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Photography review: The English Cathedral by Peter Marlow at Portsmouth Cathedral

23 August 2019

Katy Hounsell-Robert views Peter Marlow’s art photos and learns about the process of creating them

© peter marlow

Portsmouth Cathedral photographed by Peter Marlow in “The English Cathedral”

Portsmouth Cathedral photographed by Peter Marlow in “The English Cathedral”

PETER MARLOW’s idea of photographing 42 English cathedrals began in a small way with postage stamps when he won a Royal Mail commission to photograph in black-and-white the interior of seven British cathedrals for commemorative stamps to mark the 300th anniversary in 2008 of the completion of St Paul’s Cathedral.

He was already a highly successful photographer and member of the International Co-operative Magnum Photos, initially news reporting in Lebanon and Northern Ireland, and then photographing people and events all over the world: his portraits, which included Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, were highly acclaimed.

He once wrote: “I go for photography that overlays and enhances. By blending observation and wit with reason, I want my work to generate a sense of the unexpected, the hidden and the seemingly spontaneous.”

As a student, Marlow had been inspired by the pictures of cathedrals by the American photographer Walker Evans, most famous for his work on the Depression, and, his enthusiasm rekindled by the stamp experience, Marlow set out in 2010 to photograph the naves of all the Anglican cathedrals in England to form a book, The English Cathedral. An exhibition of these photos is now to be seen in Portsmouth Cathedral, one of the lightest, brightest, and art-friendliest cathedrals, with its bare white walls, pillars, and huge clear-glass windows.

The exhibition is set out alphabetically in an arc shape with each photo 50 x 40 cm on its own wooden stand. Like viewing 42 famous people in history standing side by side, it is quite awesome seeing each great building, many founded in Anglo-Saxon times as abbey churches, rebuilt after the Norman conquest to survive the Reformation, the Civil War, and two world wars, and still be there physically and spiritually for its city and its worshippers.

The architecture in the photos is in perfect focus, and the colours and textures of materials, paint, polished wood, and stone are clear and true, as in the blues and reds of Birmingham’s stained glass, the green of Graham Sutherland’s tapestry in Coventry, Portsmouth’s bright-blue organ panels, and Hereford’s warm brown pews and golden corona. Some larger cathedrals appear austere without their side chapels, banners, and fountains on view, but retain a dark simple dignity.

Marlow planned his work meticulously. He studied in details the history and layout of the cathedral. He sent endless messages to each Dean and Chapter explaining his needs and asking permission to enter the church before 6 a.m. and have all the lights off, using the early sunlight filtering through the window. He would use his reliable Sinaron F1 monorail camera, Sinaron w115mm f6.8 lens using a small aperture f22 to f32 and Fuji pro negative colour film 100 ASA.

But there were difficulties. It was rarely possible to park his car, which carried the heavy 6ft ladder, trip, and other equipment, near the cathedral. Then church life did not always fit round this resolute perfectionist, who wanted all lights off for a considerable period and a nave without people; for each shot could take between one to five minutes, depending on the light.

At Chester, the cleaners swept in at 8 a.m. and turned all the lights on, and no one dared turn them off. At Peterborough, two men with air rifles were culling pigeons inside the cathedral; at Ripon, coachloads of Spanish tourists kept on crossing the nave; and in Coventry, he was invited to stop work to join the Dean in early morning prayer.

But to be alone in the cathedrals in those early mornings, when each one gradually came to life, was a deeply spiritual experience for Marlow. Although the visitors are viewing the exhibition later in the day in a busy environment, they seem to be feeling something of this, too.

“The English Cathedral” by Peter Marlow runs at Portsmouth Cathedral until 8 September. Further information at www.magnumphotos.com

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