Vanity Project

I tried to avoid the obvious locations when I last visited Rome; what would I gain from seeing the Coliseum once more, or ambling through the Forum and Imperial ruins for the third time in my life? There were two particular exceptions to this; the Musei Vaticani was one, for how could a few hours possibly reveal all of the wonders there?  St Peter’s Basilica was the other.  Despite my atheism the Catholic Church had got my attention.  The museum contents are of course full of what were once private collections of the popes, but from its design and construction throughout the 16th Century the church was a very public display; a display of wealth, power, and influence.  Remember that the popes of this period had a powerful military at their disposal too. Which is why many of the great artists of the period were called upon to design and build what would be the world’s largest church on the supposed site of St Peter’s burial.  (Incidentally this doesn’t make it the most important; Rome’s cathedral is actually the older Archbasilica of St John Lateran which is a few kilometres away from the Vatican.)  Michelangelo contributed a design for the church, and in particular its famous dome that dominates the city and his Pietá sculpture.
Pieta, Michelangelo
Bernini of course gave us the great welcoming arms of the colonnade that encircles St Peter’s Square and the magnificent bronze baldacchino at the heart of the church.  The Chair of St Peter, a wooden relic thought to have been the saint’s seat as the first bishop of the city, is encased in another of his confections. Bramante, Raphael, Giacomo della Porta, Sangallo and more worked on designs during the century and the great facade was added by Carlo Madermo.  Then there are the numerous artisans who added the polychromatic marble, the dramatic and imposing statuary and the gilt ceiling details. Now if you look carefully at the last image in the gallery above you’ll see two separate pieces of symbolism.  The keys in the lower half are of course associated with St Peter who holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  The upper symbol is a peculiar piece of headgear worn by popes for centuries and is usually combined with the keys as an overall symbol of the papacy.  This headgear or papal tiara is properly known as the triregnum, comprising as it does of three crowns.  Three!  Though there are multiple crowns in the Queen’s jewels neither she nor any of there predecessors would wear them all at once.  Combined with the keys there is an underlying threat that you’d better comply with the authority of the Pope. There was little chance you might forget it either… Some years ago I undertook a development project in a Tanzanian village called Mahida.  The poverty was striking, and the two main features in the village, the school and the community centre, both benefitted from some repair work that we undertook.  In a clearing just outside the village centre was another structure.  Bigger, sturdier, unimaginatively designed, and completely at odds with the surroundings.  It was a catholic church.
Welcome to the jungle
Postscript:  the header image in this piece isn’t St Peter, it’s St Paul.  My own piece of vanity.


In the Monty Python sketch The Penultimate Supper, the Pope takes Michelangelo to task for painting a fresco of the last supper, which includes a kangaroo, jellies, 28 disciples and…

3 Christs!  (No wonder Leonardo got the gig!)

You’ll have to find the sketch to understand the relevance of all of this, but in the general argument about artistic merit, Michelangelo makes the point that having three saviours works because “the fat one balances the two skinny ones”.

Balance is the topic that I’m supposed to be looking at while I work through the photography exercises in the book I’m reading at the moment.  I say supposed to be because I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that says pictures should have equal “weight” distributed around the image.  Anyway, the assignment I was looking for was to find pairs of subjects and compose images to give them “balance” in the finished shot.  Now this can be very straightforward (if uninspiring) with shots like this:

However it doesn’t take me long to start pushing at the boundaries.  At first I shot this, which actually still qualifies as balanced, for the larger masonic building is unable to dominate the smaller pub next door because the brightness of the white walls compensate.APW_2317  Well that was the theory anyway!

I then went totally off piste and shot a pair of images that reflect the yin and yang of this part of Durham.  On the one hand the leafy tranquility of Old Elvet, and on the other the prison which sits along side.  Two images which as a pair give balance.  Maybe.

I also shot the Courts, which has obvious balance through its symmetry, and which for me sums up the problem.  I find such shoots boring.APW_2321

APW_2338I head for the Palace Green resolving to take this more seriously, and as I cross Kingsgate bridge I shoot this in which tree and cathedral become the two halves of the equation; one large but airy, the other small and dense.  I also shot this sculpture of the architect APW_2464-Editresponsible for the Kingsgate development, Ove Arup.  No attempt at balance whatsoever! And then I just relaxed into finding my own versions of balance, either through symmetry or asymmetry, they all worked for me.

My heart still wasn’t in it really.  Maybe Durham was to blame.  There are too many idiosynchracies in this city; random alleyways, conflicting rooflines, contrasting building materials and so on.  Much like myself.  I don’t necessarily fit with conventional views of how I should act and struggle to conform with the expectations of others, and while I do my creativity suffers.  Free to be myself and it blossoms.   I like Durham for it’s strangeness, so will extend the metaphor to me too.  How can I achieve balance when I get more out being unbalanced.  How can you shoot balanced pictures in a city with buildings like this?APW_2427_8_9The strange thing is that having decided to forget about balance I was then unable to escape it.  A shot like this could be seen as the two younger people balancing out the older one (though there is obvious symmetry too),APW_2415but what about this shot?  On it’s own it may seem free of balance, but of course I know that the man carrying this shopping had a similar load in his left hand.APW_2468

I wanted to finish with a portrait to completely subvert the balance and had seen a place where the light flooding from a side street gave fantastic opportunities for broad or narrow lighting, either of which would do the job.  I found my spot and waited for a suitable subject.  Many unremarkable faces passed by until I knew I had found her.APW_2451  Of course no sooner had I begun talking to her and her boyfriend that the shaft of light that inspired the shot disappeared behind a cloud.  Great.

Having started the conversation anyway, it would have been rude to do nothing so I shot them as a couple.  Arggghhhhh. Balance!!!


Michaelangelo: I’ll tell you what you want, mate. You want a bloody photographer! Not a creative artist with some imagination!