Today marks the 155th birthday of the Russian chemist and photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. An event immortalised in today’s Google Doodle animation.
Between 1909 and 1915 Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky traveled through Russia in a railroad car specially equipped with a mobile darkroom to document Russian life using a technique he called ”optical colour projection.”
Born in Murom, Vladimir Province, Russia, on this day in 1863, Prokudin-Gorsky was a chemist who became interested in photography. He travelled to Germany to study with Adolf Miethe, a pioneer of the colour separation method, and soon developed his own formulation for photographic emulsion so he could create life-like photos in natural colours. His portrait of the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy was widely reproduced, bringing Prokudin-Gorsky a measure of fame. As a result, Tsar Nicholas II agreed to sponsor his ambitious project.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s images of people, landscapes, architecture, historic sites, industry, and agriculture were created by exposing three glass plates through three different colour filters – green, red and blue – and then combining them to create a composite colour image. He captured thousands of images that offer a rare glimpse of Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution and First World War.
Prokudin-Gorsky planned to use the resulting photos to educate Russian school children about their vast country. Today, his body of work is preserved on thousands of glass plates, which are prized by historians and scholars.
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1915) Austro-Hungarian POW, Russia
While Prokudin-Gorsky’s work shows only a tenuous link to my research, it does provide a glimpse of early multiple exposure bracketing at a time when capturing a single image was demanding enough. To have to produce three glass plates for each photograph while ensuring that every aspect of the scene remains constant must have been incredibly demanding, to say nothing of the extraordinary physical size of the growing portfolio.
Stained glass is a unique art form in that it is illuminated by transmitted light, either from the sun or an artificial light source. In situ, stained glass windows become animated through the movement of the traversing sun as well as the weather’s interaction, with clouds changing the light on a whim. The transmitted coloured light brushes across the fabric of the building as it has done for many centuries, visible today to the passive onlooker in the exact same way as it was when first built.
The religious significance of stained glass is largely lost to us today, but to emphasise its original importance, Bishop Guillaume Durand de Mende stated around 1300 that “stained-glass windows are divine writings that spread the clarity of the true sun, who is God, through the church, that is to say, through the heart of the faithful bringing them true enlightenment.”
Some 300 years later, Pierre de Roissy wrote, “The stained-glass windows that are in churches and through which . . . the clarity of the sun is transmitted, signify the Holy Scriptures, which banish evil from us and enlighten our being.”
The link between churches and the sun remains true even when there is no stained glass. When touring with the Summer Fields Chapel Choir in 2006, we sang in Vézelay Abbey, northern Burgundy, France. This stunning Basilica together with the hill upon which it sits, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Beyond the impressive proportions of this Burgundian Romanesque architectural masterpiece, there is a striking purity. I was surprised by the lack of stained glass: it is lit entirely through plain glass.
While there, I read that it was not until 1976, more than eight centuries after construction, that the reasoning behind the orientation axis of the Basilica was rediscovered. At midday on the summer solstice, the light coming through the southern clerestory windows creates luminous sports that exactly locate in the full midst of the nave. To quote from Father Hugues Delautre, in the absence of coloured glass, “the builder, fascinated by the beauty of the universe which he recognises as the work of God, erected this vestibule to Heaven in imitation of God who created with order, measure and beauty.”
In medieval times, windows, stained glass or otherwise, were essential to the churches, illuminating the building and the people within, both literally and spiritually: in the eyes of the worshipers, they allowed the light of God into the church. At a time when few could read, painted windows were used to instruct people in the Christian faith and encourage religious devotion. Many windows illustrated scenes and stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints, who were revered both as a source of help in everyday life and as mediators in Heaven. With the magnificence of the stained glass providing an indication of wealth, as a gesture of philanthropy, rich donors, anxious to be remembered in the prayers of the faithful, often paid for the expensive windows.
Making a stained glass panel (2010) Victoria and Albert Museum
The term “stained glass” encompasses three different processes: colouring, staining and painting, each one complex and requiring the application of many skills. The glaziers who made these windows did not themselves make the glass, this was the job of the glass-makers. Glass manufacture was hot and dangerous work that required great skill and knowledge. Glass-makers knew and jealously guarded the glass recipes and furnace conditions needed to make a myriad of colours. They would mix the raw materials in clay pots heated with wood fires and then manipulate the resulting viscous liquid with metal and wooden implements.
Glass-makers would supply sheets of coloured glasses to the glaziers to create their windows. The process of making a stained glass window begins with the artist’s sketch, known as the vidimus (Latin for “we have seen”), but today more commonly referred to as the “design”, such as Henry Holiday’s example to the left. The vidimus was then drawn to full scale (known as a cartoon) on a whitened table top. The panes of coloured glass would then be cut to shape, placed on the cartoon. Over the years, several types of paints and stains have been developed to further enhance the stained glass designs. For example, a silver nitrate stain producing a yellowing effect has helped to enhance borders and haloes. A stain called Cousin’s rose was also developed, enabling artists to enhance individuals’ flesh tones.
As a final step, the window pieces are slotted into H-shaped lead (calmes). The joints are then soldered together and an oily cement is inserted between the glass and the dividers to ensure stability and reduce any potential rattling.
Once almost solely confined to medieval churches and chapels, stained glass windows spread into guildhalls, hospitals and manor houses thanks to wealthy patrons who could afford the luxurious coloured glass windows. During the 19th and 20th centuries, stained glass windows became popular in other places of worship, together with civic and domestic buildings. In more recent times, it has been used to form part of the main structure of corporate buildings, hotels, community centres and shopping centres.
There are precious few stained-glass windows in Oxford produced within the last century, so it is refreshing to read of the latest installation within Westminster Abbey: a vibrantly coloured window designed by David Hockney using an iPad and filling a space more than six meters tall and about two metres wide. I do wonder what thought Hockney put into the variation of light intensity and colour temperature that his work would undergo post-installation? Did he go to the trouble of simulating how the piece might look at different times of the year, or different timed of the day on his iPad?
I do rather enjoy the juxtaposition between this work and mine… here Hockney used an iPad to design a stained glass window installation. My work sees me photographing stained glass window installation then, having edited them, I view them on a Windows tablet (more apt, I feel) in situ to ensure they are a faithful reproduction.
The window celebrates Queen Elizabeth II’s 65-year reign, and is set in Yorkshire, featuring hawthorn blossom. It was created using traditional techniques by Barley Studio, a stained glass studio based in York.
Alan Williams (2018) David Hockney and The Queen’s Window
David Harrison (2018) The Queen’s Window at Barley Studio
Always lurking in the back of my mind are thoughts as to how best to exhibit my work. From time to time, my research reveals portfolios not too dissimilar, with the following being of particular interest:c
A simple concept (so often the way with great ideas) by New York-based photographer Bing Wright: he used shattered mirrors to catch the reflections of the setting sun and experimented with different types of film to enhance further the images. The reflections have more than a passing likeness to stained glass windows.
In his exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, the images were printed almost 2m tall – something I am keen to consider when it comes to exhibiting my work, although I am rather fearful at the potential costs.
Bing Wright (2012) Broken Mirror/Evening Sky (Kodak Provia), New York
Bing Wright (2012) Broken Mirror/Evening Sky (Cibachrome), New York
Bing Wright (2012) Broken Mirror/Evening Sky (Agfacolor), New York
Bing Wright (2012) Broken Mirror/Evening Sky (Kodacolor), New York
Knowing that banner prints are significantly more affordable than framed art prints, it may well prove sensible to promote my proposed exhibition using 2m high banners.
Wright’s 2017 portfolio Cherry Tree Grids demonstrates a striking resemblance, from a distance, to some of my interpretations of stained glass windows from Module 2:
Bing Wright (2017) Large Cherry Tree Grid 001, New York
Work started on Univ Chapel in 1639. Inspired by the Dutch artist Abraham van Linge‘s windows in the chapels of Lincoln College and Queen’s College, together with Christ Church Cathedral, eight side windows and one grand east window was commissioned.
While the side windows were finished in 1641 (van Linge’s last windows in Oxford), the English Civil War interrupted further work and it was not until after the Restoration of the Monarchy that the chapel was consecrated (20 March 1666).
The east end of the chapel was captured in a photograph by William Fox Talbot shortly before an extensive refurbishment in the 1860’s that saw the installation of a new roof and east window. More images can be seen in The Talbot Catalogue Raisonné.
William Fox Talbot (1843) University College Chapel
Unfortunately, without further permission to access the Master’s Lawn, I am unable to recreate this image perfectly, which would have been a fitting touch. However, my image below shows the significant alterations that were made to the chapel following Fox Talbot’s photograph. That gives me an idea for another project: In the footsteps of Fox Talbot, recreating his Oxford portfolio. Perhaps in another life.
Permission to photograph the chapel was a long time coming, but I was granted permission for a planning visit on 10 October, spending some time appreciating the location and considering the options. It is probable that in keeping with my recent work in Harris Manchester, I will capture some of the smaller lights within the east window in addition to one or two larger lights. The perennial challenge of excluding large candelabras from the photographs will be a feature here, with two at a frustratingly low-level.
I was fascinated to see Liz West‘s work – quite extraordinary. Undoubtedly very costly to stage, enormously time consuming and very clever. Witnessing her installations would be mightily impressive and memorable. The use of light interacting with materials appeals to me because I understand the physics behind it and am also aware of the impact that different colours can have on human behaviour – to me it is a clever scientific statement and it seems that this is also the intention of West. However, I suspect there are many who are desperately trying to find some pseudo-intellectual interpretation of the installations to impress their peers.
Liz West (2016) Our Colour Reflection
Much as I like West’s work and appreciate that a parallel can be drawn between it and my own project, the significant reason behind me wanting to follow my path is that it is my path, not someone else’s. So far as post production is concerned, it would be straightforward for me to photograph the interaction of light passing through stained glass windows as it plays on the interior of a chapel – my camera would capture it beautifully either as stills or in 4K 60fps. I have ready access to a smoke machine and a hazer which could reveal further the beams of light through a ‘misty’ interior. Such work would require a little more prep. time and once again would require a very specific level of light intensity. Sadly through, the size of most chapels is such that their interiors are never sufficiently dark for stained glass to paint wonderful daubs of coloured light on the interior – the colours are bleached out by the ambient light.
I will include an image within my Work in Progress Portfolio that gives a nod towards West’s work, depicting the interaction of light through a stained glass window that I discuss in more detail HERE.
This does lead me on to a pertinent point, for which I therefore have further thanks for the stimulation that West’s work has provided. Always mulling over in the back of my mind is how best to exhibit my work. While it is highly probable that I will opt for regular printing on art paper, I do very much like to idea of light boxes or perhaps computer/tv screens – I can vouch for the stunning quality of my work on my own Panasonic 55″ OLED television. However… I would be very interested indeed to see my work as an installation on Philips Ambilight TV, where the colour of the image is projected onto the wall behind the television. It would be fraught with technical difficulties and compromises, as I would have to crop each image to full-screen 1080HD or 4K resolution, but it could be very interesting.
It is even possible to retro-fit similar technology to televisions or computer screens using third-party alternatives – a technology referred to as Boblight, readily available on eBay. However, Philips has moved forward, replacing the LEDs with nine Ambilight pico-projectors that mimic the overall motion and shape of the objects on the screen – available on their AmbiLux range (which interestingly does not employ OLED technology). This is a properly exciting prospect that would allow my images to spread into the gallery space. However, the £2500 price is likely to prevent me benefitting from the AmbiLux screens!
Gosport’s War Memorial Hospital has had a chequered history in recent years, making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. However, this week a positive snippet of news came thanks to the support of Gosport War Memorial League of Friends.
The hospital was built in part with contributions from the Royal Marines and has, to this day, been a memorial to those killed in action. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, three back-lit stained glass lights were commissioned. Crafted by Sunrise Stained Glass, Southsea.
This is the first example of back-lit stained glass that I have seen and it is a concept that I have considered for my work. For years this has been used widely in advertising, and with the ever falling price of LED strip lighting, this might become an option for me (although unless the Lottery is kind, I cannot imagine that I will be able to afford more than one or two such units).
While there are many companies proffering light box solutions and I have investigated a few at The Photography Show, one of the better is LiteHouse, who have produced a number of significant commercial installations in addition to a few specifically for stained glass.
Working alongside my brother-in-law has given me a shared interest in his passion for military history. I have supported him on more than thirty educational visits to battlefields across the world, creating a resource of more than 3000 images. Many of those images illustrate a book he published, detailing the 300+ former pupils who died in action, spanning almost the entire 150 year history of the school, from the Zulu wars up until the trouble in Northern Ireland.
The school in which we work believes very strongly in maintaining the pupil’s understanding of the sacrifice given by their predecessors and Remembrance Sunday is one of our most significant services in chapel. This year, each boy laid a Remembrance Cross on the chapel altar, detailing the name and dates of one of our fallen old boys as a poignant start to the service.
This is very much my typical photographic work, with the images from the numerous battlefield visits having to fulfil the expectations of various targeted audiences: the school is always keen to have ‘PR’ images for newsletters, the website and the school magazine; the School Archives desires images of all former pupil’s headstones, together with any associated images. Additionally, I am always keep to capture poignant images that might have a value in the stock images market.