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On photographing cathedrals and parish churches

The cover of 'English Cathedrals'.Olive's dedication to me on the inside cover.In 1990, Olive Cook gave me a signed and dedicated copy of 'English Cathedrals', which had just been published. In the Foreword she says that the book was needed because relatively few of Edwin's photographs of cathedrals had ever been published, yet it was a subject to which he was considerably drawn.

It is interesting also because it contains his 'last' photograph – or at least so Olive believed until I discovered a roll of unprocessed film in a camera of Edwin's that she later gave me. That 'last' photograph, of Canterbury, is reproduced to accompany the text below.

In the 1971 re-issue of Edwin and Olive's first collaborative book, 'English Parish Churches' (originally published in 1952), Olive included an article that Edwin  had written about his experience of photographing in cathedrals and churches. This text forms the main body of this page.
In the considerably revised and expanded reprint of 'Parish Churches' of 1971, the detailed architectural drawing that Edwin devised to illustrate the evolution of the English church was also reproduced. I have included it here not only because of its interest but also to show that he was indeed a very competent architectural draftsman, as befits his training as an architect.

The following text was written by Edwin Smith. He is quoted as saying of his work in religious buildings: "I come to worship with the eye and to offer the praise of my humble craft."


The Nave from the Triforium, Salisbury Cathedral, by Edwin SmithI arrive looking as much as possible like any other visitor, equipment discreetly satchelled and not draped around my person. Taking the first opportunity I dump bag and tripod beneath a bench, behind a pier or on any obscure stone ledge or underneath the collecting box table. A cathedral is rather like a railway station in its number and variety of crannies of this kind (though very unlike of course in the confidence it encourages that what is left will remain against one’s return). An image arises of this bag as the last deposit on a ghostly pile of travellers’ bundles that have been left in such crannies over a minimum of 500 years, and with it the realization that one’s mind is starting to digest the atmosphere. It is probably 9 a.m., and the verger may be ringing the bell for Matins; soon a tiny file of clergy will advance from the vestry off the south choir aisle and, making two slow right- angled turns, pass into the choir. I am conscious of a certain reluctance at not supporting them, but I have come to worship with the eye and to give other kinds of praise. As I tread softly in another direction the thin monotone of devotion heightens my reactions to the vistas around me.

If I am lucky the morning is clear but not sunny, or if there is sun it is weak or frequently screened by cloud. For in this preliminary stroll I am rehearsing for the camera and thinking of its peculiar needs rather than of the immediate pleasure of the more adaptable eye. Brilliance and great contrast, delicious to the eye, are disastrous to the photographic process, and I am seeking the vantage points that not only compose in terms of form but where the range of light and shade falls within the scope of the film. Every photographer favours a particular direction of light: I am drawn to situations where the source of light lies diagonally in front of me and not behind. To this direction I react instinctively and I gravitate without conscious design to those parts of the structure where this light obtains. These parts of the building I sense are ‘working’ for me, but they will of course rapidly be replaced by others as the light moves round.

So, having received the suggestion of a number of possibilities that make me excited to begin, I retrace my steps. By now Matins will be over, the sparse file of devout will have returned to the vestry, the verger, having removed his surplice, will be found in black habit not far from one of the great piers of the crossing. Explaining my purpose to him — signing his book, paying a fee, producing a letter of permission from the Dean and Chapter, whatever the circumstances demand — I get permission to begin.

Chapel of Our Lady Undercroft, Canterbury, by Edwin Smith. His last photograph made on a specific assignment.I work quickly, discreetly and always in the lighting conditions that exist at the moment, the camera, with a focusing screen that necessitates the use of a black cloth over the head, always on a tripod, and with exposures that vary in duration from about ten seconds to as many minutes. With luck it will still be early enough for the cathedral to be relatively deserted and I try to get through with general views while there is still no more than an occasional visitor to avoid. Long exposures have the advantage that they can be divided, the lens being covered while anyone saunters across its path, and I have sometimes divided a minute’s exposure into as many as thirty separate units as absorbed visitors pass in and out of sight behind piers and monuments. My favourite visitors sit in bemused tranquility, showing no movement during an exposure of several minutes, or are dressed darkly and move briskly which means they leave no trace. Very wearing are pairs of ladies in white who take ten minutes to stroll down a 200 foot aisle engaged in eager conversation, or become engrossed in the irrelevant details of a modern monument half-way down.

The visitor population of cathedrals varies seasonally and geographically. Always less in winter and always less in the north and east than in the south and west. Ely Cathedral on a midwinter afternoon with no more than a single local fugitive from the freezing fenland huddled round one of its giant stoves is desolate and heart-piercing. Canterbury any time between early spring and late autumn can be as busy as the concourse of a railway terminal and as bitterly bewildering.

Edwin's architectural exposition of the evolution of the English church.The great cathedral is a public experience. Not with the greatest good fortune could one hope to enjoy it quite alone, nor perhaps would it be comfortable to do so. But the parish church, outside the hours of conventional worship, is for private experience and it is the rarest misfortune to share it with anyone less effacing, less part of the ambience, than the practising organist, the altar flower arranger or a very occasional incumbent. For me, photography in a good village church is unalloyed bliss. A cathedral is a great machine, impressive and mysterious, and one can rarely visit it without making a special effort. However tranquilly isolated in its own close it eventually proves to be, one has to brave the traffic of its town, the confusion of its streets and the mundane irritations of its parking arrangements.

But it is possible to come upon the perfect village church quite by chance, breaking a journey on impulse, entering without premeditation to receive some of the most exquisite pleasure that building can offer. The visual pleasures and surprises of visiting country churches have been among the most vivid and poignant of my life, and it is a perpetual source of wonder and gratitude to me that it is possible to walk casually into these marvellously articulated structures, to be surprised, delighted, diverted, amused and deeply moved without being disturbed by the presence of a single other person. At all hours of the day, long after I was expected elsewhere or have found a hotel for the night, I have hurried back to the car for my equipment and begun working — entranced by the sense of communion with something admired to intensity, intoxicated by the privilege of being able to pay it the homage of my craft. I must confess that I seldom risk breaking this spell by actually asking permission, for speech dilutes vision; and I offer apologies to the incumbents of many churches for this discourtesy.