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Interview: Matthew Byrne, photographer

by
23 April 2021

‘The art and architecture of churches was my window into the sublime’

It’s a love and an interest: I’m an amateur in the strict sense of the word. I was a chemistry lecturer, with lots of freedom to work in the holidays. Long summer vacations gave me time to explore England and come back with rolls of films to be developed.
 

I’ve always been aware of marvellous, historic, and awe-inspiring churches, both as sites of great beauty and historic curiosity — but also as sites of Christian worship, which is an important part of my life. I noticed that many hadn’t been photographed in a way that they truly merited, and it was something I could do.
 

The main technical challenges of church photography relate to light and contrast levels. Interiors can have very low light-levels generally, with areas of glaring brightness around windows making some areas far too dark and others over-exposed. Sometimes, it’s hard to frame large interiors from the right angle or vantage point. Sometimes, you’re too cramped to get an ideal position.
 

I read extensively beforehand, do a recce for an hour or two with a little view-finder like film directors use, choosing their film shots and angles; and then composing the photo can take between 15 and 30 minutes. I’ve visited thousands of churches, photographed 500 or 600 of them, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society for my work.
 

When I decided to take up photography seriously, I obtained a camera suitable for architectural work: a Linhof medium-format film camera, which allows for a lot of lens movement and long exposures, mounted on a tripod. I’ve had it for 30 to 40 years, and it’s beautifully made, with precision-made lenses. It’s wonderful at absorbing an atmosphere gradually — a single exposure can take up to 15 minutes. It copes excellently with high levels of contrast. It produces 6x7cm transparencies.
 

It’s always mounted on a tripod so the camera’s level, but you can raise up the lens with a knob to give you perspective control or lens movement to get perfectly vertical verticals. A church tower that’s toppling backwards shows you what’s there, but it’s not a good photograph.
 

I’ve certainly scaled plenty of spires and galleries over the years, but I’m restricted by the weight of my camera. Most of my photography is taken at ground level, often looking upwards so I can capture the scale. I don’t have anything corresponding to a very long telephoto lens that new cameras have. I use just three lenses: normal, wide-angle, and telephoto. You always have some limitations with whatever you use, really.
 

I started out with interchangeable film backs to take black-and-white and colour, and really enjoyed developing my own black-and-white photos. You can get atmospheric effects with black-and-white: marvellous effects that you can’t get in colour film. But I decided, eventually, just to produce colour transparencies, which you can view yourself or put in a projector.
 

I don’t use digital technology, but the publishers obviously digitise my photos; so the digital and non-digital worlds can be complementary and beneficial.
 

My first three books were photographic portraits of specific churches, each chapter devoted to one church. The Treasures of English Churches is thematic and covers wall-painting, stained glass, monuments, and interesting oddities from as early as the eighth century up to the 21st. You can visually explore and enjoy a wide range of approaches to the sublime across different eras and styles.
 

I’d like to encourage people who don’t usually attend churches to be inspired about our social spiritual and architectural history. If you’ve explored parish churches over a long period of time, you’ve explored England. I have a particular love of England. I’m moved by the ways in which the lives of ordinary people as well as the great and the good are recorded in English churches. Churches have always been centres for ordinary people in the past, and for many still in the present.
 

Churches bring together the human as well as the divine. They chart the highs and lows of human experiences. Faith, loss, and hope are emotions everyone can resonate with.
 

I’m hoping to spark more curiosity about this — and history in general — through vivid, interesting photos, and a text that goes beneath the surface and explains their significance. I’ve included very famous stained glass from the 12th century right up to memorials to soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the two world wars.
 

I’ve described this book in terms of a restaurateur’s tasting menu. I’m keen to explore and develop this in further volumes. Stone-vaulted and wooden roofs and spires and towers merit more attention, for example.
 

But I’m growing to hate motorway traffic. Another problem is that I’ve always used Kodak Ektachrome film, which copes superbly with the very high contrast light-levels with windows or white marble monuments, but Kodak’s stopped production. I’ve tried other films, but they’re hopeless.
 

Churches are a real source of joy: visually, intellectually, emotionally; where history, theology, and everyday life coincide, set in wonderfully varied landscapes.
 

My favourites? It’s impossible to choose, really. Impossible. The grand ancient churches are very splendid. . . But it’s the remote churches that never got the Victorian makeover, with box pews and stone-flagged floors, that I really love. Or churches deep inside the parks of 18th-century stately homes, built as eye-catchers from the house. You’re entering the world of Jane Austen in these remarkable places.
 

I devoted a chapter on these 18th-century churches — typically little Greek temples, which sometimes even arrogantly replaced the parishioners’ own churches — in a book for the Churches Conservation Trust.

 

As part of a devout Christian family, I regularly visited churches from Cornwall to Cumbria, on holidays in England. I have childhood memories of Cornish granite churches in windswept locations close to the Atlantic. My first photos were holiday snaps taken on a Kodak Brownie box camera. The art and architecture of churches was my wonderful window into the sublime, and I still find a great deal of spiritual nourishment there.
 

My local parish has been my mainstay. I’ve lived in the Liverpool area most of my life; so there has been much continuity between the buildings that have mattered to me over the years. Like art and architecture, church music helps me worship, and attending choral evensong is something I’m especially looking forward to again.
 

I’m grateful to the churchwardens and custodians who show tremendous trust in leaving churches open to visitors, but I feel great anger towards those who abuse this trust with theft and vandalism, and that often means that churches are kept shut.
 

Writing the book in lockdown kept me sane. Selecting the photos from my huge library was a solace, and filled many lonely days. I revisited many wonderful places in my mind.
 

I’m looking forward to participating in the eucharist and enjoying the fellowship of other parishioners again. I’m a member of a close community which has a strong sense of service to others.
 

I hope communities will change for the better, and compassion will be more central to how we live our lives.
 

Where I live, I can hear the peal of bells from a Victorian church about half a mile away from my garden and when I have the windows open. I’m often reminded of A. E. Housman’s poem “Summertime on Bredon”, from the anthology A Shropshire Lad. They give me the feeling of a Sunday morning in the English countryside.
 

True prayer should be bringing my mind and heart into unity with the mind and heart of God.
 

John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner are my companions on visits to churches through their writings, which I often take with me on visits. It would be enjoyable to take part in their discussions if I could be locked in a church with them — one being an analytical mind and one more emotional. Or could I be locked up in St Paul’s Cathedral with Christopher Wren?

 

Dr Matthew Byrne was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Treasures of English Churches is due out next month, published by Shire Books in association with the National Churches Trust, a national, independent charity dedicated to supporting church buildings across the UK, at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-1-78442-489-3.

Forthcoming Events

20 September 2021
Online book launch: Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer
Author Jarel Robinson-Brown in conversation with Rev. Winnie Varghese.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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