with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Art of the Door

red wooden door, Spain, photograph by Brent VanFossenThere is “something” about a door. Growing up in Washington State, it was a summer and winter ritual of ours to stop along the way, crossing over the mountains to Eastern Washington to visit friends and family, at The Alps. The Alps was owned by a German immigrant family and they offered a rest stop for fun, candy, and toys. Originally a small part of their home, it has now grown into quite the complex, but in those early days, it was a magical place for children.

Alongside the highway, the home hung over the embankment and down to the river below. We’d climb down the narrow stairs to the grassy yard alongside the river turned into a small park-like setting. Old wooden decorated door on abandoned building, Tel Aviv, Israel, photograph by Brent VanFossenThere were chairs to rest upon and chairs swinging under trees. A small playground and sandbox was for the smaller children. And there, in the middle of it all near the river, stood a framed door. Just a door. Nothing special, just a simple wooden door. It was weathered and slightly bowed from years of exposure to the harsh Cascade Mountain weather, paint peeling slightly, and a handle waiting to be turned.

I could look around the door. I could see everything beyond the door. But the door itself begged to be opened and passed through. You are supposed to open doors and walk through them. My mother never told us we weren’t supposed to walk through walls, but after a few experiments, you understand the logic of her lack of explanation. You understood clearly that to get beyond the wall, you had to use the door. Even though this door had no walls, the compulsion to use it was fierce. It “begged” to be used. It said, “Open me.”

Our language often uses windows as a reference to openings and gateways. “Eyes are the windows of the soul.” In reality, it is the doors that get you where you are going.

Traveling is not just seeing the new; it is also leaving behind. Not just opening doors; also closing them behind you, never to return. But the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes.
Jan Myrdal, The Silk Road

Exploring Doors

Old door in ancient building, Rhodos, Greece, photograph by Brent VanFossenDuring our travels, our fascination with doors has continued. Now, Brent is obsessed. We prowl around ancient cities and the derelict remains of new ones, looking for patterns, textures, and designs in doors that graphically call to us to photograph.

Tiny narrow wooden doorway, Rhodos, Greece, photograph by Brent VanFossenDoors come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. In the United States, doors come in glass and wood and combinations of the two, and they are inevitably the same size and grouped as one or two doors side by side.

Leave the comfort of door standardization in the US behind and you find a world where doors are added when needed, and sometimes as an afterthought. They are huge and intimidating, covered with threatening bolts and braces, and small and informal, allowing someone to just barely wedge through. Some doors are not so much for access as they are for letting light and air into and through the building. Some doors have signs, graphics, pictures, carvings, and amazing details in lines, shapes, and patterns, while others are quiet, simple wooden boards to block access and light.

Copper covered doorway held together temporarily, Old Tel Aviv, Israel, photograph by Brent VanFossenNot all buildings are made of wood. Some are made from adobe style baked mud and sand and others from cements and different stone. The doors within their walls can be as sturdy or weak as their supporting construction. They can be painted to blend in or stand out against its surroundings.

Arab door way with tile mosaics, Budapest, photograph by Brent VanFossenDoors can often give you a glimpse at the work or culture that lie beyond, such as huge barricades outside of embassies and government buildings, or the rounded or dome-like arches over doors covered with thousands of tiny tile mosaics in Arab or Muslim communities.

Some doors look more like fortresses, determined to keep the “outsiders” out and the “insiders” in, possibly left over from ancient times when their towns and cities were under seige. In some ancient European towns, especially along the rivers and seas, the town grew to be designed around self protection from attackers, with walls and curving, maze-like streets. Cottage style door with small opening over the door, Rhodos, Greece, photograph by Brent VanFossenDoors into homes were kept small with long hallways with more doors between the street and the living space. It’s hard for a warrior covered in armor and weapons to get through these narrow openings. Some doors and gateways even hosted openings above where residents would pour hot water or boiling oil down upon the heads of the attackers trying to break down the doors.

Doors provide security and protection from more than just other humans. They can also stop bugs, weather, and give a little privacy to the lives inside.

Door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenSome doors are famous, especially those found on churches. In Jerusalem, the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ancient. It is worn by the hands that touch it on their way to and from the ancient church complex, visiting the spot where many believe Christ was crucified. The door is very tall, almost a story high, and built of heavy thick wood, covered with a cross hatch of beveled squares carved into it. The handle and lock area are coverd with the greasy fingermarks of the thousands of hands that have opened and closed the door. Alongside the door is a marble column, where millions of pilgrims and visitors touch or kiss the broken cracks in the column before entering and exiting the church as part of their ritual blessing. The door is part of the history and continuity of the church.

Grafiti covered door in an abandoned building, Paris, France, photograph by Brent VanFossenDoors are also art forms. We have found doors of abandoned buildings used for graphiti and others of wealthier buildings with doors hand tooled and carved, covered with copper, silver, and artwork that speaks of a time when people cared about how their buildings and doors looked. Handcraftsmanship for door building still exists, though it is hard to find. The speedy and cheap methods of manufacturing doors and windows have taken much of the “style” out of doors. So finding an artistic door makes the find even more of a treasure, worthy of photographing and preserving.

Happiness is something that comes into our lives through doors we don’t even remember leaving open.
Rose Lane

Photographing Doors

Photographing a door seems like an easy task. After all, the surface is generally flat, so you don’t have to worry about the film plane or depth of field. Ah, but that’s the challenge of photography. Even the easy photographic subjects can become complicated.

Shadows of nearby trees play across adobe walls and blue door, Santa Fe, New Mexico, photograph by Brent VanFossenDoors tend to avoid the sun. They like to sit under awnings and within doorways, usually where the shadows play. If you want the graphic elements of the shadows across the door, then this can work for you. If you don’t, you may have to return during a time and weather that will allow softer light direction and no shadows, or compose around the shadow lines.

A door in the shade tends to be in low, blue toned light, giving it a cold tone, so the use of a warming filter can counter the blue tones, warming them up – unless the cool, blue tone works with the door’s tone and design.

Late afternoon casts shadows which add to the red and grey bright colors of this door, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, photograph by Brent VanFossenAs with nature, early morning and late afternoon is the best time for many doors as the light level is warm and low enough in the horizon to duck under porches, eves, and awnings for front lighting. When found as side lighting, it can enhance the texture of the door and its knockers and knobs.

The red paint framed door here was captured in the late afternoon warmth of the sunset in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada. The side light added a deep shadow to the door, accentuating the contrasting colors of the red and warming the gray walls. The geometry of the door and colors is felt as the shadow adds depth to the shape. The red railing echos the squares and rectangles of the door, adding pattern upon pattern in the details.

In general, you will encounter medium to slow shutter speeds, so a tripod is usually essential to capture the details in the grain, texture, and patterns. A flash for fill might be needed, but rarely. Usually the ambient light is adequate unless you are hand holding.

When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us.
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) – American inventor

A blue hexagon painted on an old door in an abandoned building, Tel Aviv, Israel, photograph by Brent VanFossenWhen you encounter a photographic door, remember your first impression. What was it about the door or doorway that first caught your attention. Was it the overall scene of the door, the wall around the door, the door itself, a window or knob on the door, or maybe the texture of the door. Whatever first caught your eye, begin by pointing your camera there.

Brent and a photography friend spent an early morning prowling the old city area of Tel Aviv, Israel, known as Neve Tsedek. Now filled with old broken down remains of ancient buildings, it is slowly reviving itself as an artist community. A door falling apart caught their eye. Someone had painted a blue hexagon echoing the upper door’s design, a last ditch effort to pretty the door. The remnants of blue paint contrasted with the peeling and weathered wood, exposed to the sun and nearby sea breeze for many years. Filling the frame with the blue painted area and the contrasting broken lower panel, the story is told without seeing the rest of the door or building. We feel the last breath of life slowly leaving the body of the entire building through the door.

Allow the door’s main focal point to fill the frame. Move in close enough to remove all distractions and isolate the element that caught your eye. Watch the lighting and keep the back of the camera parallel to the door to maximize the depth of field. Take your time. Unlike photographing wildlife, usually the door isn’t going anywhere soon.

Ancient large metal hinge is contrast to the weathered wood of the door and wall, Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada, photograph by Brent VanFossenIf the texture of the door is what fascinates you, the peeling paint, the carvings, metal grating, some closeup aspect, move in close and consider using a macro or closeup lens to fill the frame with the details. Peeling paint and deep carving can be accentuated with nice side lighting, using the shadows to add depth to the texture.

Door handle on red wood door, Paris, photograph by Brent VanFossenDoor knobs can be very interesting subjects. Depth of field offers some photographic choices, too. If the end of the knob is your subject, either increase the depth of field with a smaller aperture to capture the background of the knob, or use a larger aperture to allow the background beyond the end of the knob to blur out of focus. Watch for highlights, keyholes, and distracting element in the background of the door knob end which may pull the viewer’s eye away from the subject.

Keyholes can make for interesting frames if the subject beyond is worthy of such framing. Like the door knob, you have a choice in your depth of field options to allow the keyhole to be blurred and out-of-focus but recognizable as a “keyhole frame” of the subject seen through the keyhole, or increase your depth of field to allow the keyhole and view beyond to be in focus. A wide angle lens with a very small aperture will increase your depth of field and allow a greater range to be in focus, possibly allowing the keyhole and view beyond to be sharp.

The texture of the cement and spackled wall leads the eye to the door, Rhodos, Greece, photograph by Brent VanFossenWhen you have photographed the item that caught your attention on or around the door, move back and study the rest of the door. Is there more to photograph? Change your position, closer or farther from the door, but also bend down low and photograph knobs and other door objects at its “eye level”. Look around and see if there is a step or doorway across from the door to allow you a “looking down” angle of view for another perspective. Before leaving a door, make sure you have captured a variety of perspectives so you will have choices when viewed later as to which look is the best one.

Using a wide angle lens, the texture of the cement and spackled wall is enhanced and the door plays a smaller role, Rhodos, Greece, photograph by Brent VanFossenThese two photographs were taken in Rhodos, Greece. The texture of the cement, spackle and paint with the unrailed stairs leading to the door offered a wonderful “door landscape” effect. Using a medium length lens, Brent was able to isolate part of the wall leading along with the stairs to the door in a strong vertical. Stepping back, he realized the story was in the stairs’ jagged pattern against the contrasting “jagged” effect of the wall. He changed to a wide angle lens, put the camera on the horizontal, and captured the landscape effect of the patterns, and the door became a detail the eye is led to, but the textures and patterns hold the interest.

When one door is shut, another opens.
Miguel de Cervantes

Cabin porch and door, Buffalo River mountain area, Arkansas, photograph by Brent VanFossenThere is a timeless quality to doors. Among all these pictures of doors, do you know the season or year of the photograph? Do you know the age or time period of the door? While you might recognize an architectural reference, attributing the door’s construction to a specific historical time period, it could be a reproduction or the original door. With such timeless subjects, photographs of doors are great additions to your photography inventory.

And always look for the symbolism in the door and find ways to “open a new door” to your audience and clients. Doors are part of our history and our lifestyle. Let’s celebrate doors.


  • Posted June 28, 2015 at 0:28 | Permalink

    Hey! I enjoyed your writings and photos, I too am obsessed by doorways!

    Im Scottish and live in Budapest, Hungary where Im photographing doorways. My webpage is pretty basic so far, but theres a few to look at, and I agree with what youve said. Also, Alexander G Bell is Scottish, he invented the telephone!

    And his quote is so apt!

    Cheers, Jeff Cunningham

    • Posted October 15, 2015 at 17:19 | Permalink

      Thanks. Good luck with your photograph. I love traveling through Budapest and Hungary. Love it. Have spent never enough time there. Beautiful place, so diverse, filled with history, and beautiful nature. Thanks.

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