Monday, January 09, 2006

A message from the dead

click photo to enlarge
What message does the driver of a BMW or a Mercedes want to give to the world. I value good engineering? Reliability and safety are important to me? I think German design is the best? Or is it "I have a superior position in life, and this car shows it"? Certainly the latter seems to be the subtext in much "upmarket" car advertising. And perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Throughout history the well-heeled have always found ways of displaying their wealth and status, and artists, designers, tradesmen and companies have all found assisting the rich in this goal to be a good way of making a living.

The photograph above was taken in the Kyrle Chapel in the church of St Bartholomew at Much Marcle, Herefordshire. It shows the carved effigies on the tomb of Sir John Kyrle and his wife. Sir John had clear views about where he wanted his eternal rest to be, and it was not going to be in the graveyard! He wanted a position that better reflected his status in the community. So, in 1628 he appropriated the north chapel of the church for his family's use, and upon his death in 1650, he was laid to rest in this black and white marble tomb chest. The carving of the figures is exquisite, with the majority of the sculptor's focus not on capturing the likeness or essence of the couple as people, but on depicting the richness of the clothing and jewellery. In so doing the sculptor has helped the couple say to all who view the tomb, "We were people of importance and wealth."

When I photographed this tomb I used natural lighting and a tripod. That is my preferred method in churches even though such buildings are often very dimly lit. Romanesque buildings with their small, high windows are usually the darkest, and here flash, carefully used, can be helpful. But Gothic churches (particularly those of the Perpendicular period) are usually sufficiently bright. Renaissance churches often have the best natural lighting, and in Victorian structures the brightness varies in proportion to the amount of stained glass. Given this constraint, and the fact that a good depth of field is often required, camera exposures can be quite long. Despite the experts' advice about locking the mirror up to prevent vibrations due to its movement, I rarely do, and I haven't found it an issue. When photographing tombs the temptation is to try to capture the whole composition. However, better photographs result from being selective. Here I chose those parts which are typically thought the most important in portrait photography - the face and hands.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen