PJ & the Washington National Cathedral (Dennis Aubrey)


Our Via Lucis library consists of 75,000 images of French and Spanish churches. Of those, 45,000 are PJ’s. One could say easily that we are very experienced and should have some confidence about our work. Even so, we decided that since most of our effort is done in a six or seven week stretch once a year in Europe, we would photograph churches in the United states as a way to keep in practice.

It’s not like we don’t shoot other things during the year, especially PJ. She loves to shoot macro and is forever collecting shells, twigs, stones, and stray organic bits which she takes downstairs into her studio and photographs. But normal photography is not the same as the church photography.

Arcade columns, Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC (Photo by PJ McKey)

When we start a photography campaign, it takes a few days to get back into the groove. PJ especially feels out of practice and is not confident about her work. I try to reassure her and insist that her photography will be fine, but she frets anyway. It was the same at the Washington National Cathedral two weeks ago; she shot for three hours but didn’t know if she got anything worthwhile.

Light in the side aisle, Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC (Photo by PJ McKey)

But while it is normal for her to feel unsure about her photography, as soon as PJ started processing her shots it became clear that she never lost her touch or her eye. At the Washington National Cathedral she managed to capture not only the glory of the architecture, but her own personal reactions to the space.

South transept, Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC (Photo by PJ McKey)

We often describe our different shooting styles as hunting versus gathering. I know the image that I want and wait for the light to appear where and when I want it, take the shot, and process so as it get as close to the original vision in my head as possible. I’ve described PJ as a gatherer, continually moving around the church, collecting shots. But in reality, she is an explorer. She searches and looks and sees, then takes the shot. She explores the physical space and the spiritual space and captures what she discovers.

Nave, Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC (Photo by PJ McKey)

The same process occurs in her post-processing. One of our favorite things to do is to sit at our computers next to each other. We develop our pictures in Lightroom for hours on end. I have used Photoshop since Version 2 in 1994 but PJ only learned editing about four years ago using Adobe Lightroom. She has become, however, masterful in processing her shots. She explores her photographs while editing in the same way that she explores a church, with new and fresh eyes. She coaxes beauty out of the simplest image.

Light on pillar, Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC (Photo by PJ McKey)

These five photographs of the Washington National Cathedral express PJ’s aesthetic perfectly. They may not be her best work, but they are indicative of all that is wonderful in her artistic process.

For those who are interested in the technical details, PJ shot all five of these shots with the Canon 5D and the Canon 24mm f3.5 TSE LII tilt-shift lens. The sequence is a wonderful example of how framing and distance can make a lens a model of versatility.

23 responses to “PJ & the Washington National Cathedral (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Amazing growth shown in these photos…. the forever quest is what makes the art…. (great use of light here!!!!!!)

    • Donald, the Cathedral requests a small donation to help pay for the maintenance and repair of the structure and you can roam freely in the Church. It is very crowded, which can make it difficult to shoot. They do not allow tripods, but we got special permission to shoot for two days with them. That was difficult without the help of contacts from within the community.

  2. The hunter and the gatherer. Each extraordinarily gifted photographers. The light, height, shapes and shadows your camera has preseved from the three hours in the National Cathedral are magnificent. I put your blog on my BLOG ROLL last night. And i hardly know yet what a blog roll is 🙂

    • Thanks for your words and for placing us on your blogroll. There is something about these worlds where people are striving for ideas and beliefs outside of themselves that places the cathedrals in direct opposition to skyscrapers and monuments to the ambitions of men. It is as if the stone is worked by something other than a mason’s hands. That is the sensation that we try to capture.

  3. Beautifully seen. The last photo is my favourite. Thank you for sharing it with us. You inspired me to finally take a plunge and photograph Toronto’s cathedrals. This has been a “plan” on mine for some years now.

    • Thanks, Pam. The Washington National Cathedral was a bit tough because of the number of people that were there (especially for the Cherry Blossom Festival), but other than that, it was not too bad. I wish the netting above the nave was not there; guess we’ll have to wait a decade for that.

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