From Whence it all Derives (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I will travel to France again this fall to shoot another batch of the churches, and my parents will join us for their fifth “last trip to France.” They say this every year – as they age, the travel gets more difficult and they pronounce each journey their last. We are hoping that this is just one more in the long series of “last visits” to come.

Église Sainte Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

We love the time that we spend with Lucille and Don – three or four weeks of late afternoon Pernod and long dinners filled with conversation. We talk about everything, especially about the family growing up. On the last trip, my father brought up something that had been puzzling him for almost six decades. When I was about four years old, we lived in a French house owned by the Perdoux family in the Orleans suburb of Saint Jean-de-la-Ruelle. The house was perfect for our family, as there was a large yard for my brother David and me to play in and a glassed-in greenhouse attached to the house where we could shelter in the rain. One afternoon we were playing baseball and I looked at the greenhouse. One of the windows was open and for some reason my four-year old mind resolved to throw the bat through the window. I missed, of course, and shattered one of the windows. My parents were mortified and had to replace the glass.

My father asked me if I remembered throwing the bat through the window at the Perdoux’s? Of course I did, so he asked why. Without hesitation I told him exactly my state of mind in 1953. “I had no concept of failure – it never dawned on me that I would miss.” My father snorted, “Rien ne change”.

Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

It has always been my path to find my own way through life. I don’t remember viewing myself in relationship to the world as a whole until I was in kindergarten, shortly after we moved to California from France. I joined the class after the beginning of the school year (something that happened quite often in my youth), so everyone seemed to know each other and the routine except for me. On my first day at lunch recess, a bunch of kids were standing around in the playroom talking about what to do. For some reason, some of them wanted to be dead and some of them wanted to be alive. That seemed, to my five year old brain, a poor choice. If we were dead, we would just lie there, and if we were alive – well, what would be different? So I said, “Why don’t we be dead and alive.” Mind you, this was pre-Zombie USA. The kids looked at me like I was crazy, so I started walking around, staring vacantly with my arms out to my side. That was all it took. Within 30 seconds every kid in the class was walking around dead/alive. Who knows what the teacher thought.

About three years later we moved to North Carolina, where my parents bought a home in Fayetteville. North Carolina was different than California – they spoke English, but it was different. Not that it mattered, of course, because like children everywhere, I could adopt the accent in the company of the locals without changing anything at home.

Église Sainte Rdegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

We lived in a new housing development and in a nearby lot there was a huge stack of discarded construction materials – wood, boards, and the like. For some reason, I decided to build a church of my own. I was very pious and wanted to do something to show that devotion. Some other kids were recruited and we spent days on end stacking the materials and building our sanctuary. It was small – one couldn’t stand up and the space itself was a warren of compartments, but I was proud. Here was proof of my zeal. There was a dusting of snow that winter and I remember sitting huddled in that church, illuminated with candles, shivering and praying with all the fervor I could muster.

A couple of years later my father was again transferred to France, this time to the town of Poitiers. I noticed the churches immediately as we walked through that amazing town. From the hill above town where Abbeville Caserne was located (the local military base), we could look down across the Clain River and see Sainte Radegonde, the Cathedral Saint Pierre, and Notre Dame la Grande. In my previous experience, Army churches were built like barracks and even the civilian churches in North Carolina were like most other buildings. But these great monuments to worship soared high into the air and were something altogether new and different.

Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

They were so tall – a twelve year old boy might strain his neck looking up at them. And they were made of stone! My extensive church-building experience in North Carolina was enough that it was possible to recognize something extraordinary in that fact alone. And the carvings, the decorations, the sculpture! Astonishing. It was easy to see the divine in these churches, but then it dawned on me that there was a human dimension as well. People built these churches, and they built them by hand, without machines. What a labor this must have been. These great buildings and the enormous effort expended in their construction awed me. Now a single thought dominated my mind – boy, they must have really loved their God to build churches like this.

Église Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Now, years later, having studied and photographed these churches for so long, a second dim realization has penetrated my mind; I have no more sophisticated understanding now than at the age of twelve. I can only echo that same thought – boy, they must have really loved their God to build churches like this.

24 responses to “From Whence it all Derives (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Excellent, Dennis. I love the insights into how your mind worked then, because I recognize the you of today in those insights. And yes, how they loved/love their God. And your photos and those of PJ capture that essence beautifully!

    • Oh yeah, how that mind did work. Like a little train huffing and puffing. All of the photos of this post were from PJ – I loved them so much that I used all that she gave me. She read the post and gave me photos that she thought reflected the awe a twelve-year old might feel seeing them for the first time. She nailed it.

  2. Amazing! Beautiful photos. Husband wants to know if you use fill flash? Love the story of your boyhood! I seem to recall my oldest breaking a window with a bat (only swinging in the house) at about that age. I must say, yours is far more entertaining! And I agree, they must have really loved God.

    • Nice of you to post again, Arnel. There must be something about little boys and bats at that age, I guess. Funny how my father remembered it so clearly that he had to ask 55 years later! As far as your husbands question, we use no lighting at all. The advantage of very long exposures is that we can bring out even the darkest corners of the church. This creates problems with the well lit areas of course, which we have discussed in several posts. I tend to be more technical in addressing those problems but PJ approaches the issue like an artist in post-processing. To her, the image is a canvas that she can dodge and burn to her heart’s content, bringing the whole into the balance she seeks.

      • Hey Dennis! I’ve been a tad stressed out lately, and my blogging has suffered for it. But seeing your post in the reader really brightened my day! Thanks for the explanation on the lighting. How long are your exposures? I’m learning that I prefer hat when I Di my flower shots on misty or cloudy days, though it doesn’t work well if there is a breeze. :-).

      • Sorry to hear that you are stressed, Arnel, glad that the post helped a bit. Our exposures are typically 10 -30 seconds long, sometimes even longer. We both bracket; PJ brackets three shots a half-stop apart, I bracket more obsessively – sometimes 12-15 shots a third stop apart.

        As far as your flower shots are concerned, the length of the exposure is factored on the amount of light and what depth of field you wish to capture, which is of course tied to which lens you use. I’m sure that you know this, but if you like the long exposures but there is too much available light, use the smallest aperture (the highest f-stop) that you can. It gives increased depth of field.

        BTW, from one of your posts I saw a reference to Bakersfield. Are you from there? Both my parents were born and raised in Bakersfield.

      • Boy, talk about six degrees of separation! Yes, born and raised there. I left when I was 19. CA is a very troubled state–I would not wish to live there, although there is much beauty there. My father was also from there, though he had moved to Woodlake, 2 hrs NE of there

  3. Boy, the iPad just isn’t working for me today. Anyway, he passed away in Oct last, and I’ve made several trips out to take care of things. But Woodlake is so small, I use Bakersfield as home base–especially since I have friends there. And yes, I do use the smaller F-stop, but it isn’t very beneficial when trying to blur background data. I have the best luck it seems with early morning sun. I’m ready to buy a new camera, and have been looking at the Nikon d800, but it seems that Adobe has not added support for it yet. I rented one this last trip west to see if I’d like it, but they sent a med format lense with it on accident. Still I got a feel for it in general, if not the full frame experience. And they reimbursed me the rental, so all was not lost. Still am wondering if I ought to try the new Mark III by canon, but it’s 500 more, so I’m a little shy of liking it.

    • Do you use a macro lens for your flowers? That will get you the blurred background. As far as cameras, you can’t go wrong with either Nikon or Canon. I’ve used both happily, although we chose Canon for our work because we need the tilt-shift lenses and wanted to use the 1Ds Mark III. The choice is also affected by the glass that you already own. As far as support for the cameras, Adobe will very shortly have whatever is required.

  4. Dennis,
    Could you help me out? In photo 4, PJ’s St Hilaire: exactly off of what area would you take the light reading? That’s my biggest problems inside cathedrals.

    • Stephan, PJ just told me that she would expose for the bright area around the window and then bracket the shot 1 stop either direction. That would give her choices in the editing. Our rule of thumb is that if you blow out the highlights, nothing can ever be recovered, but there is always the option for bringing out detail in the shadows (knowing that noise will be added).

      I bracket far more than PJ, often 12 exposures a third of a stop apart, and then use HDR or layer masking to combine them. But she is better at the photo editing than I am.

      • Sounds like you’re describing a digital technique. I use film — the Fujis in ISO low 100s, so I read the darkest area in which I want to see details. Would PJ’s method work for film?

      • Sorry, we so seldom see film nowadays. So I would say that the best way that I’ve found is to expose for the darker areas of greatest interest. If you print, you can dodge and burn to recover the areas that are not properly exposed.

  5. What an incredible blog, and I am so jealous of your church outings. When I was in Cuzco, Peru the churches do not allow you to take photos within the church. They were just so incredibly stunning.

    Thank you so much for stopping by my blog and liking my posts on the Women in the Sacred Valley. I look forward to sharing more of our worldly travels with each other.

  6. You were destined to become a Romanesque devotee, Dennis!
    My idle speculation: what your interest might have been if your family lived in Ile de France in the midst of the High Gothic cathedrals? Thank you for sharing the treasure trove of Romanesque churches by you and PJ.
    Jong-Soung

    • Jong-Soung, the speculation is not that idle – I do love those Gothic churches as well. But there is something about the Romanesque that strikes a deeper note to me personally. In thinking about what you said, it dawned on me that my father’s profession as a soldier gave me opportunities to experience so many different things, to see so many things anew. For me, it was the luckiest thing that could have happened to an inquisitive boy.

    • Thanks, Rachel. I noticed that you are not a fan of Las Vegas, something besides photography that we share. It has always been my contention that some day in the distant future, archaeologists will discover the ruins of Las Vegas and conclude that it was a massive religious pilgrimage center for some unknown religion. Their evidence will feature massive communal structures where the visitor/believers gave gifts of money to their gods and then returned home penniless.

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