Photographing Churches

The churches and cathedrals of the United Kingdom offer many opportunities to the photographer. They are not always the easiest location, for example the half light that is so beautiful can also make it hard to photograph without a tripod, but they offer many rewards.

To walk into a church is to feel it's history and often (though not always I find) it's sanctity. The solidity, the acoustic dimension, the scent of wood polish and most of all the light identifies the space like no other and, if one is lucky and patient, it is possible to capture some of that beauty in a photograph. I find black and white photography most often reflects what I am aiming for when I take a picture in a church, although in some circumstances colour is the best choice, and obviously so with stained glass (I particularly like the reflection of coloured glass on masonry).

I must admit to a certain trepidation when taking a camera in a church, and I do believe that one should take any photographs in a respectful a manner as possible. We don't want to snatch images like a treasure hunter snatching artefacts thoughtlessly from the ground. As I've mentioned previously when considering contemplative photography, I prefer to think of photographs revealing themselves to us, rather than us 'capturing' them. I felt this strongly with the black and white photograph below, taken with an old Rolleflex camera at an ancient church in Angelsey many years ago.

Church Interior, Angelsey, Wales. Photograph by Simon Jones.

Church Interior, Angelsey, Wales. Photograph by Simon Jones.

Church Tiles, Herefordshire. Photograph by Simon Jones

Church Tiles, Herefordshire. Photograph by Simon Jones

Saint Lazare, France. © Simon Jones

Saint Lazare, France. © Simon Jones

ST MARY THE VIRGIN, ROSS ON WYE,  PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON JONES

ST MARY THE VIRGIN, ROSS ON WYE,  PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON JONES

I find that my most satisfying photography comes when there is a sense of stillness within myself, a stillness that in turn seems to settle on the subject of the photograph. I failed to fully adopt this approach when I visited the remarkable St. Botolph's Church in Iken, Suffolk. Simon Knott, has a lovely description of this special place on his website dedicated to Suffolk Churches.

Iken is one of those fabulous spots that some people think of as their favourite Suffolk place. Others come across it by accident, as if it were a happy secret. And there must be many people, I suppose, who do not even know that it exists. The little thatched church on its mound jutting out into the wide River Alde is part of the panoply of Suffolk mysticism, an element in an ancient story of the birth of England, of grey mists and sad, crying wading birds swinging low over the mudflats, as if this were a piece of Benjamin Britten's chamber music made flesh. As you may guess, it is a place about which it is easy to wax lyrical.

The promise of the church itself, it's great history and presence alluded me; I think because I wasn't in the right state of mind and took photographs before settling in to my surroundings and reaching the stillness I mentioned above. Sadly, I feel that the images below don't not do the ancient church justice, something I hope to rectify on another visit.

Finally, the grandeur of cathedrals seem to offer the chance of more visual drama than churches, although they often have a number of smaller chapels and corners that beget quietude.

Stained Glass, Hereford Cathedral.  PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON JONES

Stained Glass, Hereford Cathedral.  PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON JONES

Hereford Catherdral,  PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON JONES

The Little Musk Deer

I suspect that for as long as there have been people there have been stories told to capture their imagination, echo ideas and dreams, help them understand their fears and suggest and frame that which they cannot touch, but which nonetheless they feel is true. I have a lot of sympathy with Philip Pullman when he says:

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.

As a teacher, one of my greatest privileges is sharing stories, and I particularly love those that can be enjoyed by any age, enjoyed for what they are, but can also, if we allow them, to have a deeper meaning. I've collected quite a few and have decided that I would like to occasionally share them on this blog, both to record them for my own enjoyment, and in the hope that you will enjoy them too.

I've long enjoyed the writing of Eknath Easwaren, an Indian scholar and spiritual teacher who moved to America in 1959 to teach Literature at Berkeley, and who later established the Blue Mountain Meditation Centre, which still exists today. He had a wonderful way of telling stories that were simple (often based on the teaching of his Grandmother) but profound. One of my personal favourites is the tale of of the little Musk deer, recounted in Eknath's book 'Your Life Is Your Message' by Hyperion Press:

In the Indian tradition they tell of a story which describes a spiritual search very well. It is about the musk deer, a gentle creature which makes it's home on the lower slopes of the Himalayas. One day, it is said, a little musk deer went to his Granny musk deer. He was puzzled. "Granny," he said, "I smell a haunting fragrance. What is it? Where is it coming from?" "Why don't you go and smell the animals in the forest to see if it comes from any of them," said his Granny. So the musk deer went to the lion, smelled the lion, and said, "No, it's not the lion." Then he went to the tiger and said, "Oh no, it's definitely not the tiger." Then the monkey, then the bear, then the fish, then the elephant; on by one, he went to all the animals in the forest and finally, quite baffled, returned to Granny. "I have been to every animal in the forest," he said, "and none of them has this perfume." Granny just smiled wisely and said, "Then here, smell your own paw." The musk deer lifted his paw, gave it a sniff, and let out a cry of joy. " It comes from me," he cried. "It comes from me! It comes from me!"

Early Morning, © Simon Jones

Early Morning, © Simon Jones

On the Street ...

On the Street ...

Street Photography is a aspect of photography that simultaneously intrigues and terrifies me.

One of the best ways Street Photography can be defined is "photography that features the human condition within public places". Commonly however the term 'Street Photography' refers to what might be described as candid photography, and is usually seen as different to documentary style work, despite there being considerable overlap. The latter tends to set out with a determination to photograph a particular event or social condition (for example the excellent work of Dorothea Langeduring the Great Depression), whereas 'Street Photography' is more spontaneous.

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It's not just another day

It's not just another day

In my post on a Suffolk walk, I mentioned my ingratitude for not fully appreciating the gift of a beautiful morning. In many ways we find ourselves in a time where the certainties of established religions have less of a hold on us and yet so many still perceive (almost like a fragrance that we can't name) a call to the spiritual that we can't ignore. That call provides us with a moral compass of sorts, but also has a bias towards beauty and truth. Mary Oliver's sublime poem "Wild Geese" expresses some of what I mean. The poem is from Mary Oliver's book Dream Work published by Atlantic Monthly Press.

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Reflecting on Reflections

Reflecting on Reflections

For whatever reason, I've always been drawn to incorporating reflections in my photography, and in this I know I am certainly not alone. One of the most well known photographs with a reflection was that taken by that astonishing master of the photographic art, Henri Cartier-Bresson, recording a man leaping over (or into) a puddle. The photograph, entitled Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare was regarded by Time Magazine as the 'Photograph of the Century'. Without doubt it is a superb photograph, and certainly proves my point that you're in the best of company if you use reflections in your work.

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