Standing at the crossroads
In his essay ‘Understanding a Photograph’ John Berger comments
“Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.”
(Berger in Trachtenberg 1980: 292)
I have a definite understanding of the photographic practice that I enjoy. It is both diverse and accessible. Prior to embarking on this journey, I was very happy in my practice: working in education, I have produced extensive reportage work covering every facet of life in a school. This has led to similar work outside the confines of the educational system, with me focussing on sports photography (specifically International Rugby; The Boat Race and International Athletics). Beyond this, I have always enjoyed photographing landscapes, food and wildlife, with my work being used in the greetings card market.
Human choice has determined my entire practice for this course. When considering the MA Course, after protracted and extensive consideration, I made the deliberate decision to focus upon a subject matter with which I have familiarity, but rarely photograph, and more significantly, something that is almost entirely overlooked and undervalued. On the rare occasions that stained glass is photographed, it is typically done in a manner that is to the detriment both of the location and the stained glass window itself. It was never my intention to take snapshots of stained glass, but rather, I hoped to portray the works in the way that the designer and artist would have hoped they were seen: free from dirt and grime, showing no signs of damage and devoid of the harsh horizontal support bars… and then more so: stained glass is so often out of sight, in former places of worship, now decommissioned and off-limits to the public; or within private chapels; or perhaps in chapels for which a fee is levied to gain access; or in a chapel that is not instantly obvious to the passing traveller, and of course they may by off limits simply because they are within a place of worship which by its very nature is of little interest to a visitor. As this result, it represents a hidden and often vanishing history. My hope it to make such works of art more accessible, firstly by removing them from the context of their location and secondly by presenting them in a manner akin to a more typical work of art (whether viewable in a gallery, book or on-line). Moreover, I wished to further my photographic knowledge and skills in a very specific field, while providing a valued, beneficial and accessible ‘education’ through my work both to myself and the broad public.
Living in Oxford, I have on the door stop a sensible, geographically determined collection of chapels within the city and intend through my practice to photograph at least one window from each chapel. This is not without its problems: it can take many months to gain permission to photograph within some of the College Chapels; the lighting conditions need to be just right; the height of the windows can be problematic as can the line of sight leading to them – and all of that is prior to taking as many as forty exposure bracketed images which I then dismantle and reassemble pane of glass at a time in post-production. Then follows the digital cleaning, repairing and support bar removal.
While this work has been much appreciated and praised by those who have seen it within the Oxford Colleges, unfortunately, I seem to have failed in my efforts to get across the reasoning behind the work to all Course protagonists, with it being seen as no more than ‘cataloguing’. I aim for my practice to be accessible enough to be appreciated, as well as being informative. I worry that too much time is given to art for the sake of art. In 1872, when writing about L’art pour l’art, George Sand proclaimed that artists had a “duty to find an adequate expression to convey it to as many souls as possible” [Sand, G. trans. by Raphaël Ledos de Beaufort (1886) Letters of George Sand, Vol 3. London: Ward & Downey]. My sentiments entirely.
Having embraced my practice, human choice has remained an important notion throughout my work. In photographing the stained glass windows of chapels in Oxford, time precludes me from including all of the windows: there are more than 50 locations, some with dozens of windows. During a planning visit, the visual site survey allows me to determine which windows I could photograph. My choice is swayed by a number of factors:
- Windows that are most attractive to me – difficult to qualify, but some windows simply jump out.
- Those windows whose photography is technically most achievable – something that can be influenced hugely by the geography of the chapel, the height of the window, the available space in front of the window, etc., in addition to the lighting on the day of the shoot. Very sadly, with every photographic chapel visit necessitating permission (some of which take many months), it can be difficult to guarantee the preferred day with overcast, yet bright conditions.
- Windows that might best lend themselves to a potential theme – I am endeavouring to photograph all of the Nativity windows for greetings card purposes.
Following a rather costly oversight in terms of post-production editing time, it is clear that I have to make another choice while planning the shoot:
- Complexity of the window – when removing support bars, I have to make an educated guess as to the nature of what might lie underneath. If the window contains complicated patterns, this can prove very difficult.
My own reaction to a given window clearly has a significant drive in the selection process. While I have photographed windows that do not appeal to me, almost all of them remain unedited on a hard drive – I simply cannot bring myself to commit the many hours of post-production to scenes that I do not like! There are also windows whose structure presents almost insurmountable post-production difficulties were I to attempt to render them in my preferred style sans-support bar. The works of Abraham van Linge (featured in a good half-dozen or more College Chapels) tend to sit within a rigid gridwork of support bars. The example below contains well over 200 separate panels and many days-worth of potential editing. I know that it is neither compulsory for me to remove the bars and am aware that I have already edited some windows to include such features, but it does tend to be a detractor in my selection process.
On entering a church or chapel, ones focus is always drawn to the east window. Sitting above the altar, this is most typically the largest and most impressive structure within the building. Almost certainly the most money will have been spent on the design and production of these windows which so often feature stunning roses. The natural lighting of the east end (in the Northern Hemisphere) is such that it is more likely to be bathed in an indirect light rather than the harsh light that pours through the southern windows. The combination of favourable appearance and positive orientation have resulted in me capturing a good number of east windows, in part or whole, already – clearly the designers were well versed in drawing the eye to the ecclesiastical focal point of the building.
When it all comes together, the results are more than pleasing. Having chosen the appropriate scene, the favourable combination of permissions, planning, photography and post-production speaks for itself:
Moving forward – Successes & Weaknesses
My practice is influenced heavily by my background. As an undergraduate, in geology labs, I developed an appreciation and aptitude for cataloguing the hand-drawn rock mineral thin-sections I produced. I am something of a collector – not in the obsessive, bordering-OCD way, but I do have a collection of author-specific books and a collection of cameras, and the goal with both is to develop the collections to a definitive level.
So it is that I was drawn to putting together a portfolio of images from a precisely defined and definitive collection – albeit a collection that until I produced the list, had not previously existed. The chapels of Oxford seemed to provide a demanding yet achievable challenge and rather than produce a portfolio of interior architecture – so commonly the choice for a photographer entering a place of worship, I opted to capture and enhance in an inoffensive manner the wonders of the stained glass therein. These plans have sparked considerable interest with the majority of Oxford Colleges together with many people with whom I have spoken or shown examples of the work. This is a field of study that is woefully under represented – indeed a fundamental reason for this research was the near total lack of effective practitioners.
Every location provides a unique set of opportunities and challenges, with precious few transferable solutions to problems. It is far from easy work on the technical side, but that makes it all the more interesting to me. Prior to signing off the work, I revisit each location at least twice (once again, the weather plays a part here), initially with a tablet containing the images and finally with a print. With the intention of ensuring that the balance of colours is correct, while there, I always engage with the Bursary or Porter’s lodge staff and any visitors to the chapel. The reception has always been positive.
Moving further through this course, I am becoming increasingly aware of limitations in my chosen practice, although nothing to do with the scope, demands, challenges or reception of the work. Most significantly, every time I am asked to contextualise my work through critiquing practitioners within this field, I am stumped: I deliberately chose an area of photographic research that does not have a wealth of either historical or contemporary representations. When researching this aspect, even after days of digging, I find myself having to look at the most tenuous of links and question how the study of such largely extraneous material will benefit directly my research. I have worked in education for 25+ years so do appreciate that essentially everything can be considered for its pedagogy, but I did not anticipate within a photography course the weight given to such studies. This is definitely a reflection of my undergraduate days: entirely lectures, fieldwork and lab-time, never circle-time. As a result my interests, drive and goals tend to have a heavy technical bias at the expense of more philosophical considerations.
I have eluded many times to being baffled by the philosophical bent of the course. This is entirely alien to me and as a result I have struggled, and continue to struggle, to conceptualise how I can best present my work in a way that ticks those boxes. The images I produce are my interpretation of the stained glass. They are much more than a simple documenting of the windows. A snapshot, no matter how well planned, will only portray the stained glass as viewed on that particular occasion, as it is a static representation of a dynamic image, with the glass being brought to life by the ever-changing natural light that illuminates it – the same source that was originally perceived as being the light of God entering the building and worshipers. To portray the window faithfully is a huge undertaking that requires understanding, patience and consideration. An awareness of the style and work of the original artist is necessary in the reconstruction that follows the removal of any support bars, and an appreciation of how the windows sits within the chapel is necessary in order to optimise the saturation and intensity of colours within the stained glass.
My wish to portray each window in its optimum light – both figuratively and literally, is not without its problems and routinely presents itself as a weakness. Working six and a half days a week in a boarding school, limits my ability to get out and photograph stained glass windows during term time. The necessity to seek permission prior to taking any photographs further restricts my options. Finally, hoping for an overcast yet bright day to provide uniform, indirect illumination on an occasion that I am free from work and have been approved to photograph the location, seems quite rare! Were I to shift my focus to the impact light has on stained glass windows, then I would remove from the equation the need to worry about the weather conditions. I suspect such a decision would be greeted with open arms by those critiquing my work, but it would not be so warmly received by the custodians of the windows. As I research in greater depth around the subject I am reassured that my research aims and decisions are not inappropriate and do embrace the full gamete of critical thinking within the context of this course.
Contextualising this research with a practitioner is difficult, but I have drawn on a selection who help endorse aspects of the concepts and reflect well on the precise aesthetics.
Coloured Glass – Dale Chihuly
It is perhaps a little untoward to research a specialist who does not work in the fields of film or photography, but when considering the photography of stained glass, it is pertinent to examine the nature and form of glass itself. Of particular interest is the manner in which glass works can be exhibited – what importance does light play? How do the separate elements interact to provide the observer with the desired reaction to an exhibition or installation?
I am entirely ambivalent about the use of backlighting in an exhibition of my work: it is so very appropriate for images of stained glass to be viewed with light streaming through them – as was the intention of the original piece. To that end, I am in negotiations with a start-up company who have developed a hugely impressive backlighting system (I have also toyed with the use of Philips Ambilight technology). However, I do not wish simply to emulate stained glass windows – I do not want observers to see my work and think that it is pleasant stained glass. I suspect that there is room for regular printing of my work in addition to some use of backlighting.
Dale Chihuly has been experimenting with glass since the early 1960’s, with his work being exhibited widely since 1996. His installations are enormously varied and often unexpectedly large for glass pieces. One of his largest is on permanent view at the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Kentucky. Located in the barrel room, the installation is a 36′ x 6’ overhead canopy consisting of 750 hand-blown elements. The subtle lighting creates a kaleidoscopic effect of infinite repetition, paining the surrounds with ever-varying hues and shades in the manner of stained glass. To have this installation providing the only source of light for the barrel room will undoubtedly produce an otherworldly feeling as you walk through, or rather, under the installation.
Light Drawings: While traveling through Europe as a young man, Chihuly marvelled at the beauty of stained-glass windows. He was captivated by the power that glass and light give to each other. Light Drawings are painted on acrylic glass and lit from within, resulting in compositions that are translucent and luminous, portraying a marriage between light and colour. Although significantly smaller than his installations, these pieces were not small, at 40″ x 50″. The series piqued my interest as it takes a large step towards tradition stained glass and could help in furthering my understanding of the conceptual links that I might be able to extrapolate to my own practice.
Glass on Glass: Chihuly’s latest work is an extension of Light Drawings, but draws on his multidimensional blown-glass experiences to produce something akin to the windows I have been researching. Chihuly explored modern themes using this traditional technique, producing a series of 42″ x 32″ images.
Glass on Glass premiered in early 2017, privately at the Chihuly Sanctuary in Omaha, Nebraska; and publicly at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
The exhibiting of the work is exquisite, with each piece being framed in a backlit unit and brightly front lit, producing exceptional depth and clarity. As the artist explains, ‘when lit, these pieces come to life as multi-dimensional paintings in colour, light, and glass.’ Undoubtedly much care and consideration has put into the design of the exhibition space in order to maximise the impact of the images / pieces.
Even viewed on a computer screen there is a great feeling of depth within the image and a clear indication of the chronology of events which led to the finished piece. I would not normally subscribe to this abstract style of art, but do find the works very pleasing. Of course, they were designed to be exhibited in an undefined space and exist as framed, portable works of art, backlit by a constant, uniform light. By contrast, religious stained glass was typically designed for a specific building and installed permanently in that location. Never was the thought that it could or should be viewed beyond that context and as a result, photographing stained glass windows is often awkward and difficult. Additionally, having a church as the ‘gallery’ will be an instant turn off for a large cross-section of society. I hope to be able to separate the stained glass windows from their religious background to make them more readily accessible.
Large Format Photography – Candida Höfer
With a compositional style of the single, high, central vanishing point, Höfer specialises in photographing the empty interiors of public spaces, allowing the observer to speculate upon the psychology of social architecture. Her original intention was to capture the behaviour of people within public spaces as well as recording how the space influence the people. However, she soon realised that this could be represented more clearly when no one is present. This is a style that resonates strongly with me: I so much prefer buildings and landscapes in the absence of people and am routinely criticised for omitting people from my compositions.
Undoubtedly the photographs give a palpable feeling of the interaction of people in the spaces, but could this be true only if you have experienced such a space in use? The detail revealed in the large format photographs is superb, with the composition assisted by the ease with which the lens can be shifted to correct the converging verticals.
Light plays such an important part in all social spaces, more often than not the source is natural and there is a uniformity of intensity throughout a room. Part of the beauty of the Trinity College Library image is that at surface value, each bay appears identical even down to the natural lighting and the composition produces a wonderful symmetry. However, closer examination reveals those fine details that tell a tale of human interaction: spaces between books, the position of ladders, etc.. One of the necessary evils of modern life is the ubiquitous rope barrier, designed to control and manage the flow of people. Such social control plays an important part in fulfilling Höfer’s intention of depicting how a space can influence the people therein and features subtly, yet prominently in both the Trinity College Library image as well as the Musee du Louvre image.
Bright, natural illumination is a feature in many of Höfer’s images, with places of worship not escaping her treatment. I feel it a shame that the two images below have not featured together in an exhibition as they demonstrate so magnificently the contrast between a 17th century Roman Catholic church and a 20th century Synagogue, highlighting in equal measure the similarities and differences within spaces where light plays such an important part. Dominikanerkirche Sankt Andreas formed part of the From Düsseldorf exhibition, Höfer’s first New York exhibition (Sean Kelly Gallery, 2015) which juxtaposed classical architecture (Baroque, Rococo and Modern) against stark, abstract, architectural detail.
The Beth Shalom Synagogue image is unique among Höfer’s work in portraying stained glass, so deservedly warrants a place in this blog. Here the geometric glass panels provides a reassuringly harmonious mirror to the patterns and forms of the seating.
Höfer’s studies of public buildings are all about space and light: a stark counterpoint to the chapels of Oxford, which are mostly small and could rarely be described as bright and airy. Their comparatively diminutive size does not lend them well to an architectural portfolio: locating a point and elevation from which to compost an appropriate photograph would prove very challenging and the use of a tilt-shift wide-angle lens imperative. However, it is the inclusion of stained glass within almost every one of Oxford’s chapels that would present most difficulties, as any image would necessitate multiple exposure bracketing in order to capture the intended beauty of the interior.
Large Format Photography – Robert Polidori
The elusivity of photographers who capture images of stained glass has led me on a trail of somewhat tenuous links in an effort to understand better how I might further my practice. Robert Polidori is renowned photographer who specialises in building interiors (or, to quote his CV, “specialised in shooting human environments and habitats”). Most significantly for me, a large number of his works include as a key focal point a classical work of art. In keeping with Candida Höfer, the go-to kit for Polidori is the large format camera with which he is seen below.
I am yet to use a tilt-shift lens in anger for my research, but would so love the luxury of huge amounts of camera movement that a view camera brings: the ability to adjust the rise, fall, shift, swing and tilt can only help in the composition of your work.
Such careful attention to composition can be seen in Polidori’s image of Cell 7, below that depicts accurately the true form of the room and places the entire image in sharp focus. An aspect that most pleases me is that Polidori has quite appropriately captioned the image alluding to the title of the art work – something for which I have been criticised as recently as the grading of Module PH0704.
Clearly, without the fresco, this image would pale to insignificance. It is the remarkable skill of the Renaissance painter and Dominican monk Fra Angelico that allows the observer to look through one window into the life of Christ and then glance at the mundane reality through the cell’s small window just feet away. However, Polidori has applied his photographic magic to capture the interior’s soft, uniform illumination, balanced precisely with the external natural light, with not even a hint of bleaching. There is a soft subtlety to the saturation of colours with an elegant similarity between the painted ‘frame’ and the illuminated edge of the internal windows shutter that leads the eye from the painting into the room and then out to the shutter of the windows opposite – a rectangular object juxtaposed by the arched window, arched roof and arched painting. In such a sparse room, there is an extraordinary wealth of textures and hues that allow your eyes to travel back and forth across the image following the various trails. Once focussed upon the outside, your attention is brought back into the room again as you follow the soft grey of the exterior wood paint that leads you to the alcove shadows and from there to the cloak of Mary Magdalen. Simple, yet spellbinding.
A little further into the Museum of San Marco Convent reveals Cell 35 – clearly a near-identical room furnished with another extraordinary fresco by the Renaissance painter and Dominican monk Fra Angelico. This time Polidori has not granted a full view of the artwork, rather he has given a glimpse of the hardships experienced by the monks, represented by the cold, thick grey outer wall of the cell. The composition is so well-considered, playing with the juxtaposition of arches and rectangles.
Sadly, not one of Oxford’s chapels that I have visited thus far allows for such compositions and the contrast between illuminated stained glass and chapel wall is enormous, presenting real difficulties where balanced lighting is concerned. Much as I appreciated enormously and am inspired by the works of Polidori, it seems to create more problems than solutions! It is all too evident that a large format camera would resolve the persistent issue of converging verticals that I routinely have to overcome in post-production. Currently I would struggle to afford a tilt-shift lens for my existing camera, so the idea of an entirely new system (to say nothing of coming to terms with the nuances of large format and reacquainting myself with analogue chemistry) seems foolhardy.
Large Format Photography – Thomas Struth
Struth and Höfer trained together at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 70s, with both adopting large format as the way to embrace the photography of public spaces. Standing rather more at odds with my personal preferences and in contrast to the works of Höfer, Struth includes people in these spaces, sometimes spending days capturing that perfect moment – with the result, at casual glance, that could be mistaken for a candid snapshot.
Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago came from Struth’s first series of museum photographs where he looks at multiple layers of viewing: the viewer looking at the art and the viewer looking at other viewers. In these objective images, Struth takes the viewer to a deeper level – by removing the paintings from a gallery and then exhibiting his photograph of them, he hammers home the idea that photography is a work of art. In his words, ‘the idea behind the museum photographs was to retrieve masterpieces from the fate of fame, to recover them from their status as iconic paintings, to remind us that these were works which were created in a contemporary moment, by artists who have everyday lives.’
This approach is not so far removed from my practice, taking images of stained glass out of the closed confines of a chapel in order to reveal them more publicly in an exhibition or publication. For a host of reasons I have isolated the art from its surrounds – not least the light and contrast level variations between the windows and the surrounds.
Nationl Gallery I, London gives the clever impression that the world within the painting extends into the museum itself. Struth has Christ as the focal point of his composition just as He is within the painting, and the both the posture and position of the viewers suggests a direct involvement with painting.
As a life-long enthusiast of Cartier-Bresson’s work, I embrace the candid nature of these pieces and the knowledge that a seemingly simple photograph might well have been the culmination of several days work only adds to the impact.
Large Format Photographer – Karen Knorr
Most known for her digital manipulation of large format photographs, in which she most typically places animals (photographed in zoos and museums) within stunning ornate rooms, Knorr has also focussed upon classical art as the analogue background to her digital work.
While highly acclaimed, this style of work falls a long way short of something to which I would give wall space. It is not the concept that grates, but the execution: to me Knorr’s large format background images jar with the digital inclusion. There is typically noticeably contrasting saturation, contradicting light angles and inconsistent levels contrast, etc.. Undoubtedly this is what makes Knorr’s contemporary art so popular, but it is not my thing. I do not like to be aware of the post-production work, preferring the completed image to be realistic, even if fanciful, rather than appearing more akin to digital decoupage. To my ceaseless frustration, I am a perfectionist, so when looking In the Green Room (below) I am first drawn to the fact that the classic art was not true to the camera when photographed. It may be such fundamental subtleties that draw me to Höfer’s images and repel me from Knorr’s work.
Notwithstanding, Knorr is inclined to use classical art as the subject matter of her work, although does not credit it in her titles. However, for the most part, the images do contain clearly identifiable labels detailing the artist and work.
So often, the assessment I apply to creative work is ‘how would I grade this if it were submitted by one of the 13 year olds I teach?’ Such critiquing may not meet the approval of all in the art world, but having lived my life in schools, to me it is a sound basis. As such, In the Green Room would not fair all that well.
Medium Format photographer – Nick Brandt
I was not familiar with Brandt’s latest work, being previously used to his monochrome images of African animals. His new work This Empty World is shot for the first in colour and forms, in my mind, a perfect counterpoint to Knorr’s work – I have detailed it here predominantly for that reason. Brandt’s images are each the result of weeks of work, photographed in Kenya, with outdoor sets, constructed and illuminated specifically for each image. The wild animals were photographed with the aid of motion sensors, once the lighting was in place, after which the often vast sets were built, extras brought in and the second scene photographed – using a total of ten Pentax 645Z medium format cameras.
Painstaking post-production was used to create these realistic images in such a way as to enable the viewer to question whether or not the image was a single shot… this is just how I like image editing to be used, as a process to enhance the image in a realistic manner. Brandt should be commended for the extraordinary lengths he goes to in producing such works and for his great efforts in anti-poaching and conservation within the Big Life Foundation that he jointly set up in 2010.
Left, right or straight on
I have committed so much time to evaluating how I could better align my practice to meet the approval of the Course. I hold fast to the notion that my practice is perfectly valid, but perhaps it suffers unfairly from the fact that I have a well-fingered Dictionary of Science and a Dictionary of Geology on my shelf, but no Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art – speaking literally rather than figuratively, although the metaphor is equally valid.
While I have struggled to identify practitioners whose work contextualises directly my practice, it has allowed me to highlight aspects of work that nourish the intentions I have. Without doubt, moving to large format would improve my practice, (or at the very least finances-willing, I ought to consider again the use of tilt-shift lenses), but the reality is that such a change is utterly impractical.
The development and evolution of my skills in this area if research is enormous, not only in terms of photography but also image editing – something I have previously highlighted: HERE. My post-production work is aided further by the vast increase in my knowledge of the stained glass designers and artists. As I move forward, it is inevitable that each of these facets will continue to evolve.
The captioning of my images is a matter for contention, but to me it seems logical to detail the historical origins of the work under my portfolio umbrella – a notion I share with Polidori, but this is an area that I should nail down. It may be confusing to have the names of two artists and two dates, but a solution needs to be found… I think that the following works well:
Dominic Price (2018) The Child Grew [Henry Holiday, 1913 – Chapel of St. Nicholas]
Chihuly’s exhibitions have provided further inspiration to my future plans that have recently led to me being offered a licensing agreement for my portfolio of stained glass word within the Canvia Art Library – Premium Collection – a concept that appeals to my science and technology background.
Throughout this Module, I hope very much to be able commit more time to ensuring that my intentions are hand in glove with the expectations of the Course, through better interaction with Tutors, colleagues and Modules Leaders – work commitments willing!
- Dale Chihuly – website
- Dale Chihuly – Wikipedia
- Candida Höfer – Wikipedia
- Sean Kelly Gallery – Candida Höfer exhibition
- Robert Polidori – website
- Robert Polidori – Wikipedia
- Kasmin Gallery – Robert Polidori
- Thomas Struth – website
- Thomas Struth – Wikipedia
- Karen Knorr – website
- Karen Knorr – Wikipedia
- Hilda and Bernd Becher – Tate
- Hilda and Bernd Becher – Wikipedi
- Nick Brandt – website
- Nick Brandt – Wikipedia
- Padley, G. “Out of Darkness” RPS Journal Feb 2019: 120-125. Print.