Let There Be Light: England’s Anglican Cathedrals at Dawn | Photography

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Jthere are few experiences more uplifting and humbling than standing in the nave of a cathedral. With the symmetry of columns rising in arches and the fine tracery of windows letting in ethereal light, the effect – as Goethe described the architecture – resembles frozen music. They are spaces filled with centuries of human yearning for the divine; in them the spiritual desire is made palpable through stone.

Cathedrals also tell of human power, pride, fragility and failure: in monuments to knights, aristocrats, poets and clerics asking not to be forgotten; and the signs of ecclesiastical reform in the fragments of paintings that once decorated the brightly colored walls, or the defaced sculptures of saints.

Birmingham Cathedral.

Architectural styles come and go, from the round arches and strong columns of Norman or Romanesque, to the sharp, muted Gothic, the cold, mathematical proportions of Classical, the ornate swagger of Baroque, and the austere cleanliness of Modernism. The majority of English cathedrals are primarily Gothic, but an accumulation of styles can usually be seen in the same building. Part of the joy of visually reading an English cathedral is unraveling its divergent architectural heritage, probing the jigsaw puzzle of dates in its building phases, and seeing how one style or proportion accommodates the next, whether in slightly mismatched counterpoint at ease or in harmony. In this way, the building can be seen as a preserved monument and also as a living and growing organism.

Carlisle Cathedral (Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity).
Carlisle Cathedral.

In just over three years, Peter Marlow, who died in 2016, photographed the interior of each of England’s 42 Anglican cathedrals. The result is not only a masterful comparative inventory taken in a precise time frame, but also a subtle interpretation of the interior bodies of these impressive buildings. Although this project began in 2009, the seed of the idea and the skills to realize it so skillfully began to grow for Marlow at the very beginning of his engagement with photography at the age of 19.

In 1971, while on a trip to Boston during his freshman year in college as a psychology student, Marlow visited the Museum of Fine Arts and saw an exhibit of photographs by Walker Evans (1903-1975) , curated by John Szarkowski. Along with his famous portraits of the rural poor during the Great Depression, Evans’ uniquely precise and intelligent photographic sensibility was often applied to depicting the modern American vernacular: interiors of farmhouses, factories, store signs, roadside warehouses road, housing and churches. Evans avoided the overt stylistic gestures of authorship prevalent in fine art photography of the time. Instead, approached with consistent, factual clarity, his subjects are allowed to project their own poetry. Inspired by this encounter with Evans, Marlow bought a Graflex Speed ​​Graphic camera upon returning home, and his career in photography began.

St Paul's Cathedral, London.
St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Getting a job as a photographer on a cruise liner saved Marlow enough money to spend two months in Haiti, where, on his first overseas project, he photographed people and places in the black and white documentary manner of Evans. As his photographic career took off, he obtained commissions from Sunday magazine as a photojournalist. He was hired by Sygma, a photo agency with an uncompromising reputation, and in 1980 joined the Magnum Photos cooperative, with its legendary roster of photojournalists.

Saint Albans Cathedral.
Saint Albans Cathedral.

The impetus to start photographing cathedrals was the result of an order from the Royal Mail in 2007 for use on a set of commemorative stamps. Once the commission was completed, however, Marlow was inspired to continue in the same vein of his own interest, and by the end of 2010 he had photographed 32 cathedrals.

Marlow asked the dean and chapter of each cathedral to obtain permission to enter in the early hours of the morning. In almost all cases, he was allowed to turn off the lights, leaving the interiors to light up naturally, just after sunrise. The effect of natural light modulated the spaces and brought out the luminosity of the stonework, and – particularly when Marlow photographed from west to east (as in most cases) – daylight emerged behind the altar and highlighted the ceiling of the choir.

Portsmouth Cathedral.  (Saint Thomas [of Canterbury]'s).
Portsmouth Cathedral.

This working method required that the images be taken between late spring and early November. Marlow adopted a kind of ritual, getting up as early as 3 a.m. to go to each cathedral and starting work at 6 a.m. In those precious hours, a short window of opportunity, he saw the interior of the cathedral emerge from obscurity and come to life. Few of us have the privilege of seeing the interior of a cathedral while being left alone in the vastness of its spaces at dawn. Marlow’s photographs make this personal and contemplative encounter powerfully accessible and transmit the magic to us.

  • The English Cathedral by Peter Marlow (with lyrics by Martin Barnes and John Goodall) is published by Merrell (£24.95). An exhibition of photographs travels to St Albans Cathedral (November 1-December 1) then St Paul’s (December 6-January 26) and Hereford (January 31-March 2). More locations, dates and details here

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