Church Etiquette for Photographers (Dennis Aubrey)


We get requests from many photographers, both experienced and novices, who want to understand what it takes to shoot at these churches. We have provided technical explanations already – we have discussed our camera gear, the lenses that we use and our procedures on a shooting trip.

We always stress the importance of preparation; to have an idea of what is important in a church; whether or not it will be crowded, the time of day you might be shooting, the time of year, and whether special permission will be required. It is also important to know something about what is unique or distinctive in the church. We once shot at the Cathédrale Saint Etienne in Cahors without realizing that the most remarkable feature of the church was the magnificent north portal in an alley on the opposite side of the main entrance. It was a good excuse to go back and shoot again later.

North portal, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot)  Photo by PJ McKey

North portal, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

This post addresses something different – perhaps it can be considered a primer for photographing in churches, especially in France and the United States. There are three main issues – respect for the church and the parishioners, use of tripods and access.

The first issue – respect for the churches and parishioners – is easy to communicate. Stay quiet and unobtrusive as much as possible. Don’t intrude on people who are praying or meditating. It is best not to photograph the services themselves except from a distance. And remember that these are religious services – we went to the vespers service at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay a couple of years ago, a service in which the monks and nuns sing the mass. A tour of Dutch tourists came in during the service. They sat respectfully and listened , but when it was finished, they applauded. The treated it like a performance. You could feel the shock among both the congregation and the monks and nuns.

When individuals are praying, they are very sensitive to interruptions (clicking of the camera can be very annoying) and of being photographed. Ask before you do so if you must shoot someone. Several years ago I saw a woman in a wheelchair at services in Vézelay, seated alone at the back of the church. I was taken by the way the light from a window looked like a reverse shadow of her image. When the service was over, I asked if I could take her picture. She gave me a lovely smile for the shot.

Shadow of light, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Shadow of light, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is also important to respect the church itself. In most cases, the altars are off-limits. This is almost assured if the church is actively used and consecrated. Stay off the altars, respect the signs and ropes that bar entry. If you are allowed to photograph in that area, leave when any sign of services begins. I was once shooting the vault from the altar at the Église Saints Pierre & Paul in Wissenbourg and failed to notice the arrival of parishioners. It wasn’t until the clerics started prepping the altar that I realized a service was imminent.

The artist in his studio  (Photo by PJ McKey)

Dennis photographing the chancel vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

The second issue is often not centered on photography in the church, which is usually allowed. But the difficulty arises in the need to use tripods. For us, tripods are a must since we shoot with small apertures and very long exposures. We spend hours shooting each church so there is no question of sneaking in.

Nave with layer mask of windows, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral, Providence (Rhode Island)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral, Providence (Rhode Island) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We find that in the United States it is almost always necessary to get advance permission from the church offices in order to shoot with tripods in a large church or cathedral. When we shot at the Washington National Cathedral for the first time, for example, we worked for a couple of weeks to get proper access. In Providence or Boston we just made arrangements a few days prior.

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

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

Smaller parish churches, on the other hand, are treated almost as private property. It is advisable to get permission to shoot on the premises, but it can often be done on the day that you arrive. It is a more informal process and we have found that the parish priests, deacons, rectors, or employees are pleased to show the church and discuss it.

Nave of Saint Ann Church, Lenox (Massachusetts)   Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave of Saint Ann Church, Lenox (Massachusetts) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In France, the churches are the property of the State, often managed by the church or a commune, and there are few obstacles to shooting except in large cathedrals – we would never have gotten access to Chartres like we did on the last two occasions had we not been invited.

View from the tribunes, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by PJ McKey

View from the tribunes, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

But that being said, the only places other than Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, or Saint Denis that we needed actual permission was in Angers because the buildings that we visited were not open to the public, period. We have shot in Vézelay, Senlis, Sens, Reims, Laon, Albi, and many others with no problem.

The third issue in photographing the churches is the kind of access that you are allowed. In the large churches, there are two kinds of access. The normal access is when you can photograph in the space with a tripod undisturbed by any official interference. The second is where you are given access to areas that are not available to tourists at all and seldom seen by any visitors. This takes the most planning and communication with the church authorities and is not easily granted. In most cases the photographer will need a strong reference in order to gain this type of access.

Flying buttesses, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by PJ McKey

Flying buttesses, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

One further difficulty of access remains in rural France – getting inside. These smaller churches are often (alas) closed, and it is necessary to search around to find who might have the key. That can be quite an adventure. Your best chance to find a key is at the Mairie, but that city office might only be open one or two days a week. In the Charente last year, one Mairie was only open on Thursday afternoons.

Many times the key is with a local person who lives nearby. In a small village in the Saône-et-Loire departent of Burgundy we found the church locked and no sign of where the key might be obtained. Across the square was a small house with a lovely, well-kept garden in the small front yard. I crossed to the house and rang the bell. When the elderly woman who lived there opened the door – gazing a bit suspiciously at this large stranger – I asked about the key. She brightened immediately, reached into a flower pot and pulled out the huge metal key. She gave it to me and said that she had to leave and run some errands in town but I could just return the key when I was finished.

PJ shooting at the Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Pierre, Jumièges  (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ shooting at the Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Pierre, Jumièges (Seine-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have asked at many such houses, in some cases interrupting family gatherings, a woman putting on her wig, and men doing chores in their yards or fields. Once in the town of Peyrusse in the Auvergne, the mayor emerged from her house with a key that must have been a foot long and weighed five pounds. She exchanged it for my permit de conduire. But these kind people have never hesitated to help us when they heard the purpose of our visit. In some cases they show up where we are shooting to see if everything is working, turning on lights (often when they are not wanted), and sometimes, I think, looking to make sure that some small treasure of the church is still secure. But we always welcome them and try to engage in conversation about the church. Inevitably, they know something interesting or important about the church.

Dennis photographing at the Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Dennis photographing at the Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

There is one final thing to remember in France = there is a good reason that the churches are locked. Thieves have long known that they might find beautiful and valuable objects in these churches. The shortage of priests in the villages mean that they are most often empty and targets for theft. We went to the small town of Thoisy-le-Désert in the Côte-d’Or to see their famous vierge romane. When we arrived at the church which was situated in a field just outside of the village of about 200 souls, we found it locked. I walked into the nearby village and found a group of people preparing for a festival. When I asked about the vierge, everyone looked crestfallen, some even began crying. It turned out that the statue had been stolen twelve years earlier in 1995 and had never been recovered. It was like the heart had been stolen from the village.

Statue en bois polychrome : Vierge à l'Enfant assise, Image copyright Patrimoine de France, photo by Henri Heuzé.

Statue en bois polychrome : Vierge à l’Enfant assise, Thoisy-le-Désert. Image copyright Patrimoine de France, photo by Henri Heuzé.

It is important to understand some of these issues when going to France to photograph these churches. They are much cared for (even in the smallest town, the largest portion of the maintenance and repair falls on the shoulders of the inhabitants) and beloved, and many have been violated in the most brutal fashion.

If you are serious in photographing in these churches both in the United States, France, Spain, and anywhere else, you will find that people are ultimately pleased to have you do so. They just ask for you to respect the church itself, the faith that of those who worship there, and the people who come to pray and meditate. In France it is always a nice gesture to buy a candle and place it on one of the altars and to buy any small publication that describes the church and its history. Your contribution will help to defray the costs of maintaining these extraordinary medieval buildings.

Geay (Dennis Aubrey)


There has been so much damage to the Romanesque monuments in the Saintonge region of France – the Hundred Years War was brutal, and then the wars of religion and the French Revolution continued the devastation – that it is difficult to find a church that has not been substantially rebuilt in the area. One that we found and admired is the 12th Century Église Saint-Vivien de Geay.

View from east,  Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

View from east, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the exterior shot, we can see the massive clocher that dominates the structure. Unlike many of her sisters in the Saintonge, Saint-Vivien has a very modest western facade and a wonderful chevet. These photographs also show the very large transepts in the structure.

Chevet, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can see from the western entrance to the nave the hall church construction with banded ogive barrel vaults and a complex, rather unordered chancel. This chancel, which holds the crossing tower, is the dominant feature of the church.

Nave, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

The crossing tower is built on four sturdy columns in the chancel that are connected by the corresponding four powerful arches. Above the arches is a blind arcade as decoration.

Crossing vault, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing vault, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This crossing tower was not part of the original 12th Century church, but was rebuilt in the 15th Century I believe. I think that the original tower was faulty and they built a much larger and more dominant clocher over the chancel crossing. It is clear that the necessary reinforcement was not gracefully done. In this shot we can see that the east/west arches are not properly centered and are awkwardly integrated.

Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

This fault, however, is compensated by the wonderful effect that is achieved in the transept where we now have a set of double arches leading north and south. This is elegant and unique, in my experience, and one of the things I like best about Saint-Vivien.

North transept with double arches, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North transept with double arches, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this view of the crossing from the north transept, we can see how the space between the double arches was used. In this case there are two niches which were used for ex-votos and church treasures, and the wooden pulpit entrance wraps around the outermost pillar into the nave.

Crossing, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing, Église Saint-Vivien de Geay, Geay (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint-Vivien de Geay is an interesting Romanesque church in a region filled with Romanesque remnants. We were glad to see so much of the original still extant, especially in light of the peculiar interior architecture of the crossing.

Modest Discoveries (Dennis Aubrey)


Craig Shier wrote to us last week about our post on the Église Saint Gal de Langast, “It’s great that you are documenting these “lesser” churches. There was tremendous diversity beyond that seen in the “great” churches.”

We have already shot 37 churches in our two weeks in France this year, and of those, 30 must be classified as modest. Part of the reason is that we are spending a great time in areas without the great churches, but part is because these are that they are filled with remarkable remnants of their medieval origins.

The Calvados region was the site of the bitterest fighting in Normandy in 1944 after the Overlord invasion. It is a miracle that anything survived the intense three-month battle, but many of these churches managed – usually deprived of the distinctive Norman clochers that had marked them for eight hundred years. Ruqueville’s contribution in the Calvados is the modest Église Saint Pierre. Saint Pierre is a lovely little Norman-style church with a short nave, a choir, and a small groin-vaulted apse.

Nave, Église Saint Pierre, Ruqueville (Calvados) Photo by PJ McKey

It is the chancel crossing that is of most interest, however. Each of the four heavy pillars that support the massive belfry is topped with an outsized historiated capital featuring some of the most remarkable Romanesque sculpture that we have seen in the Normandy or Brittany regions.

Crossing with capitals, Église Saint Pierre, Ruqueville (Calvados) Photo by PJ McKey

This shot of the ensemble in the northwest corner of the chancel shows the relative scale of the capitals and their superb workmanship. The capital on the left is the “Flight to Egypt”. Joseph (carrying an axe) leads Mary and Jesus on the donkey with a bright star behind them. On the right is the capital entitled “The Combat”. Usually this represents Good versus Evil, but this particular capital does not seem to be so specific.

Northwest corner ensemble, Église Saint Pierre, Ruqueville (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The two most remarkable capitals, however, are on the south side of the church. The first is next to the apse and features a cleric and an angel. The extraordinary detail of the clothing and the folded wings of the angel mark this work as the effort of a master craftsman, far more sophisticated than any other that we have seen in this region, especially working in such a small church. This fact, plus the oversized capitals are completely out of scale with the modest dimensions of the church itself, makes PJ think that these capitals were meant for another more wealthy site but ended up here in Ruqueville.

Capital – Cleric and Angel, Église Saint Pierre, Ruqueville (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The masterpiece of the ensemble has to be the “Doubting Thomas” capital, however. Christ is seen in the center giving the benediction while to the left, Thomas inserts his finger into the wound in Jesus’ side. The magnificent visual storytelling is supported by the skill shown both in the composition of the three-dimensional image and the carving.

Capital – Doubting Thomas, Église Saint Pierre, Ruqueville (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

All in all, we had no expectation of such magnificent sculpted work when we entered the small church in Ruqueville. The other Norman examples of sculpture, while interesting, displayed far less sophistication and were less evocative in their story-telling. It was a delight to make the discovery and certainly made our day on the last day we photographed in Calvados.

Side chapel, Église Saint Pierre, Ruqueville (Calvados) Photo by PJ McKey

Topsy turvy in Bretagne (Dennis Aubrey)


When people talk to us about our Via Lucis project, they seem most impressed that we shoot the great cathedrals of Chartres, Orleans, or Reims, but most of our work is on churches far less imposing. Last week, for example, we shot the Église Saint Gal de Langast in the Côtes-d’Armor department of Brittany.

To call Saint Gal modest is accurate but understated. We fell in love with it because it is “topsy-turvy”.

Église Saint Gal de Langast, Langast (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

It is perhaps the most unstable looking church that we have ever seen. There appears to be a sink hole somewhere in the middle of the nave on the south side. Both arcade walls of the nave lean out to the south and backwards to the west. The south wall of the nave is held up by supports from the south side aisle that push inwards toward the nave.

Église Saint Gal de Langast, Langast (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The north wall of the nave is held in place by supports from the north side aisle that pull the wall backwards, preventing it from collapsing. Somehow, the church stays vertical and possesses an odd charm.

Saint Gal was thought to date from the first quarter of the 16th century; in fact a founding date of 1508 was accepted as gospel. But restorations carried out from 1982 to 1995 proved the church to be Romanesque in origin, possibly even pre-Romanesque. There are no historical or church records available to give any information about the founding of Saint Gal, but the architectural evidence is clear.

The nave windows that once provided light to the church interior have been filled in during recent years. It was necessary to raise the level of the side aisles to support the collapsing nave walls and these windows are now below the roof line, as can be seen in this shot from the south side aisle. Once, however, these relatively large windows would have provided plenty of bright light into the interior.

Église Saint Gal de Langast, Langast (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

Among the discoveries made during the restorations were a series of frescoes that had previously been covered up. When restored, they proved to be 12th century. The frescoes are located on the intrados – the interior faces – of the arcade arches and are quite impressive and unique in this region.

Église Saint Gal de Langast, Langast (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

What we saw in Saint Gal was a unique, curious, and somewhat helper-skelter church that leaned every which way but still stands today, proudly displaying its Romanesque frescoes and serving as a vital part of the religious life of Langast.

In our time in Brittany there was not a single church that might be identified as purely Romanesque. Everwhere else in France you can find something Romanesque. In the Auvergne, Alsace, Poitou, Charente, Bourgogne, and Normandy, examples abound.

But not in Brittany. And in one corner of tho ancient province, one of the few examples that still stands was not recognized for what it was.

Église Saint Gal de Langast, Langast (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

On a photographic note, the church presented a challenge to accurately portray the leaning and tilting of the walls. It was necessary to find some true vertical element and correct to that using the tilt-shift lenses so that the actual wall deformations were shown. So what you see in these pictures is actually what the church looks like in real life.

To Reveal or Conceal (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire)

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.

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Abbaye de Bénédictins de la-Transfiguration-du-Seigneur, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

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

This sometimes results in an image that is not completely intelligible, or is even abstract, but it is still telling the story.

Candlelit procession of the Festival of Sainte Foy, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dennis Aubrey)


It’s all about research. One fact about my family is that we love research. My brother John Paul is a professional researcher. Brother David is a Ph.D. oceanographer and has hundreds of publications to his name. Sister Ann is a writer/editor and has innumerable titles on her resumé. I’m not in their league, but make my effort.

This Via Lucis project requires massive amounts of research to identify and learn about the churches that we plan to photograph and to understand those that we have photographed. Our house overflows with books, pictures and documentation on Romanesque and Gothic churches. Things spill out of book cases and accumulate on the bed headboards, tables, and any flat surfaces not used for other purposes.

We have built a Google Earth database identifying thousands of structures, each copiously annotated with material from the Patrimoine de France, the Zodiaque books of Angelico Surchamp, and texts by Conant, Nebolsine, Shapiro, Porter and many others. The internet provides masses of materials available almost instantly.

Via Lucis Romanesque database for France on Google Earth (Red indicates that the churches have been shot already)

But even with this world-wide library, there is sometimes very little information to be found and we can’t anticipate what we will see on arrival at a particular site. This was the case when we went to the Abbey Church of Saint-Avit-Sénieur in October. The description in the Patrimoine de France tells us only that the abbey church was built in the 12th Century, listed as protected in 1862 and is the property of the Commune of Saint-Avit-Sénieur. So we didn’t really know what to expect.

The town is built on a rocky outcrop in the valley of the Couze river, a twenty-mile long tributary of the great Dordogne River. It is sited ten miles southwest of the another great abbey in the region, the Abbaye de Cadouin in the town of Le Buisson-de-Cadouin. In the Middle Ages, the Abbaye Saint-Avit-Sénieur was on the Via Lemovicensis, the Compostella route that departed from Vézelay.

There was nothing particularly surprising when we drove into the picturesque town square. Saint-Avit-Sénieur is typical of many small towns in the Dordogne region of France and has many of the same issues, particularly declining population. In 1793 the population was 1,121; it fell to a low of 365 in 1990, and was up to 440 in 2008. A significant portion of that recent population increase was caused by people buying second homes in the commune.

We happened on the town on a gorgeous Fall afternoon. There was a great deal of activity in the square in front of the church, as a good portion of the town’s population was gathered to build floats for harvest festival parade to celebrate the Fête de l’Automne. There were wagons full of pumpkins and squashes of different sorts.

This activity was the only thing that surprised us until we got to the church itself.

Nave, Église Abbatiale Saint-Avit-Sénieur, Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The building was constructed as an enormous hall church in the 11th Century as part of the abbey, whose vestiges are next to the building. During the religious wars, the apse, hemicycle, and ambulatory were destroyed, which leaves little evidence of its past as a pilgrimage site. This nave shot was taken with the Canon 17mm tilt-shift lens, which is the perfect lens to capture the scale of Saint-Avit-Sénieur.

South nave arch, Église Abbatiale Saint-Avit-Sénieur, Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

The nave is remarkable in its way. First, it is a hall church, but is comprised of three open bays. Each open bay has a blind arcade of four arches and three windows at the clerestory level (except for the left wall on the first bay from the choir, which has two). The nave was fitted with rib vaults in the 13th Century. It is, in many ways, similar to the Église Sainte Radegonde in Poitiers. In fact, we can get a feeling for what Saint-Avit-Sénieur would have looked like with the hemicycle and apse (which would not have been raised above a tomb).

Alcove, north nave wall, Église Abbatiale Saint-Avit-Sénieur, Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

The massive square pillars set off the different bays and provide the springing for the vault arching. But I also particularly admire the detail of the passageway at the back of the church. All the walls are covered in mural paintings, varying widely in their condition. The church shows the effect of multiple restorations over the years, but retains the dignity and grace we find so often in Romanesque churches.

PJ was struck by the fact that the church only had benches for about 150 people, so it looked empty. It makes one wonder about the throngs of worshippers that would come to Saint-Avit-Sénieur during the pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.

North nave wall, Église Abbatiale Saint-Avit-Sénieur, Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

There was one detail that was absolutely unique. Most old churches have a “tronc,” a box to collect donations for the maintenance of the structure. At Saint-Avit-Sénieur there was a large tree stump placed on the floor near the entrance. There was an old wooden mallet chained to the stump and a container full of metal brads or tacks next to it. With a donation of one euro, one could use the mallet to hammer a brad into the stump. There were hundreds of these tacks embedded in the wood. It was a novel way to raise money to preserve the church.

As we left the church in the late afternoon, the activity in the square was feverish. Everyone was working on the floats and we regretted that we could not see the festival the next day. If I had done my research properly, we would have known about the festival and planned a little bit more carefully. But, as we so often find out, it is much better to have a good reason to return.

Blackie, Big Fella and Bubbles (Dennis Aubrey)


Every form of activity has its own private vocabulary, its slang, its patois.  I remember when my parents first visited a film set on which I was directing, my mother was aghast when she heard someone yell, “Get the skirt off the broad and kill that baby!” She calmed down after I assured her that it was a discussion about lighting instruments, but she was still confused about the “gaffer” and his “best boy”.

PJ is a namer – she names and anthropomorphizes everything.  Her big pillow is “Bluebie”.  Our local chipmunk was “Hoover” because he ate like a vacuum, a chickadee was “Puerco” because he ate scraps of pork chops off our plates.  It’s no different with our photography.

Ambulatory, Notre Dame de Chartres (Photo by PJ McKey) Photograph taken with Blackie and Shifty on Little Sticks

She christened our cameras “Blackie” (Canon EOS 5D Mark I) and “Big Fella” (Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III).  Our tilt-shift lenses are “Shifty” (Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L ) and “Bubbles” (Canon 17mm f/4L TS-E).  Our wide angle zoom lens is “Stretch” (Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM) and our telephoto lens for shooting capitals is “Whitey” (Canon 400mm f/5.6L USM).  The Sigma macro that we use for shooting details is, of course, “Mac” (Sigma Macro 105mm F2.8 EX DG).  The Manfrotto tripods are “Big Sticks” and “Little Sticks”. We have a wonderful old Takumar SMC 1000mm f8 lens as well, which is far too large to carry to France.  It’s name?  “Jumbo”, of course.

Sounds like some old-fashioned gang, doesn’t it?

Side aisle, Notre Dame de Chartres (Photo by Dennis Aubrey) Photograph taken with Big Fella and Bubbles on Big Sticks

PJ even named the Tamron carrying case “Baby” because it is rolled and has to be watched all the time.  It’s usually my job to keep track of Baby because PJ moves around much more than I do.  We were in a large church one time and there were some people visiting and others praying.  PJ got my attention from across the nave and wanted to know where the case was.  She rocked her arms like she was holding a baby and I pointed to the back of the church.  A couple of people had witnessed the silent exchange and looked shocked – had we left an infant somewhere alone in the church?  They were relieved when PJ went to the case and opened it up.

South transept lancet windows, Notre Dame de Chartres (Photo by Dennis Aubrey) Photograph taken with Big Fella and Whitey on Big Sticks

So if some day you are in a church and hear voices whispering about shooting with Big Fella and Bubbles or Blackie and Shifty, rest assured that we aren’t planning a crime spree – it’s just another Via Lucis day at the office.

If you are interested in a previous post on the lenses that we use, use this link.