✿ Getting the Shot (PJ McKey) ✿

We had our presentation at Harvard this week and it was such a pleasure. To stand on the podium with PJ and talk about our work to a receptive and generous audience was everything that we could have hoped for from the American Friends of Chartres event. PJ talked about our shooting styles, so I thought I’d repost this article of hers from a few years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

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 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.

Me in action 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 and one of his many friends at the 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 look at our shots. It’s then that our styles become evident. Dennis sees the big picture; 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 I get him to carry the equipment.

If you are interested in seeing more of our images, please see the Via Lucis website.

13 thoughts on “✿ Getting the Shot (PJ McKey) ✿

  1. Reading about your techniques reminds me of the things that we all do subconsciously when a camera is in our hand. Thank you for the details and for the “Big Picture”. Your captures are always such a delight!

    1. Thanks, Vann. There is a very interesting moment for me when we photograph a church. When I first start mounting the camera onto the tripod and getting everything ready for the first set-up, there is a rush of adrenaline – excitement about starting to shoot. It doesn’t matter that we’ve photographed 750 churches before or if the church is small and unremarkable on the surface. And at these moments, I have to be most careful. I once dropped a lens at this time. Another time a failure to check camera settings meant that I shot an entire church (an important one, no less) at half-resolution. So I find that at that moment I need to double-check everything.

  2. Love this piece every time I read it. I find that I’m more like PJ, and although I don’t have a partner shooting with me, I do at least have someone to carry anything extra, help me change lenses, fetch extra memory cards, etc. ^_^

    1. It’s always great to have someone to help out, Allie. I can see from your shots that you are more like PJ. I’m just a bit geeky, frankly (PJ may disagree with the words “just a bit”).

      1. Maybe slightly more than a bit. But it does pay off and allows Dennis to get some extraordinary shots that only his technical expertise could make possible.

  3. Congratulations on becoming so world famous! Truly the work that Dennis and you do is so admirable and important. I love how you describe the different approaches to capturing these churches. I am like you, like a kid in a candy store, wanting to try each piece. But there are times when patience does pay off. Beautiful work.

    1. It was great fun, Viv, as you can imagine. At one point when PJ was talking I just looked over at her and beamed. She was talking about how every time she enters one of these churches she holds her breath. It took me right back to France.

      1. Thanks Viv. We are certainly a team and I feel blessed to have this to share with Dennis.

  4. It was great seeing you both in person at Harvard. Sorry I didn’t have more time to chat. 🙂 Your Chartres images and stories were lovely!

    Watching the presentation after yours, it made me wish you marketed (and widely advertised) a package of photos for academics. Image how much better those talks would be!

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