Light and Stone: The Photography of Frederick Evans
In the age of smart phones equipped with tiny yet powerful camera lenses, and instant photo sharing through social media, we tend to take photography as an art for granted. It has become an entertaining hobby for the masses, a quick and easy way to document life. If the proliferation of selfies in the past two decades is anything to go by, it has even become an addiction for some. Photography wasn’t always so quick and easy. When it was still an activity in which only a moderate number of people partook—most of them professionals and ardent hobbyists—Frederick Henry Evans learned the craft specifically to capture images of poetic beauty, light, and tranquility.
Evans was born in 1853 and died two days short of his 90th birthday in 1943. He was an English bookseller who took up photography in middle age. He felt strongly that negatives should not be altered at all and was part of the Pictorialist movement, which was concerned with making artistic photographs that often contained or suggested symbols and metaphors and could lead to an emotional response in the viewer. He was inspired by Joseph Mallord William Turner’s watercolor paintings of cathedrals and wanted to make similar images using the camera. In fact, Evans’ legacy as a photographer is based primarily on his images of medieval cathedrals in France and England, especially the way he captured the effects of light in and on said buildings. Some of his more notable photographs include “A Sea of Steps”—Wells Cathedral: Stairs to the Chapter Houseand Westminster Abbey: Apse and Altar from Choir.
The image that I would like to offer as an example, however, is Evans’ turn-of-the-century photograph titled Lincoln Cathedral: Stairs in S.W. Turret. Simple as it may seem, it is a beautifully haunting image which represents an ethereal stillness and silence. There is little in the image to date it, which makes its depiction of a cathedral stairwell seem eternal. In addition, the only physical objects in the photograph are the stones comprising the stairwell masonry. The rest is light, shadow, and atmosphere.
The image measures approximately ten inches tall by six inches wide and was made using the photogravure process. The tight spiral staircase at the center of the image is framed by an entryway into the turret. The viewer gravitates to the heart of the picture through this clever compositional framing and the diagonal perspective of the molding at the right. The left set of stairs, illuminated near its base by sunlight from an unseen window, becomes obscured in shadow as the eye moves upward. The stairs on the right, hidden yet implied, are canopied by pointed arches. The photo exhibits a soft, grainy texture with a wide range of warm, grayish values. Repetition of line and form help unify the composition and give it a sense of harmony. The echoing arches, alternating in a contrasting pattern of light and dark, create a crescendo-like effect. A similar area of contrast exists where the well-lit wall at left meets the almost pitch-black staircase and creates a stark, vertical line that leads the eye up and down the steps. These light and dark areas, in the manner of chiaroscuro often employed by Evans, help make the image dramatic and visually interesting.
But why take a picture of a cathedral staircase? Was Evans simply interested in recording every architectural detail of an important and historic church? Yes, but more than that, he sought to photograph cathedrals for their beautiful, poetic qualities, not just for purposes of documentation. As Evans once remarked, “It is the beautiful rather than the antiquarian aspect that attracts me [to making photographs of cathedrals],” which he referred to as “poems in stone.” This visual lyricism is evident in the careful approach Evans used to compose the image, paying special attention to the lighting, the way “space within space” is represented, and the repetition of forms. The time and dedication he spent on his work, in waiting for just the right effect, may be likened to how a poet focuses intently on trying to find just the right word or phrase to create a certain literary effect.
So what can one glean from this carefully captured image? I’d like to propose a few interpretations of this simple and serene scene. First is a basic sacramental view which says that the combined light and stone symbolize the spiritual nature hidden in or connected to ordinary material things. Lincoln Cathedral was built, not as a purely functional space, but as a truly sacred space, meant to house and point to eternal realities, a place where heaven and earth collide. Evans’ photography reminds us that all manmade cathedrals, however magnificent, are only shadows of the true temple, the Lamb of God, who gives light to the New Jerusalem as its lamp. Jesus, the “sun of justice,”and “the light of the world,” removes the darkness of sin we encounter in our daily lives. Unlike the sun and stones of this transient world, God’s light and God’s temple last forever.
Evans’ depiction of stairs also gives rise to ideas about ascending and descending. The stairs may represent one’s spiritual journey since stairs are used to move from one place to another. In the photograph, one must go down towards the right to reach the light since the light source stems from that direction. Because of the sense of uplift created by the crescendoing arches, the message here may be paradoxical—that to rise, one must first descend, just as our Savior Jesus Christ did and commands us to do. To be the greatest, one must become the least.
As previously stated, the photograph does not explicitly depict the entire staircase. The unseen stairs to the right, which may represent the uncertainties of the future, solicit a response of faith in order to face them. However, it is not just blind faith that leads us forward. Thanks be to God, we have been blessed with an illuminated faith, symbolized by the sunlight streaming into the stairwell. God has promised to be with us always and has given us all we need for the journey by means of the sacraments, the saints, and many other channels of grace. We need not be afraid to take that step into the unknown, for God has gone before us and continues to journey with us.
Similarly, when we feel tired and defeated, He invites us to rest in Him who is the “precious cornerstone,” our “sure foundation.” Just as we might need to pause in the middle of a long, winding staircase to catch our breath, sometimes we need to bask in God’s light before we can carry on. With his deceptively simple, highly artistic photography, Frederick Evans invites us to rest on the way, to go deeper in our contemplation of God and the things of God, and to enjoy the peace that His stillness instills in us.
Come to him, a living stone,rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God,and, like living stones, let yourselves be builtinto a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it says in scripture: “Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion, a cornerstone, chosen and precious,and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame.”
Therefore, its value is for you who have faith, but for those without faith: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone that will make people stumble, and a rock that will make them fall.” They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny. But you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises” of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
1 Peter 2:4-9