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Chasing a Ghost Along the Pilgrimage Trail

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

When I began to study medieval art in graduate school, I found myself often puzzling over murky, low-contrast images in black-and-white, trying to decode what the text was describing in the image. Occasionally, there would be photos of striking beauty, where the carving or architecture leapt off the page with its dimensionality and sharpness. There was a difference between the flat, matter-of-fact documentarian photo and the ones where the photographer captured the context and the mood of their subject. Photos of medieval art in textbooks were often without citation (or the author's name buried in the back materials), reinforcing the idea that, while the images were of art, the photos were not art themselves. There was a deep division between documentation and fine art in photography, and analysis required as bland a perspective as possible.


Of all the subjects in which to develop a sports-fan-like devotion and nerdiness, medieval art photographers may be one of the deepest, most solitary niches. I found the names of some of the earliest while trying to figure out where the unspoken (I thought) style manual for photographing medieval art came from. In doing so, I developed favorites and even heroines--women who were doing what I loved over a century ago, and doing it beautifully, at a time when it was a lot harder for anyone (but women even moreso) to do so.


And thus my gentle madness began. Not only did I admire the photos of Lucy Bryant Porter, I wanted to follow in the treads of her and her husband Arthur Kingsley's Bugatti as they set out on a mission from Harvard in 1918 to document what Romanesque churches had survived the battles and neglect of World War I in France.


The romance of this project has captured the imagination (and excellent scholarship) of others. The early-20th century's inherent privileging of men as more worthy of fame (and, after all, he was the one with the official position and the one who wrote the books) gave Kingsley the limelight, and it can be said that feminist scholarship is what gives Lucy Porter the limelight now. Lucy herself was Kingsley's most enthusiastic supporter, often giving him credit for her own photos, and after his untimely death, she promoted and curated his legacy as a medieval art historian to the end of her life, and beyond.


The Porters embodied the modernism of the twentieth century. Lucy Porter was from the very wealthy Bryant family, a New Woman who promoted suffrage and Montessori education (teaching at such a school herself). Kingley Porter was from newer money, but confident and energetic, an American with the brass to decide he would develop American authority on European art history. WWI's devastation did not bow their enthusiasm--they went forward together to catalog the ruins and emerge with new understanding. Photography would organize and expose (no pun intended) truths about medieval art that European ancestral reverence and too-close familiarity had overlooked. A very American thing to go to someone's place and tell them who they are, but Kingsley Porter had done his scholarly diligence, and he put in the field work to earn that authority. He wasn't the Victorian Heinrich Schliemann, plundering a country for his own fantasy of the past. The Porters were in France to help (sustained by their wealth and professional standing) with a project the war-torn country couldn't undertake itself at the time. They used photography as a technological advancement in the field.


While Arthur taught Lucy how to use their large-format, glass-plate negative camera, even by his own account, she soon surpassed him in skill. Arthur had the formal art history training, but he also is credited with developing the groundwork for medieval art analysis in the modern era, and I wonder how many ideas developed from conversations with Lucy as they shot and developed their photos. Together, they published tens of thousands of photos. His most famous (and still influential) work was Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Roads (1923), which was one volume of analysis with nine volumes of photos. Lucy and he took the images that made it possible for American scholars (especially those who couldn't spend springs and summers on the Continent) to reference a database of art and from it detect the patterns and distinctions which helped generations understand what medieval art was.


I've wondered about devoted, talented Lucy, with her quiet talent and what must have been very sharp insight into all the sculpture she photographed. She's not famous as a photographer, but there's one shot she took that has circulated a lot, and been inspiring for many, scholars and students alike. It's her photo of the Jeremiah in the portal of the abbey of St. Pierre in Moissac.

This is the only one I can find on the internet these days--Harvard has apparently become quite proprietary of Porter's images, even though by now they should be in public domain. This is from Kathryn Brush's wonderful article, "Medieval Art through the Camera Lens." She is an inspiration in her own right. The photo above is of the top-half of the figure, but the one that sent me pursuing Porter's ghost was a full-length shot. You can see here how she kept with natural lighting, and left the face partly in shadow, as it would always be in its setting, where the prophet looks inward to the interior entrance of the church. She brings out all the remarkable crispness of a relief that should have been as worn by time as the nearly-melted subject on the unprotected exterior walls. She photographed Jeremiah more as one would have a romantic portrait in the Art Nouveau era, bringing out the surprising sensuality of sculpture, with its sinuous body and flowing locks of hair. While the documentarian project would demand a bright, even light to allow a forensic study, she has captured information just as valuable: the way the figure was designed for the contextual lighting, to convey and inspire a mood. The prophet's gaze is so melancholy, peering into darkness, even as (through a medieval Christian's perspective) he was predicting the messiah and salvation. He sees also the dark and terrifying End Times.


Captivated by that photo, I went on to study the church of Moissac in more detail, through later scholars, such as Meyer Schapiro. But, I wanted to see the sculpture as she saw it. Strangely, I wanted to take the same photo. I can't quite say why, except that I felt like she had a revelation with her camera, and I wanted that revelation, too. I knew that this desire was odd: why not want to be in the shoes of the artist who carved the Jeremiah? or those of the abbot who commissioned it? or of one of the pilgrims who passed under its gaze and shuddered with awe?


It took me a couple of years to get to Moissac, and by that time I had made my plans in as professional a way as I know how: I checked the Photographer's Ephemeris for how the light hits the entry of the church; I examined Porter's and others' photos to figure out which lens would be the best choice, and imagined the range of settings for similar exposure. I had read articles about the style, possible sculpting workshop, and symbolic intentions scholars had discerned about the piece. I wanted to know as much about being there as I could before I arrived.


Bridging the Distance

When I got there, the conditions should have been optimal: as much light was streaming into the portal as was ever going to get there. I was flustered, though, as if I were finally meeting a celebrity in seeing the Jeremiah in person. The blinding light off the side-wall was like paparazzi flash creating a nimbus around a movie star. As with many long-anticipated events, it was both more and less than I envisioned--it was other. From Porter's photos, I hadn't gathered how the Jeremiah looms over one. His ankles were at roughly my eye-level. I knew he was an elongated figure, like the ones in the portal at Chartres and other cathedrals are. But in situ he seemed to be streaming up away from me, as though ascending to heaven. His downward gaze from this vantage point was one of seeming pity. Much has been made of the Romanesque carving style which twists the body, and crosses legs. The readings had made me think of it as an aesthetic flourish. However, standing below the Jeremiah, his twisted form looked to me as though he was walking away from me, but glancing back. Like any prophet, I imagine, he is a creature contorted by his visions, his presence caught between the past and the future.


The "less than" was how utterly unnoticed he was by others. Locals strode by, long used to his presence as they passed below him in their baptisms, weddings, funerals. Tourists' attention was directed to the dramatic tympanum just outside where he stood, and then they staggered into the dark portico, disoriented by the abrupt change in the light. He now seemed more a silent witness than fiery, exhorting prophet, though no doubt he was brightly painted in his day. That day, perhaps not one visitor in a hundred would know whom the sculpture was meant to represent. I wonder how he appeared at first to Lucy Porter, surrounded as he would have been by the spiritual--if not also physical--wreckage of the war, apocalypse come and gone again.


So, I had my own experience of the Jeremiah, very different from Porter's, but I still wanted to see what she saw. I guess I wanted to stand with her, and see together, with someone whom I felt shared the same searching gaze. I took hundreds of shots that day. I moved around that doorframe covering about 75 degrees of perspective, both learning the finer details of the sculpture, and trying to find where Porter stood exactly. None of those photos reproduced Porter's shot.


Closer

That night, I searched through all the images. The Jeremiah looks strikingly different with each change of position. If you go back up to Porter's angle, he seems to be turning his head, as if in regret or despair. In my full-shot, he looks down and seems to regard you below him, and pities you. In my zoomed images, his gaze seems to go into the middle-distance, as though he's lost in his contemplations. Nowhere did I recapture Porter's shot.


I went back the next day, when the sunlight was diffused by clouds. I looked at Porter's photo again, and backed against the wall, trying to frame the shot the same way. I couldn't do it. I did, however, feel like I'd just missed her, when I figured out why I couldn't get that shot. It wasn't just that Lucy ( I felt by then I could be on first-name terms with her, at least in my mind) had a completely different camera. I figured out that I couldn't pull back as far as she could because in the intervening decades the church had acquired a door-stop from the inside paving that was now used to keep the doors open all day (where before, I guess, there was either an early inner latch that had worn out, or the doors were never kept open without attendants). It prevented the door from touching the inner wall behind it. Lucy had placed herself flush with the wall, and I could not. She also clearly had scaffolding, to raise her to near eye-level with the figure. I guess she and Kingsley had a crew with a truck to carry scaffolding, lights, glass negatives, and the lot, and not just the Bugatti. Her shot was so beautiful that it did the thing that every good photographer wants: for the viewer never to think of the technical work that went into getting the image.


Close-up

Even with a zoom lens, I'd never get to do what my spouse teasingly calls a "karaoke" of Porter's photograph. But I felt that I'd come closest to "meeting" Porter herself, sharing her experience as someone who used the camera as a way to develop intimacy with the past. I trod for hours beneath the Jeremiah in that bleached and tourist-weary entry, trying to understand Porter's gaze and the sculpture's too. I finally decided that my own signature image would reflect how much more time had passed: it's in color, which doesn't add much to it, but in the 21st century that's a minimum for realism. It's invasively close, closer than anyone save the sculptor would have seen it--a point-of-view never intended. The modern gaze now is bent on breeching boundaries, and this extreme close-up does just that. Prophets require distance, not intimacy. My overly-close gaze achieves what the modernism, which Porter and her spouse had such optimism for, had done, beyond their idealism: it shows the flaws, the cobwebbed neglect, and a certain weariness in the subject at its weaknesses becoming a more significant revelation than the human weaknesses it warned of. The Jeremiah was not created to be an aesthetic object, but to embody a message, and, in 20th century art history and beyond, the medium has quite decidedly supplanted the message.




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