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Phil Douglis | all galleries >> Galleries >> Gallery Fourteen: Expressing the meaning of buildings and structures > The Abbey, Mont St. Michel, France, 2004
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The Abbey, Mont St. Michel, France, 2004

Crowned by its medieval abbey, Mont St. Michel rises from a small, quasi-island, separated by one kilometer of waves from the mainland at high tide. A village, established in the Middle Ages, grew up below its fortified walls. Its ramparts and location repelled all assaults and the Mount became a symbol of French national identity.
I had to struggle to make an expressive interpretation of Mont St. Michel, because every shot I made of it looked just like a perfect post card. There is nothing wrong, of course, with a post card picture, but that is not what I try to make. (If I wanted post cards, I would buy them.) In fact, an earlier version of this image was just such a post card. It was well composed, well exposed, and showed viewers exactly what this famous historical landmark looked like. It was identical to this image in every respect but one – it did not have a tiny cloud hovering just behind the Abbey’s soaring steeple. That tiny cloud makes all the difference between a literal picture and an expressive picture. One small cloud in a vast blue sky is a scale incongruity. And to have it float directly behind the steeple atop the spiritual heart of France, is another incongruity. Not to mention a powerful symbol. Somebody up there must be watching over the Abbey today. Providing a bit of additional context for what I consider to be almost a supernatural moment, is the almost completely shadowed house on the left playing against the old stone wall on the right. The more I look into the blackness, and think of its symbolic meaning, the more I think of all of those dead souls who once lived in this haunting village. What had been a literal, descriptive post-card picture, now expresses an idea, and I believe expresses it well.

Leica Digilux 2
1/500s f/6.7 at 7.0mm iso100 full exif

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Phil Douglis05-Apr-2005 04:49
Thanks, Benchang, for making this comment. This is a layered image. To me, the foreground contrast between the deeply shadowed "ghost" building and the stone wall facing it, is as important to expression as the historic medieval abbey of Mont St. Michel itself and the mysterious single cloud behind its steeple. The old house, with its two windows as a focal point, is an important transitional zone as well. Each layer adds its own meaning to the whole. If any of them were missing, the picture would not be able to tell the story it does.
Benchang Tang 05-Apr-2005 00:44
You did make a great vantage point for this picture. With the help of the narrow lane in the foreground the castle appears remote to the viewer, in terms of time as well. I also like the darkened area which due to the reflection from the gright wall opposite to it(?) still show some detail and not dead dark. The strong contrast of the two areas give me a sense of three-dimension.
Phil Douglis01-Nov-2004 17:24
Jim, It is always a joy for to know that the French enjoy my images of France, the Chinese enjoy my images of China, and the Americans enjoy my images of Yosemite. Photography is a universal language and it embraces all cultures. I always try to find the extraordinary within the ordinary, as I do here. Thank your for your response and encouragement.
Jim Chiesa01-Nov-2004 10:15
Phil, this is a very pleasant image and a unique view of this monument. I can assure you that this place has been photographed a thousand million times but I've never seen it from this angle. An excellent surprise to me and I'm sure that it will please the french people !
Best Wishes.
Phil Douglis30-Oct-2004 05:42
Thank you, Anna -- I wish there was a person or a cat in that window, but I will settle for the ghosts that mut live in the darkness of the left hand building. Your comment on perspective is the key. I walked for a half hour around that island looking for a place where a meaningful perspective would lead the eye to the Abbey on the hill. This was that spot. The little cloud then came across the sky and when it reached the steeple, I made this image. Magical!
Anna Yu30-Oct-2004 00:35
So perfect. Perhaps a person or a cat in the bottom window too? The perspective of the walls framing the the building in the back and the deep blue contrasting sky are eyecatching.
Phil Douglis26-Sep-2004 00:09
That was my struggle here, Bruce. To go beyond the picture postcard view. The cloud was a lucky break, which I saw coming and waited for. The walls at left and right gave this scene its depth, and the blackness on the left contrasts to the old stones on the right. Pbase artist Marek Warno ("m") noted in a message that the "position of the lit shape turns the black space into something much more than a flat area of color," which has caused me to view those opposing walls as more than just a graphic device, but also as symbols of the dead who once lived in the village (the black "spirit world" at left) and the living village we see before us today (the stone wall.) Dreams and roots? I'll buy into that as well. Thanks, Bruce, for this observation.
Guest 25-Sep-2004 17:42
With such a recognizable (and beautiful and dramatic) place as Mont St Michel, it would be very hard NOT to take a post-card image. In addition to the fortuitous cloud (it looks like they may have been few and far-between at the time of your visit), I credit your choice of a narrow alleyway as your choice of viewpoints, with the walls that engulf us on either side. Thus we have the distant and ethereal cathedral, and simultaneously the closeness of the medieval village. Dreams and roots, all in one.
Phil Douglis19-Sep-2004 02:13
Wow, Tim -- I did not even notice that little row of decorations under that window, nor did I give any thought to Mont St. Michel as a place where life is still lived. I was concentrating too hard on waiting for that little cloud to get right behind the Archangel St. Michael on top of that steeple, that's why! I was wearing blinders, thinking along a one-way street. What you show us here, Tim, is that there are many ways people respond to images. And sometimes they respond to details that the photographer was never aware of, such as you just did. What a lesson you teach here: we should always study each potential image with its details, and the meaning of those details, in mind. We never know what people will seize upon when they bring their own eyes to bear on your work. You have given me a useful critique here without even meaning to do so. Thanks, Tim.
Tim May19-Sep-2004 00:36
I hadn't even noticed the cloud but sensed that this was expressive. I think the reason for that is the cloud, but also the context of the other buildings. The windows in the foreground show a place where life is lived, where people put decorations of a personal nature on their window sill. Your view humanizes the scene for me.
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