THE ENGLISH CATHEDRAL

Photographs by Peter Marlow
Text by Martin Barnes and John Goodall
Published by Merrell Publishers

 

In today’s high-tech, high-speed digital age, where every smartphone sports a camera, it must be a strangely incongruous sight to see a man standing on a step-ladder behind a large and cumbersome tripod, topped by a camera with bellows, his head hidden under a black cloth as he squints at a ground-glass screen. At his feet a pile of film plates and no doubt various other bits of paraphernalia. Add to this the serene silence of a great cathedral at dawn, the sense of wonder at the immense achievement of its construction, awe at its purpose and the devotion of those who built it, and you would be forgiven for losing track, just for a moment, of which century you’re in.

 

In a way this mental image captures the essence of this intriguing book. As the years pass, fashions and technologies come and go, the English cathedral is arguably the nearest approximation to eternity humanity has contrived. Certainly the experience of entering these vaulted spaces lifts the heart and elevates the spirit, today just as it must have centuries ago when many of them were young.

 

Clearly Peter Marlow was responding to feelings such as this when he embarked on this project. The photographs are at the same time inspiring and purely descriptive, a difficult balance to achieve in a single photograph. Having leafed through the book I found myself attracted at first by the more interpretative photographs of his predecessors in the Introduction: Martin Hürlimann’s picture of Wells (1950), Edwin Smith’s Canterbury(1968). They are certainly inspiring and self-consciously “creative”; but against them, Marlow’s interpretation is restrained, self-deprecatory and in some ways purer.

 

Part of me misses the people in these photographs. Cathedrals are still vibrant centres of their communities, and busy, active places. And the occasional human form would provide interest and scale. On the other hand, this book is a study of the fabric and structure of the building, and knowing that the cathedrals were by and large photographed around dawn, you can almost feel the building waking up. It’s rare to see them empty and quiet, and this endows the pictures with a brooding stillness that is strangely appealing.

 

I have slight reservations about its layout. The big, full-page pictures are of course dramatic; but I question the decision to put the commentary in a separate section after the main photographs. This is particularly true as the commentary makes frequent reference to what can be seen in the picture, necessitating a rather tedious leafing to and fro between the photograph and the description. In my view the photographs are strong enough to dominate the text visually, so not much would be lost by putting the commentary on the facing page.

 

Unexpectedly, the paper used is slightly creamy in colour. This certainly endows the photographs with a warmth and richness, but I can’t help feeling that maybe the full effect of the large format prints would be better served by using a purer, brighter white stock.

 

There’s another aspect of this book which is somehow symbolic. As market forces take their toll, this type of photography, with its film slides, its processing times, the large film format, the perspective correction, is beginning to fade into the distance. In photographic terms we’re seeing the end of an era. But as that era ends and another one begins, this book bears witness to the value of that old medium, and will continue to do so even after it has passed completely.

 

“The English Cathedral” is a testament to a contemplative practice of photography, which has its natural home and expression in this book and its subject, just as the cathedrals are themselves testaments to a higher calling and contemplation of the Divine. The book somehow expresses permanence in a time of change, just as its subject matter does.

 

It’s a book to pass down through the generations, just as our forefathers left us their great cathedrals.

 

Toby Wallis
Chairman, Friends of Ripon Cathedral 

COPYRIGHT NOTICE
 
This review is ©Copyright 2012 The Friends of Ripon Cathedral. It may be used on whole or in part, without restriction, in association with the Friends of Ripon Cathedral’s chairs sponsorship campaign or the reporting thereof, on the condition that it it attributed to the author.
 
For any other use please clarify the position first by email to chairman@friendsofriponcathedral.org.uk

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