No. 72  December 2008
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Burlington's St. Mary's

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Feature of the month

on my own time

When preparing a book on historic religious architecture one labors under certain constraints, the most important of which is that readers expect to see a reasonable representation of a building. Issues of whether it is a good image photographically are irrelevant to most readers, and especially if they are members of that congregation—a real estate snapshot is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even preferable to a more artistic one that crops out part of the façade or renders other parts in deep shadow. And so I dutifully make an effort to satisfy those expectations. The historical record itself demands to know what the church looked like—its scale or mass, the fenestration and details of the cornice and door surrounds, and anything that reveals something of the construction materials or processes. Those aren’t onerous requirements, but a photographer may feel constrained by them. I know I do. Often. Even more often when the church has been clad in aluminum siding, obscuring the texture of repainting and the slight warping of the weatherboards.

All that is by way of introduction to this month’s feature article. Its subject is church architecture, but not New Jersey’s. I try to spend September every year in the southwest, photographing Anasazi ruins, and I did so this year. I traveled there by car, loaded with tents, backpacking gear, tripods and cameras, and for a change of scenery, took a southern route through Nashville, Little Rock, and Oklahoma City into Santa Fe. I did not search out the churches, except for William Strickland’s Egyptian-style Presbyterian church in Nashville, pictured here, and a small portion of it on the right in the image above. Strickland was born in Middletown, NJ in 1787, but originally based his practice in Philadelphia until he found that former students of his were getting commissions he used to get, so moved to Nashville where he designed the state capitol. This building is a delight, perhaps because it is so unexpected. It was done at a time when architects were mining the archaeology of Egypt and Babylon, as well as Greece, Rome and northern Europe. I knew about this church from prior reading, and sought it out, but for the most part, the churches in the cities I visited found me, teased me into taking their picture, and ultimately I yielded, but on my terms. I would make images that pleased me, or challenged me. Steeples and belfries and columns that said, “what can you make of this?” There were constraints, of course. I had to accept the available light and time of day; I couldn't return the following day and reshoot, or kill time for a couple hours until the shadows were better. But those are often the kinds of constraints that bring out the best in an image-maker—to find that angle or perspective or detail that makes the shot unique, memorable. And so here are a few of the images that were done for me, not for the requirements imposed by a book or a historical record, or an audience.

Nashville has a number of architectural treasures, including a full-scale model of the Parthenon built in the 1920s out of plaster, then replaced with a concrete one by the 1940s. I did not have to show what it looks like—we already know that. My objective was to find a perspective that showed off the fluted columns and the austerity of the structure. Usually the overhead light of midday is awful—the shadows drop straight down instead of stretching out to one side as they are supposed to. In this case, the shafts of light worked well—they reveal, but not too much. Something is left for us to figure out, to work out in our heads the depth and spatial relationships. I moved in tight and switched to a wide-angle lens. The small trapezoidal patch of light in the lower left of the image was as important to me as the columns. That might strike you as artsy-fartsy nonsense, which doesn't bother me at all. I was a photographer long before I got involved in architectural history. And I don’t have to worry about Pericles arguing that I didn’t do justice to his building, either.

Hurricane Gustav was moving up from the gulf into Louisiana as I was traveling through the same longitude, so I didn’t make any pictures in Memphis or Little Rock, but moved quickly to the west, out of the projected path of storm and evacuees (after enjoying barbeque in Memphis, of course). In New Mexico I was back in a land that has claimed my attention for 30-some years. There are few churches that don't draw my attention, and some I come back to, again and again. But for the first time I worked a couple of small towns east of Santa Fe, places I haven't visited before. There is evidence that Billy the Kid frequented the small town of Puerto de Luna, which was established about 1860. Not much there anymore but a half-ruined old courthouse and a general store where you can get a cold beer. There is a Catholic church there (of course)—a tin-roofed brick building with a Spanish mission-type belfry. I needed that dome and the cross on top it, but I also wanted the light reflecting off the tin roof and the sharp acute angle of light just below the belfry. The building itself, or at least its architectural style was incidental, even irrelevant.
     In the modern town of the same name a few miles away there is an older church— just a shell, actually, but an interesting one for the texture of the walls and the contrast with the gleaming white marble of the grave markers and monuments. I drove by, stopped and turned around. It was not what I had been looking for but it's a mistake to pass by when you see something that might make a good image. I've come to regret my impatience in driving on to keep to a schedule or to reach an intended goal and not pausing to take what was offered to me. The light will never be as good as it is at the moment.

Santa Fe—holy faith—or is it holy fire? The city is irresistible, and not because of the innumerable art galleries of Canyon Road. I worked St. Michael’s—supposedly the oldest church in America—over pretty well again this visit. I had time while my girlfriend was shopping (oops, visiting the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, or maybe a little of each). Midday light again, but I was committed for the cocktail hour, so it would have to do. St. Michael’s is adobe construction—mud over mud-brick. That offers a nice texture to the rounded forms of the corners. This image is of the bell tower, taken from the front. It doesn’t offer much sense of what the building looks like but that, of course, was of no concern to me. I was trying to make a good photograph, not an accurate representation of the church.

And that’s even more true of the last image, a small portion of the rear of the building. Much too abstract for most tastes, I suspect, but just right for me. It was my vacation, after all.




Copyright 2008 Frank L. Greenagel