This post originated from an interesting conversation that I recently had with Robert Consoli, who has a site called Squinchpix. Robert has as passionate a dedication to documenting and archiving European archaeological and architectural sites as PJ and I have in our more narrow field of specialization, the Romanesque and Gothic churches.
The conversation centered around post-production processing, in particular High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR). We have discussed the use of such techniques in a previous post, and have stated our intent as follows: “When we use post-processing techniques, our objective is to create an image that is otherwise impossible to represent with a camera but reflects what we see with our eyes.”
Robert concluded as follows: “You say that you ‘tend to like the shadows and dim recesses’. You are certainly entitled to your own vision but I can’t resist noticing that photography should reveal, not conceal.” Robert added, “I painted for many years and the painter’s motto is ‘full color in the shadows’. Photography’s no different.”
I thought about what Robert said about revealing and concealing and decided that the issue required more reflection. And from that reflection came three perspectives on why PJ and I shoot the way we do.
The first perspective is technical. PJ and I typically shoot with the smallest aperture of the lens that provides the requisite quality image. On my Canon EF TS-E 17mm f/4L tilt-shift lens that setting is usually f16. This means that we shoot long exposures, which keeps the entire image in focus. I feel that this is important because our human vision does not blur what we are looking at, only what we are not looking at. We can mimic that in photography so that when we look at any part of an image, we see it in focus. That can cause a problem in the overall aesthetics of the image, however, because the two dimensional canvas appears flat. We use shadow variation to separate the different elements of the image such as the foreground and background, thereby enhancing the sensation of depth in that canvas. In the image that follows, PJ has an interesting take – the foreground is shadowed and the background is light.
The second idea is architectural. PJ and I are preparing a book called “Light & Stone” about the Romanesque churches of France. She came up with the title because it is the interaction of these two elements that characterize all the churches that we photograph.
Even the history of the development of the churches is about these two elements. The medieval builders searched for a way to create a structure constructed of – and roofed by – stone in such a way that would allow light to enter the interior. Because of the immense weight of the stone vault, the walls were thick and permitted only the smallest amounts of fenestration. It was only when they developed techniques of channeling the thrust from the vaults down ribs into localized areas of buttressed walled surfaces that the builders could create the walls thin enough to allow for large windows. This, of course, marked the transition from Romanesque into Gothic.
It is our belief that the interaction of light with the spaces that we photograph is an important component of each image. Sometimes it might yield the “God-light” effect.
In any event, the interiors of Romanesque churches are shadowed and subdued, reflecting the meditative and contemplative intent of the monastic builders – ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, “that in all things God may be glorified”. I read once that even if these monks possessed the technology to build a Gothic church, they still would have built in the Romanesque style because it suited their spiritual intent. Our photography explores that intent as it is visible in these structures eight hundred years later.
The third idea is aesthetic. It seems to me that it is wholly appropriate to tell the story of this architecture through the medium of light, the medium of photography. In some cases, the church is not the subject, but the setting. In such a case, the drama of the photograph supports the drama of the story.
This sometimes results in an image that is not completely intelligible, or is even abstract, but it is still telling the story.
In support of this abstraction, I can do no better than to quote Angelico Surchamp once again; “Don’t you think, gentlemen, that abstract art, by transferring the sense of reality, promotes access to the sacred?” (“Ne croyez-vous pas, messieurs, que l’art abstrait, en transférant le sens de la réalité, favorise l’accès au sacré ?”)
So the issue of “revealing” has larger meanings than simply to show the church. What might be interpreted as “concealing” can also mean selectively “revealing” both physical and non-physical aspects of the church.
There are probably more ideas lurking in here somewhere, but this is what came up immediately in thinking about Robert’s comments. And to be fair to Robert, his purpose in the exchange was not to provoke this kind of intellectual diversion: “I used to maintain a blog about HDR and low-contrast was one of the topics I used to address. I brought that picture into Lightroom and looked at the histogram. Sure enough all the tones were below the middle except for a thin spike on the bright end (the windows). Classic. We should discuss this topic because lots of people (and I’m sure among your readers) have a hazy understanding of this (including me) and we ought to hash it all out if there’s an opportunity.” Maybe that’s another post!
Note: I found an interview with Robert at this site.