Getting the shot redux (PJ McKey)


Photographs are elusive. They are images, moments seen or missed, teasing at the corners of our consciousness. Once you find them and know they are there, they must be captured and this is where Dennis’ style differs so completely from mine.

Our photography of the Romanesque churches is a bit like a safari. There is enough equipment to give a pack animal pause. It goes everywhere with us. Like a toddler, it demands constant attention, cleaning, caring for, and can never be left alone for a minute. Who gets the rolling bag of equipment when we go into churches is always up for discussion. Mostly Dennis minds “the baby.” He knows it would only slow me down.

Dennis waiting patiently at Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay

You see, Dennis is patient. He contemplates. He’s like an old master with oil paints, carefully composing, studying the scene, attempting to understand it and know its secrets. He can wait for as long as it takes for the aisle to clear, for the light to be right. He watches and waits. For every photograph he takes, I take three. Okay, maybe five. Dennis seems to know what shots he wants. He goes for them and doesn’t give up till he’s used his skill to capture what he truly sees. He forms a bond with the space. They seem to talk to each other, discuss.

PJ at Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Pierre, Jumièges

I’m not in control. The church pulls me around from one exciting image to the next. I can’t get enough of it. I want it now. I was once almost locked into the crypt of the Abbey church in Tournus when it closed at night because I didn’t hear the concierge throwing everybody else out. Dennis realized that I was still inside and had me rescued.

I’m impulsive. I’m searching. I’m mesmerized often by little things, pieces of sculpture, an open door framed by light, a hat left behind, the juxtaposition of two objects, color and patterns. I can be absorbed by chairs, their shapes in the light, the history of all who have been there. I’m the modern artist, trusting my instincts, operating from the part of the brain that lets the eye move the hand bypassing the interfering consciousness that might miss or judge the moment.

Dennis at Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville

I’m envious of many of Dennis’ photos. They reflect his patience; he captures the essence of a space. I used to think to myself, “I could have gotten that shot if I only waited.” He replies, looking at one of my shots, “I could have gotten that if I had seen it,” with a smile. Dennis stands, or sits calmly. People often come up to him curious about his work. He’s approachable. People rarely speak to me because I’m a bit manic. I’m sure I put out the “can’t you see I’m creating now” vibe that keeps them at a distance. That suits me fine. I’m in my bubble, my zone. Besides it hard to talk to someone practically standing on her head to photograph some distant corner on the ceiling where two arches intersect.

At the end of the day, the equipment tucked in for the night, we take a quiet moment before dinner to archive and annotate our shots. It’s then that our styles become evident. Dennis sees the big picture, the structure; I notice the details. He gets the forest, I get the bark on the trees. It’s a good combination. We often say “I didn’t see that” when looking at each others photos. We understand and appreciate our differences. We learn from each other. And best of all, I get him to carry the equipment.

First posted May 3, 2010. If you are interested in seeing more of our images, please see the Via Lucis website.

14 responses to “Getting the shot redux (PJ McKey)

  1. I have spent many hours waiting for the clouds to clear, the wind to calm or some other factor when getting shots of a geologic formation, etc. I remember those days and pine for them sometimes.

    • Russell, I know bird and animal photographers whose patience puts mine to shame. The worst thing I need to wait on is a curious tourist looking at every single detail in a church where I am trying to shoot. Can’t fault them, so patience is required. Thanks.

    • Thank you, John. We are definitely a yin-yang pairing and it works out perfectly for this project. We’re embarking on our sixth year of the project, and given that there are 5000 Romanesque churches in France alone, it doesn’t look like we’ll ever run out of material!

  2. your (collective) photography is beautiful and with the two styles it seems are able to work very well together to full document the churches you visit. It is nice to learn a little about you, not just the places you visit. It also makes me realize that I must understand my strengths and learn to work with them rather than change to become a better photographer. thanks for sharing your work and your thoughts.

    • Thank you for your kind words about PJ and myself. We spend most of the time talking about the churches and what they mean to us and seldom talk about ourselves. I think PJ found the perfect way to do this – it is fun to see myself through her eyes. And I love to see these churches through her eyes. Sometimes she takes my breath away.

    • Thank you, Graham. We’re preparing now for our Fall trip to France and can’t wait to get back. PJ was feeling sick today; when I came back I asked if there were anything I could do for her. Her answer? “Take me to France. Now!”

      I know how she feels.

  3. I love the idea of the contrasting styles – a real boon to you. Getting both the forest and the bark – you’re lucky to have two such accomplished and complementary talents!

    • It works personally and professionally. For the most part, we feel that we have gotten the feel for a church when we are finished, whether it is three days at the Cathedral of Chartres or three hours at a small country church. We know that we haven’t seen and found everything, in fact we have sometimes realized that we missed major elements. We shot at the Cathédrale Saint Etienne in Cahors and never realized there was an amazing and unique tympanum in an alley on the north side of the building. We subsequently went back and I spent three hours shooting that tympanum and the associated sculpture. But even if we are shooting together, she sees things that I don’t, which makes it all the more pleasurable.

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