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Why photographing sculpture rocks

You could reasonably ask, "If you like photographing sculptures of people so much, why not be a portraiture photographer? Aren't living people more exciting than a static piece of rock?" I don't particularly like photographing people: it feels invasive, if they're strangers; it feels nerve-wracking, if they are asking for me to portray them in a way that looks good. People are unique among photographic subjects in that they have opinions about how they look in the final product. But, that's not my real reason for loving to photograph sculptures of people instead of actual people. My real reason is that most sculptures of people are about ideas, not the individual subject. I like trying to understand the artist and his/her intended audience from looking at their work. What did s/he use that gesture, that face, to explain about the divine or the human condition? What story does the sculpture tell?

Grief and Tenderness

This is a 12th century sculptural group from Catalonia, Spain. It depicts the Deposition: the moment that Jesus' body is taken down from the cross. The Apostle John take hold of his body and his mother Mary grieves as it happens. Romanesque art was seldom portraiture. These figures are supposed to be larger-than-life, but also devastatingly human. I admire how spare the details are in this work, and how with a minimum of cuts so much emotion can be revealed. I'm surprised by the artist's choice to have Mary and John casting a downward glance, rather than looking up to Jesus. They are in their own world of grief. At the same time, Jesus, though dead, appears to be gazing down on them, in pity and love. His right arm, unrealistically elongated, reaches down toward the cupped hand of Mary, but she doesn't seem to see it. That same arm stretches over John, almost in an embrace--it frames John, but, again, he doesn't see. This is a painful, intimate moment, but for its intended audience it also is a visualization of a moment in a story of complete worldly and heavenly consequence. As a modern person, I would avert my eyes at such a display of personal pain in real life, but the sculpture is an invitation to see oneself as personally experiencing this moment, with the holy figures. It's immersive, and you're meant to stare, to contemplate, to relate it to your own emotional experience.

The Still Face of the Divine

Sculptures of gods with human faces and bodies can be captivating because, usually, they're a reach for super-human perfection. The Dama de Elche may represent an ancestor, or an idealized decedent, or a deity. She has a gaze that makes her seem to ignore those who view her; it's a look of internal thought. "Expressionless" isn't quite the right descriptor here--she's not reacting to anything before her, especially the viewer. Her face doesn't seem to have muscles; it's more like a mask. And yet, she's so detailed that it looks as though she could speak. The elaborate headdress further isolates her from her surroundings. The Deposition, above, has figures--holy figures--absorbed in great emotion; the Dama de Elche responds to another world, one unseen by us, where her physical perfection is a sign of that world's superiority.

Photographing this statue was a great experience because, as I moved around her in tight focus, I could see how each angle gave her a very different appearance, each one engaging.

If you stand directly where she is gazing, her eyes seem to be boring into your soul. They aren't passive at all. The sculpture is intending to represent something more than human.

The Empowered Pose

This votive figurine is from the Hellenistic Period, roughly 200 BC. She's about 9 inches high. Statuettes like these were mass-produced and sold at shrines, so that supplicants could leave an offering to the deity, along with their prayers. Like the much larger Dama de Elche piece, she has a gaze that does not directly engage the viewer. Because she is a full form of a woman, and not a bust, like the Dama, her posture and stance give us more information about how to regard her. She stands contrapposto, with her hand on her hip, and her face turned away from a frontal view. What I enjoyed about photographing her is that she is engaged with the world, but not concerned with viewer's gaze upon her. Her body appears poised for action, confident and not subservient. She's quite different from an Aphrodite figure, which is often depicted as vulnerable and unaware.

The Etruscan Spouses

The Etruscan spouses, by way of contrast to the votive figure above, represent mortals, but they are mortals in the afterlife, at a banquet. So, I guess, they are transcendent figures. They represent a husband and wife on a ceramic sarcophagus--life-sized. They embody their family's and their culture's wish for the afterlife: eternally at a banquet, at ease and in animated pleasure. These are not portraits of the deceased--they're an idealized generic, but the wish is to be free of age, pain, care. Their hands would have originally held a chalice (him) and a plate of food (her). Their faces, although not realistic, have very believable smiles, and their eyes seem alert. The couple on the sarcophagus would have been on eye-level with the visitors to the family tomb, and would evoke a memory of the departed, with a hope for their happiness beyond death. It's an unusual piece to have survive from antiquity, because it seems so informal. Unlike a depiction of a deity, this sculpture is meant to reassure and invite the viewer.

The sarcophagus is beautiful from all angles, but I really appreciate the least-intended view of it. From behind, there is still enough careful, realistic detail for them to evince an air of loving togetherness. His arm around his wife's shoulders, their similar hairstyles, and their shared gaze--now out into the corridor of the museum--give a sense of timeless companionship. I never get tired of photographing this piece.

Peter's Lamentation, Sagrada Familia

Modern sculpture often tries to isolate an emotion in broader, more abstract strokes. Subirach's sculptures on the Passion facade of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona might seem very alien at first glance, with the cubist-styled heads and minimal outlines of bodies. This figure of Peter, lamenting his third betrayal of Jesus, is all about the downward gesture of grief and defeat. He faces down, all of his features turn downward, his crumpled figure, from our on-the-ground perspective sweeps up, but then ends in where his neck and shoulders droop.

This side-view, taken at sunset, shows this sweep in a more-pronounced way. I find this sculpture deeply moving, even in though its execution is so blocky. It's as though emphasizing the fact of the stone composition in the piece makes Peter's grief more heavy and debilitating.


Stone can also be carved to look as though it escapes gravity. This sculpture, called "Hallelujah," by Ken Smith, manages to convey the heaviness of centuries of slavery, and the lifted weight of liberation. The figure is placed at a height where the viewer can easily look up through his freed hands to the wide-open sky, and it gives a feeling of sharing in a prayer of thanks. The joy and empowerment of the freed person is reinforced by giving the once-enslaved person monumental scale and elevation to a point where we look up to him. You can see this sculpture at the Whitney Plantation, near New Orleans.

Thorn-Puller, Wells Cathedral

Looking up, or, in this case, having a wandering eye, can be something a sculptor uses to advantage. In this case, at Wells Cathedral, on the Welsh border, this small figure is tucked up in a capital, among stiff-leaf foliage. Wells was a pilgrimage church, and so visitors traveled far to offer their devotion, and many of them were not people of means. So, this humble man, pulling a thorn from his foot, would be staring back at viewers who might themselves be achey and in distress. The viewer's attention should be on the service or whatever would be happening to the front of the church, but this small sculpture would be a kindly reflection of the recognition of the viewer and his/her suffering, in the grand scale of the cathedral. A cathedral, dedicated to grandeur in celebrating the great sacrifices of Jesus and the saints, might be quite daunting to a country traveler, and this figure places the person of little means and (relatively) minor suffering within the cathedral, belonging, but also in perspective.

Context Matters

A moment of serendipity at San Fermo, in Verona, brought me face-to-face with a sculpture of Jesus taken from his elevated spot in a side-chapel. He was being taken away for restoration work (note the restorer in her all-white work-clothes and latex gloves). He was designed to look down at the viewer compassionately from above, but when placed on the hand-truck in a reclining position, he looked surprisingly vulnerable, and astonishingly life-like. As with examples above, changing position of oneself in relation to the sculpture can change the way the gaze engages one.

A Modern Mary Magdalene

My favorite sculpture photo of all time is of a subject meant to pass as medieval. This Mary Magdalene appears in the trumeau supporting the famous Last Judgment tympanum at Autun Cathedral. Though nothing announces it anywhere, she's really from the late 19th century. The medieval original was destroyed in the intervening years, and well-meaning restorers made a sculpture that has several characteristics of Romanesque carving (the abstract ridges suggesting outlines of the body, but not being at all realistic), but couldn't hide their art nouveau inclinations. Look at that sinuous hair making arabesques and spirals all the way to her thighs! I've photographed her from several angles, but she came alive as the indirect light streamed through the porch where she's tucked inside, and hit her at side- rather than direct-view. Everything about her is elongation and curving--quite in harmony with the famous tympanum, but distinctly a modern piece. Where the original sculptures would have been vividly painted, this piece was meant to be viewed in chiaroscuro. She's a study in shadow and light.

Real people can make for stunning photos, but they are much harder to capture than statues, and full of endless messages and meanings. Sculpture gives a photographer like me time to focus and sort out my impressions. I'm grateful to the artists who can isolate just a few of the ways that gestures speak.

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Carolyn Whitson
Carolyn Whitson

This is an excellent point. Michelangelo's "David," for example, was originally placed in front of the main government building in Florence, facing the palace of the Medici family, who had huge influence in the city. It was a way for the other influential families to the most powerful family that they could be handled. The hands of the David are extra-large, so that the slingshot threat was clearly visible. Angle of view does, indeed, matter. The Getty Museum has a great book on photography and sculpture, although it may be too academic for most tastes:


I have recently read about the importance of trying to find the angle that would have been representative of how the sculpture was originally presented. Many are now at eye level, but when originally displayed were much higher often looking more menacing.

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