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
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
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.
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, 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)
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
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
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
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
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
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, 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.