get excited about that.”
 

 Russ Martin
Russ Martin poses outside of Sacred Heart of Jesus in McCartyville, the first church he visited when he began his project. (Courtesy photo)

Ten churches and the Shrine of the Holy Relics comprise the Ohio Scenic Byway called the Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches. The 38-mile byway cuts through Shelby, Auglaize and Mercer counties, traveling west along State Route 119 from McCartyville to Ft. Recovery and then north along State Route 49 to State Route 29 near Wabash. A brief detour from the official byway leads to numerous other historic parishes and church buildings, many of which were entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
 
Martin became interested in photography five years ago after winning a digital camera at a company party. He was looking for something of interest in Ohio when he discovered the scenic byway. “All I wanted to do was get a postcard picture of the exterior of the 10 churches on the byway,” Martin said. “Then one day, I was at St. Rose [near Maria Stein], and the secretary came out and said, ‘You know, you can go inside.’ So I went inside . . . and I said, oh my gosh, there’s even more inside than there was outside. So that got me interested.”

Martin’s modest plan of collecting photos of 10 church exteriors has now evolved into a photo blog comprised of more than a thousand images. His photos also will be on display during the month of April at the Amos Memorial Public Library in Sidney. He has been invited to contribute photos to a display at the Shrine of the Holy Relics and for a parish 150th anniversary book, and he is in the process of applying for an Ohio Arts Council grant.

Martin’s photos illustrate the churches’ beauty, but they also allow Martin, who is Methodist, to learn about the Catholic faith.

“Some of the best ones — not always the best photo shoot, but the best outing — is when I get to talk to people. They’ll explain their faith a little more,” he said. Sometimes he’ll post a photo of a sacred object or symbol on his blog, and “people will write in and give the correct terms for things. They help me out.”

Martin’s work is also part of a personal spiritual journey. This aspect of his photography was most evident during a memorable experience at the Sacred Heart of Jesus in McCartyville. Inside the church, he noticed a man praying.

“This was an animated conversation. He was pacing back and forth; he was gesturing with his hands. He had clearly made a special pilgrimage here to get face-to-face with God for something.” Not wanting to disturb the man, Martin left, reflecting on “what brings us to the foot of the cross. What brings us to prostrate ourselves before God?” Martin asked. “You know, you go in to take a picture, and you walk out with so much more. I didn’t even get a picture that day. But I got a lesson.”

Martin said he also enjoys meeting and talking with people on his excursions. He remembered taking a photo of St. John the Baptist in Maria Stein when a teenage boy walked up to him. Gazing at the church, the boy asked, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“People have that ownership, that pride, that sense of belonging,” Martin said. “If you talk to anybody, you don’t miss it. Everyone’s proud of their church. Those are the things that stick with me. I was there to take pictures, but that’s what I remember, is that conversation.”
 
Now that Martin has visited every church along the byway and all but one church in the wider area, he finds he is still able to keep the work fresh. “I’m always amazed. I’ll go into a church and spend an hour or two hours there. And then a month or two months later, I decide to go back, and I can’t believe all the stuff I’ve missed.”

Still, when asked which church is his favorite, he has to take some time to think about it.

“The one I’m taking pictures of,” he says at last.
 
Russ Martin’s work can be viewed online at www.crosstippedchurches.blogspot.com or www.thinkfocusclick.com.

Mary Caffrey Knapke can be reached at [email protected].

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