The cathedral in Toledo is a work of art inside and out. But from the outside, it is a burden to photograph. Crammed inside an architectually crowded old city, the streets approaching the cathedral do so at angles, twists and turns, rarely a clear view down a long street towards an interesting facade of the building. While the higher levels of the building receive plenty of light during the day, the lower levels are often cast in shadows. Though there are the occasional moments in the day when the reflected light is just enough to bounce off a neighboring building to fill in the shadows near the church, it only happens in sections and not within an interesting scenic area. So what do we do?
Brent and I decided to tackle the church in pieces and parts. Breaking it up into sections since we couldn’t get a decent overall perspective in the short time we had. The weather was perfect for photographing wildlife, but not much help for architecture. The early morning fog blended gray with the approaching rain clouds, giving the sky a blinding gray-white glow. We did have fairly even light, avoiding the harsh shadows from the bright sun, but the low-light level made shutter speeds very slow.
We stood across the small square early in the morning before the city and the cathedral awoke, taking advantage of the lack of passersby to capture a wide perspective of the entry. We also battled construction and other clutter, but managed to get a decent overall perspective. The detail of the scultures and door are lost, however, so we slowly moved in closer.
We first tackled the main entryway, which included two heavy metal doors and an amazing intricately carved stone and plaster facade of religious figures and regional motifs. Unfortunately, much of the amazing overall detail was impossible to get as a black iron and stone gate and fence stood between us and the entrance. All the wide angle perspectives we’d hoped for, capturing the intricate expanse of the facade with all the carved stone and plaster figures, was impossible. Beyond the fence we had the gate in our way. With our lenses poking through the gate, we were too close for the wide angle to get an overall view. Brent did some work with the wide angle, fighting the horrible sky, and I evaluated our compositional choices.
Since capturing the overall artistry of the door was impossible with the weather conditions we faced, what did that leave us? The specific details. When you can’t tell a story with the grand landscape, find the most important details that, as a whole, capture the essence of the whole. When Brent was done with the wide angle shots of the cathedral front, we both moved in and focused on the details.
The intricate figures of the apostles and saints around the door were captivating, but faded in the bland light. We knew the fog would burn off, and the bright sunlight would be too contrasty later, so we decided to work with the available light. Without a warm side light from morning or afternoon light, the figures didn’t stand out against the monochromatic background. So what was it about the entry could we work with. Ah, the door.
The door of a church says a lot about the church, its practices, and the people inside. A well-worn door reveals a popular church, with people coming and going frequently enough that the oils in their hands wear down the handles and edges of the door where people press to open the door. A rusted and locked-looking door is often unused, denoting a lack of use by the masses, possible reconstruction which closed this door off, or a closed and rarely used building. A door that is new and polished can show money and wealth in a congregation, or imply that they honestly care about their house of worship. Doors reveal the life behind it and within the walls it contains. What was it about this door that held our attention?
For one, it was the color. A deep intense black metal, the carving on the door made it appear to be woven, like a basket. Yet there was a feeling of strength in the weave. For a Catholic Church, the basketweave crosses can represent many things such as the symbolism of the crosses in the weave to represent the holy cross, or the strength of a basket which is simply bits of dried grasses easily broken alone but when woven together form a strong container for carrying food and supplies over great distances. A strong symbol to artistically represent the strength of the church, its people and beliefs. Maybe this was what the artist had in mind?
We worked on different angles to capture the power and yet simplicity of the door and finally got the image that showcased it with the door handle in the upper corner and the edges of the light-colored columns framing the dark metal door.
We kept on, though, concentrating on different angles from our own unique perspectives. Brent has an amazing eye for detail, so I left him working the creative door elements of patterns and textures, and I concentrated on the religious figures, zooming in on the sculptured details. Moving around within the viewfinder, small elements would pop out and capture our attention. We’d work with it for a bit, and then move on, and return if needed. Our angle was limited from outside the locked gates, so we aimed our cameras through the bars and kept working.
Eventually, we ran out of steam, and the cathedral opened for the day. We worked the inside area for a bit, enchanted by the amazing woodwork and glass, and early the next morning, we found our opportunity to get an overall scenic of the cathedral. We drove up into the hills outside of the city to an overlook looking northeast across and down on the city. There, capping the city, rose the cathedral, no longer overshadowed by the crowd of buildings around it. In the lovely rose and pink of the sunrise, we got our cathedral. Life is good. You just have to work a little harder and try a variety of things before you can get what you want.