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Sara Rawlinson’s FOCUSED on King’s College Chapel

FOCUSED is a collection of photographic and poetic musings from within King’s College Chapel, Cambridge: the result of my tangible and visceral adventures within this living, breathing, monumental, sacred space. Throughout two years, I had the chance to discover wonder, meditation, and serenity within this spiritual and historic English treasure.

I reflect that I’ve lived in this lovely little town for about four years. Before this, I lived in the wilds of Scotland, and before that, Australia. Before moving to Cambridge, my knowledge about it was a lot like most people’s: a small town hosting an incredibly famous historic university. I also moved to Cambridge at a crossroads in my life. I was on the tail end of a career change from science to photography. While up in wild Scotland, I had spent much time honing my nature photography skills, so Cambridge provided me with a bit of a conundrum. Quickly solved, I thought up the Illuminating Cambridge Libraries photograph series. In this series, I aimed to photograph one library from each of the 31 colleges of the University – to get to know my new hometown better, as an homage to my career in academia, and to have a photographic series I could really sink my teeth into. The series was a success in many ways with several exhibitions along the way and a final monograph book (that received Honourable Mention in the 2020 Int’l Photo Awards for Self-Published Book and several photos the same award in Historic series category), but it also afforded me a glimpse into the history of libraries – which is precisely how this FOCUSED series came about. 

While photographing the Victorian-aged library at King’s College, I learned that the earlier King’s library had been in the now-vestries of their chapel since the early days of the college (founded in 1441). I was offered the opportunity to photograph these rooms and their still in-situ bookcases. I found myself being invited by the Dean of Chapel to create an entirely new photographic series on King’s Chapel alone. 

Photographing King’s College Chapel is not easy. While the space and its vastness are overwhelming – remember: world’s largest fan vaulted ceiling – a lot of patience is required. The chapel is actually pretty dark at the ground level and shines up high with the windows – tricksy to get the exposure just right for those floor+window shots (no, I don’t bracket-then-stack; each photo is a single exposure). Indeed, most days I found myself waiting more than photographing: waiting for the sun to shine or corners to darken, for candles to light, for fog to move. If the sun had forgotten to shine on a given day, I’d prepare for long exposures; if not, I’d spend a few hours chasing dancing colours around the room. 

My photographic process itself is a bit of a gentle meander, just strolling around the room quietly – searching, hunting, stretching up on my tiptoes, crouching down on my knees, until “Ah! Found one.” Set tripod height, exposure, focus. I click. Readjust tripod, exposure, refocus, click. Something else would catch the corner of my eye, over there. Stroll, tripod, exposure, focus, click. And onwards. It’s all rather meditative, mentally and physically focusing from one shot to the next – creating a meandering yet focused visual dissertation on one room.

Throughout the series, two major opportunities arose. The first was the opportunity to shoot from in a cherry picker – and overcoming my fear of heights! The day arrived and up up up we went. The cherry picker driver helped me through my initial nervousness and, thankfully, some comic relief arrived after a few short minutes when we accidentally set off the smoke alarm, after which I became much more comfortable. My camera snapped away as much as possible, but time was limited. We were near the organ itself, so I took some shots of the west end door and detailed shots of the rood screen and organ pipes. Nearly a year later, the cherry picker was at the west door and I was able to photograph the entire length of the chapel from approximately 20 meters up. We stayed up for a while waiting for the sun to shine through the clouds. Dratted English clouds never cooperated, but I suppose one could argue that it adds a bit of English authenticity. Several of these cherry picker photos were shortlisted in Historic Photographer of the Year 2018 and 2019 and received Honourable Mention at the 2020 Int’l Photo Awards in two categories Historic and Architecture.

The second opportunity arose from my eyes being bigger than my, well, camera! I wanted a side view photograph of three bays of the chapel and my camera just couldn’t manage it. I asked a few of the camera companies for a one-week loan to be able to take the image – and I was delighted that Hasselblad said yes (the other four I had asked said no, or didn’t even reply). I borrowed their X1DmII field kit and was able to take the desired photo. During the same week, a special candlelit service would occur on two nights in the Chapel and I was allowed to shoot the candles. This was certainly a special occurrence. I would set up at 3:45pm and take a practice shot with half of the candles lit, and then I had to just sit patiently and wait until the end of the choir rehearsal at 5:14pm. Normally the choir exits at 5:15pm while the public find their seats, choir re-enters 15 minutes later for the service. On these two nights, the vergers held the public back for one minute, between 5:14-5:15pm so that I could take the shots with all candles lit. These were two magnificently exhilarating minutes of my life that I’ll never forget. The candlelit shots received Honourable Mention at the 2020 Int’l Photo Awards in two categories Historic and Architecture.

I think the strength of a photographic series lies in its cohesiveness, its beauty, its curation, but also in its possibilities. Despite photographing at King’s Chapel for two years, I must confess that I never tired of it, and there are still photos I want to take. I guess that will be for volume two!

Please consider supporting the artist by having a look at the book 

https://www.sararawlinson.com/p/focused-book/

and the virtual exhibition

https://www.sararawlinson.com/c/sacred-sites/kings-college-chapel/

All photographs were created and presented with thanks to The Reverend Dr Stephen Cherry, Dean of Chapel, and by kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge. Thanks to Colin, Hasselblad, and many others. Please see the full acknowledgements in the book.

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