By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia
Forget the concept of six degrees of separation. Ever dealt with fifteen degrees of separation? Yes? No? Maybe?
We’re talking fifteen degrees Celsius, though. Let me explain.
Sunday 21 January was a scorcher in Sydney. The temperature topped out at 38 degrees.
Monday 22 January, however, was an entirely different story altogether. 23 degrees. Completely overcast. Thick cloud obscured the sun all day. Not even one solar beam penetrated the cloud cover.
Therein lay the problem.
The group photograph of all those attending the JCAP (Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific) Major Superiors Assembly was due to be taken at 10am on Monday morning. Obviously, it was incumbent on me to scout locations around the spacious grounds of Peter Canisius House in Pymble. With plenty of greenery and a variety of tree species, I had multiple choices but I knew I would have to see what the sunlight-versus-shade equation was like on the day before the scheduled shoot.
So at 7am on the Sunday, when there was still dew on the grass, I was in location scouting mode. By about 7.30, I had carefully chosen four or five prospective spots, photographing each one so that I knew exactly where the shade was. A further check at 9am ruled out one of the locations because of light intensity and another because of dappled light and shade which would have cast uneven shadows across the faces of the group.
A great deal of the hundreds of thousands of images I’ve shot over the years are instinctive, but like any photographer, I know the value of preparation. This Scout-like attitude of being prepared has characterised shots I’ve taken from the sweltering tropics to the frozen north; from sun-swept beaches to permanently snow-capped mountains.
So at 10am on Sunday, exactly 24 hours before the shot was due to be taken, I went through the remaining locations with Fr Pierre Belanger SJ from the Curia Communications Office in Rome. I showed him each spot I had chosen, and we went through their respective merits.
But now, I was strongly drawn to an option I had actually discarded earlier. Visually, it was a completely different approach, a rotation of 90 degrees whereby I abandoned the idea of a dark green background of trees and dense shrubbery, instead using the main building as the backdrop. Because I always believe in the merits of “seeing” the option through a camera lens rather than just relying on human line of sight, I took a test shot of how I envisaged the composition.
I showed the image to Pierre and he immediately gave me a thumbs-up. This was it.
While the shade was mottled rather than deep and even, no one would be squinting at the sun, which was still hidden behind the trees. There was enough width for me to have a large group standing in the shade, with a narrow, gently curved pathway behind them to soften the composition. There was an interesting variety of shrubs and trees to both left and right of the frame, with an interesting variance in leaf tones and hues.
As a firm believer in using visual cues in the line of sight, I was immediately drawn to the strong summer light on the brick building, the sloping tiled roof and the windows. But the architectural piece de resistance was the presence of four arches along an exterior corridor where the strong light created striking semi-circular shadows on the wall. To top it all off, I would devote the top 15 per cent of the frame to a striking blue sky that would be emphasised by the silhouette of a far-reaching branch of an oak tree.
Ah, perfection! Pierre and I were delighted with our preparation.
But fast-forward 24 hours and the plan had gone down the gurgler.
No blue sky. Just a thick, foreboding grey expanse. Now the branch looked intrusive, instead of adding visual appeal. There was no sunlight emphasising the beautiful brickwork. And the corridor had no shadows cast by the arches. Still, the shot had to be taken.
Everyone lined up. They all smiled. I took the shot. But the many wonderful elements that had presented themselves the previous day had completely vanished as if they had been fleetingly conjured up in the form of some capricious mirage.
That was when it struck me. It was all my fault. With so much Jesuit power in one place, I should have asked them to pray for a little sunlight. You could say it was my little moment of photographic enlightenment. C’est la vie.