No. 59  May 2006
   The authoritative source on
  early churches of New Jersey

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We've created a database and photographic inventory on more than half the 18th & 19th century churches in the state and add to it each month. We welcome and solicit all contributions and suggestions from our visitors.

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Even a wide angle lens could not take in the entire steeple because I could not get far enough away from Trenton's First Presbyterian church.

 

The markings on the pavement are more important than the architectural details of the Mt Bethel Baptist church in Jersey City.

    

The overhead light of midday is usually not very good for architectural subjects, but in this case, it cast shadows that make this image of the Blawenburg Reformed church an effective one.

 

In this case, the Bloomsbury Presbyterian church is almost incidental to the image.

Strong contrast between the lighted portion of the Greenwich Orthodox Friends meeting house and the portion in shadow can be disastrous. Here it seems to work rather well.

  

I should apologize to the church, but the image was too strong to resist. Foregrounds often strengthen the image, even when they contribute little to our knowledge of the building's style.

By exaggerating the distortion, the image is strengthened. I could have moved way back and taken the steeple on the Methodist church in Clinton in its proper proportion, but that would have revealed little of the detail.

The yellow filter renders the sky quite accurately. An early spring or fall shot may have improved the composition a bit, but the foliage is not distracting. Rather than include a stop sign, power lines and a parked car, I chose to cut off the right edge of the Medford Baptist church.

The woman in the foreground averting her face (or holding her head in despair?) becomes more important than the First Methodist church in New Burnswick, but this remains a good representation of what the front of the church looks like.

Photographic notes

The purpose of this section is to (1) explain how the images in the inventory were shot and scanned, and (2) provide tips for others who are interested in photographing old buildings. The bulk of the text is an extended explanation of how and why I have approached photographing old churches in the manner I have. If you are not interested in understanding some of the reasons for the choices I've made, but simply want to point and click at old buildings, scroll down to the section on tips, where you may find a couple of things that could be helpful. If you are truly serious about photography, please check our new site at this address: http://thinklikeaphotographer.com

Photographs on this site
As of December 2005 I have photographed more than 1100 old churches over the last eight years and have amassed something on the order of 12,000 negatives, about half of them shot with a large format (4x5) view camera. In the last six months I have increasing used a 35mm digital camera (Nikon D70) because of the convenience. Until the last year, most images were taken with the idea that I would, at some point, make a silver print of the best of the images, stuff them in a box and forget about them. I have created a portfolio of 8-10 prints each year as gifts for my daughter and son and for a few friends, but I gave little thought, until recently, about wider dissemination, and most of the prints are unique.

After I had photographed 60-70 of the old churches in Hunterdon county, I began to think about making those images of the county's churchscape available to local historical groups, and, indeed, I created a CD-ROM which I gave to the county's Planning Board. The idea of a book on Hunterdon's early churches occurred to me, and I prepared several dummies in an attempt to fix the concept a little more firmly in my eye. I proposed the book to Rutgers University Press and they countered with a suggestion that the book include churches and synagogues from at least half the counties in the state. The result is The New Jersey Churchscape, which you can read about elsewhere on this website.

In February 2000, I outlined the plan for a website that would document all the 18th and 19th century churches of the state, displaying low resolution images that have been scanned in from exhibition-quality prints. But my primary orientation remained a "fine art photographer" rather than an architectural historian who displays his images on the web. The distinction is crucial, for if I were to take the latter approach, I would likely switch to a digital camera and skip several time-consuming steps that usually add little to the image quality that the user sees on his\her screen. To the genealogist or the casual reader, the intermediate step of a quality print makes little sense; a basic, straightforward image of the church is all that is needed, together with the location and phone number of the congregation. But an aggregation of snapshots is not what motivates me, so although I am increasingly making use of a digital camera, I'm likely to continue to use the 4 x 5 camera when the light is right and I like the building; where a church is clad in aluminum and I have little wish to make a fine image, I'd almost like to use a throwaway camera with a plastic lens.

One major concession I have made in the last year is to shoot more 35mm and to place more emphasis on getting a reasonably good image of a church in a reasonable period of time. In the past I have revisited some sites half a dozen times, in different light and at different seasons before I got an image I was satisfied with. Obviously, one who is intent on photographing all of the state's 1350 or so old churches must make some compromises if the task is to be finished in one lifetime. Moreover, I have gone more than a year before making prints of many of my 4x5 negatives, and that delay is not congruent with my intention to populate the photographic inventory as quickly as possible. Many of the initial images on the website were made from scanning a Polaroid print, and most of the recent ones were scanned directly from the negatives or are digital images to begin with (usually shot in Raw mode). Polaroid images have an astonishingly good tonal range, and more importantly, they are available immediately. I will eventually (probably) make a good silver print from a standard negative, but in the meantime, I doubt the web reader will know, or care, that I took a shortcut.

About half of the sites I have photographed have not yet made it to the web; the impediment is time, and making a print that can be scanned. Feature articles take priority so I often outline the article or theme, then find images to illustrate it; if I am missing an image, I hold the article until I have a chance to photograph the church I need. The issue on the state's remaining synagogues was held for many weeks until I could photograph synagogues in Atlantic City and Woodbine. A previous issue on the wooden Quaker meeting houses could not be completed until I had printed the meeting house in Dover; I still do not have all the images I want for the article on Akron plan churches. So to those who have sent me a friendly e-mail asking when I was going to get to a favorite church of theirs, I can only say I will get to it eventually. I do attempt to photograph the really old churches, the very interesting or the especially endangered ones as I learn of them, but I also now work an area systematically, rather than jump from county to county, taking a few shots here and a few there.

How the photographs were made (mostly)
Urban landscapes impose more constraints on the photographer than churches situated in small towns or at a rural crossroads— there are signs, traffic, parked cars and adjacent buildings that often limit the photographer from choosing the perspective he would prefer. That's part of the challenge. Even in a tight situation (a narrow street and a church with a tall steeple) the photographer usually has a couple of choices, depending on the time of day and the available lenses (my widest angle lens for the 4 x 5 camera is 90mm, equivalent to about a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera); for the Nikon I have a 10-18mm zoom, which is a really, really wide angle lens. My first step is to take my time, walking around the subject. Although I try to park close to the church, I often walk back a half block or more to see if I can improve the view, minimize the distortion, or include more ‘scape in the churchscape.

When I have made my initial choice, it's simply a matter of setting up the tripod, selecting the appropriate lens and then making adjustments in the camera position to include an interesting feature or exclude distracting elements. One of the reasons I moved to a large format camera years ago was to avoid the point and shoot approach that is too easy when you have a 35mm camera and lots of film. With the digital camera the tendency is even greater—even shooting at the highest resolution I have the capability of making 155 images on a single memory card . . . and I always have a spare memory card with me. Most of the time I spend is on composing the photograph; I hope that shows.

My purpose is not to document the site for preservation efforts or as an architectural historian, so I make little effort to shoot the full range: front elevation, side, 3/4 front, 3/4 rear, and rear. I simply look for an image which features any distinctive element in the church itself or in its setting. Sometimes a dramatic sky or the markings on the pavement is the real subject and the church simply the excuse. My prejudice against aluminum siding is so strong (because of the elimination of the texture of the clapboards, the cornice, dentils, etc.), that I rarely take more than a single image of a church that has been so desecrated. On the other hand, a building like the Mt. Salem Methodist church in Alexandria Township (Hunterdon), St. Mary's in Burlington, and the Seventh Day Baptist church in Plainfield have been photographed from multiple angles, with close-ups of details and broad ‘scape images.

I usually avoid shooting when the sky is clear, unless it is very early in the morning or late in the afternoon, but if I have traveled some distance, I try to get the important churches when the light is best and use the middle of the day for library research, interior shots or just scouting the territory. I have made many excellent images during midday, but the building generally fills the frame and I shoot from an angle that takes advantage of the overhead light.

I prefer to shoot in the early spring or late fall, when leaves are off the trees and the limbs and boughs impart their own architectural quality to the image. But obviously I don't hide indoors during the summer months; I will shoot a church and plan on returning later, noting that it would be measurably better if the view were not obstructed by leaves, although in many cases, one can take advantage of the framing afforded by the foliage.

Although I generally abhor parked cars (especially white ones), I usually don't mind power lines and traffic signals, and I welcome the opportunity to photograph when a scaffolding has been erected and the church is undergoing some renovation. If you are not going to manipulate the image in PhotoShop (I don't), look for ways to include the detritus of the times, as a means of fixing a date or simply documenting the scene as it existed on a certain date at the opening of the 21st century. I don't try to exclude elements that reveal when the photograph was made or to portray the church as it might have looked in the 1840s. Be honest with your viewers. If you want good examples, look at Atget, Walker Evans, David Plowden and George Tice. I love the work of Frederick Evans and Charles Marville, but their approach seems less suitable today for the kind of subjects I am doing.

Very few of my photographs include people, generally because I don't shoot Sunday at midmorning, but also because people are usually a distracting element. An exposure of a half second (common for me) means that most people will be blurred. But some images are helped by the presence of a person. For this image of a barred side door to the Clinton Avenue Reformed church in Newark, which was shot about 7:am, I used a 150mm lens with a yellow filter. I shot at an aperture of f32 and exposed it for 1/5 second. There is some detail in the shadows and texture even in the lightest area of the print. The film is TMAX 100, which I use for both 4x5 and 35 mm. That exposure gives me a fairly dense negative. I have noticed that dense negatives often do not scan as well as those that are a bit thin, so I generally now make two negatives—one about one stop larger than my standard. I use SilverFast as my scanning software.

Almost 70% of my images were made with a wide angle lens, about 25% with a normal (150mm lens) and the remainder with a 250mm or (rarely) a 400mm lens. Except in very low light or indoors, I almost always use a yellow filter, even on an overcast day. I rarely use an orange filter and never a red one, which makes the sky artificially black even at midday. Ansel could do it, but I don't care for my results. With the digital camera the only filter I use (sparingly) is a polarizing filter; I can generally get most of the effects I want from manipulating the curves and/or color balance in Photoshop.


Tips for the casual (black & white) photographer:

  • Note the position of the sun; if it isn't behind you or to your side, rethink the photograph carefully.
  • Note the shadows on the wall of the building; if they don't improve the image by accentuating texture or details, don't waste film; come back on an overcast day or wait until the sun goes down.
  • Check the sky; if there are no clouds, try to minimize the amount of sky in the picture (unless an expanse of clear sky is a way of emphasizing an important aspect of the building)
  • Check the edges of the image; if there are any bright objects (cars, signs, other reflections) change your position to eliminate them or decide how you will crop the image in the darkroom/photo editor.
  • If you have to point the camera up to get in all of the building, consider (1) using a wider lens, (2) moving way back and using a longer lens, (3) not trying to include everything—cut off part of the steeple if you must, or (4) moving in closer and really exaggerating the distortion.
  • Include interesting details in the foreground, e.g., pavement markings, a piece of junk, a gravestone, etc. then check your depth-of-field so all is in sharp focus.
  • Look for an interesting composition, don't simply photograph a building. Don't let the subject (the building) take over. The totality of the scene, including sky, foreground, etc. is more important than the building itself.
  • Keep the horizon level and the verticals vertical. Use a tripod and a spirit level, even with 35 mm camera.
  • Have your best images enlarged, then study them carefully, starting with the edges. Are there distracting elements or bright areas at the edges of the image? Are you tight enough on the major subject? Is there a principal element that gives the image a center-of-interest? Is there detail in the shadowed portions and some texture in the bright areas?
  • Return to the same scene and shoot it again in different light, from a different angle; include more of the surroundings in one shot, then move in tight on some detail. Explore one building from as many perspectives and under different lighting conditions as you can. That will help you develop a repertoire of approaches to other buildings.

Following those tips (they are not rules) will not guarantee a great photograph, but they will largely eliminate the most common mistakes I have seen in students' photographs.

 

 

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Copyright (c) 2001 Frank L. Greenagel