Symphony of light and color: Cathedral of St. Helena
Story and photos by Gordon Sullivan
I entered through a set of huge oak doors. As I made my way down the main aisle under a spectacular Gothic canopy rising more than 40 feet above the marble floor, a remarkable beauty greeted and surrounded me.
It was the first time I visited the Cathedral of St. Helena as a professional photographer. It was an astounding sight in many ways.
To either side, marble pillars stretched heavenward while balancing delicate arches between their girths. The entire scene was bright and colorful.
Despite the hugeness and staggering dimension of it all, the cathedral exhibits elegant symmetry portraying a feeling of strong balance and artistic flow. It’s much like individual notes that drift across a sheet of music to create the genesis for a precious symphony or a solitary stroke of an artist’s brush across an empty canvas that may be the first of an ageless masterpiece.
Still, everything in sight seemed to be somehow upstaged by glowing stained-glass windows containing tiny slivers of light. Bordering the aisle, long rows of hand-carved oak pews were illuminated by the colorful spectrum flowing wavelike toward the alter. It felt as though I had entered an artistic cocoon, a special place where hundreds of converging elements united in a lasting opus, a visual symphony of light and color.
Gordon Sullivan answered some questions about his work inside the Cathedral of St. Helena. Here’s what he had to say about photographing the beautiful space:
What was your initial inspiration for A Symphony of Light and Color?
For years as I traveled Montana as an outdoor photographer and I oftentimes found myself in Helena. It was on one of these occasions that I first visited the Cathedral of St. Helena and was blown away by the remarkable beauty I found inside the church. I also first witnessed the intriguing light that seems to set everything aglow.
As the years passed, I visited often and became interested in the special patterns of light that drifted throughout the interior, light emitted by the stained glass windows. The more I watched, the more apparent it became that the stained-glass light, depending on the time of day, time of year or outside climate, was always changing and seldom remained static.
Within minutes, depending on exactly which panel of stained glass the light passed, the scene inside the cathedral shape shifted in either a very subtle or very dramatic way and each time it did, the overall ambient light was effected.
At times, the windows caused an array of color spectrums to spread throughout the interior as the sun made its way across the sky. These bands of color were very visible and interesting as they reflected off different features throughout the interior.
That was when I got the idea of trying to capture the light photographically and attempting to portray the outstanding beauty it added to everything it touched.
Very few places will you find natural light altered so intensely, so dramatically.
As long as I have been a photographer I have been a student of light and no place I know better demonstrates the quality, tone and movement of light across a scene as does the cathedral.
Tell us about the time it takes to get shots like you did.
Once I set my sights on photographing the stained glass light, I first needed to study the patterns and determine what time of day or year would best demonstrate the effect I was after. This took some time and several dry runs and more or less pointed to times when the outside light was at its greatest angle to the windows. Mid-morning and late afternoon seemed to be prime – especially for the visible bands of light falling on inside attractions like marble pillars, oak pews and high contrast walls.
Working inside the Cathedral of St. Helena requires both patience and planning, simply because a few special shots appear only during certain times during the day and in some cases vanish at a moment’s notice. Some of the shots were planned very carefully while others seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Whenever I photographed inside the cathedral, no matter what time of day, I tried to compose images that in some way suggested movement or the advancement of light across cathedral’s interior. I felt the suggestion of movement added to the whole project.
To make the project a bit more complicated it required the use of slow shutter speeds— sometimes one to five seconds per exposure. A sturdy tripod along with gadgets like an electronic shutter release, mirror lock up and even a polarizing filter were necessary. The polarizing filter helped define or brighten the muted color spectrums but also slowed exposures down considerably. Also, a lower ISO (100) setting was used to help expand overall color rendition.
I would say that for every image saved on the original digital file ten or twenty were deleted simply because they failed to suggest movement or failed to accentuate muted color passing through the stained-glass.
How much time did you spend inside the cathedral?
It’s hard to say just how much time it took to build the cathedral file simply because the task eventually became one of those photographic challenges more pleasurable than painful.
Catching the right light at the right time is actually what successful photography is all about. Some of the shots went very quickly and were a matter of straight forward composition while others took a lot more planning just to get everything right. Most of the time was spent in planning as opposed to actual shooting, but it all turned out to be very enjoyable.
Of the many, many hours spent inside the cathedral over the years, I can say with a degree of certainty that many more hours were spent studying the light, watching it drift across a wall, or fade inside a dark corner than were spent behind a camera trying to capture it.
From a photographer’s perspective, what makes St. Helena so unique?
There are any number of features that make St. Helena’s so photographically unique. There’s the outstanding structural beauty and special patterns of illumination at work inside the church, the marvelous artistic ambiance enhanced by a century of existence and there’s the fascinating human story based on remarkable artisans and religious leaders. But for me, as a professional photographer, the most outstanding feature revolves around stained-glass light and the sublime tone it casts on marble, polished brass and carved oak. It is the technical challenge this type of light presents and the pleasure of seeing each image suddenly duplicated electronically for others to see.
Do you have a favorite portion of stained glass inside the cathedral?
I guess I have two favorite portions of stained glass inside the cathedral. The first is located on the southeast corner. Here low angle, morning light is particularly interesting. The stained-glass panels featured in this section, from both the higher and lower levels, spread illumination across the interior in colorful bands. It lights up the east facing side of marble pillars and walls and sweeps nicely across the oak pews.
Another of my favorites is the stained-glass panel behind the grated back-alter and crucifix. Here a mixture of brass and stained-glass is vibrant and provides a sense of texture, depth and physical dimension. This panel however is best photographed in low light, allowing just enough illumination of accent color without getting bright enough to wash out detail. Both areas require long exposures, tight metering and a tripod.
What is the best time of day for readers who visit the cathedral to see the splendor of the stained-glass?
The best time of day to visit and witness the splendor of stained-glass light is when the sun’s outside angle is at its greatest, which means early to mid-morning or late afternoon. Morning light enters from the east and in afternoon it comes from the west. The sharper the angle, the better the reflections inside the church and the more possible it will be for the illumination to be contrasted by interior shadows. Best time of year is autumn or early winter.
Another very special “mind blowing” time to visit is the last hour before sunset when the exterior light is low, warm and angled. It is almost unbelievable what goes on inside the cathedral during a vivid sunset. The effect is quick but very impressive.