A God’s-Eye-View of Sacred Space

Volume 50, Issue 3 :: By Michael J. Crosbie / Photographs by Thomas R. Schiff

Beth Shalom Synagogue; Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; Frank Lloyd Wright.

Beth Shalom Synagogue; Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; Frank Lloyd Wright.

Photographer Thomas R. Schiff got interested in panoramic photography about 25 years ago, and has produced amazing images of architecture, documented through books and exhibits. His first impulse was to capture iconic works of architecture throughout the U.S. That project blossomed into several off-shoots: panoramic images devoted to libraries, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, vernacular architecture in several locales around the country, the Modernist mecca of Columbus, Indiana. Now Schiff is working on a book of houses of worship, and we present here just a taste of its contents (with a particular emphasis on some of the great modern houses of worship constructed over the past 50 years).

Cathedral of Christ the Light; Oakland, California; Craig W. Hartman.

Cathedral of Christ the Light; Oakland, California; Craig W. Hartman.

Schiff explains that taking panoramic photos is an entirely different process than using a conventional camera to carefully frame a single view. While a photographer will scout shots from a variety of different spots and angles, Schiff’s goal is to capture his subject in its entirety. “I have to be at the very center of it,” he says, particularly when photographing interior spaces. Panoramas of religious buildings promise breathtaking views because they offer generous spaces and often dramatic lighting effects (Schiff rarely uses special lighting, working with what is available in the space). Schiff uses a custom-built tripod that can lift his camera some 30 feet in the air. The camera is motorized, advancing the roll of color negative film at the same speed that the camera moves as it pivots in a circle. The result is an unbroken spool of sacred space, seeing it as it has never before been experienced.

Center of Gravity Foundation Hall Buddhist Temple; Jemez Springs, New Mexico; Predock Frane Architects.

Center of Gravity Foundation Hall Buddhist Temple; Jemez Springs, New Mexico; Predock Frane Architects.

Schiff reports that sometimes he is surprised by what his photographs reveal—how the interiors undulate to form a cocoon of worship. Looking at Schiff’s pictures, one comes away with the impression that perhaps this is a God’s-eye-view of sacred space, beheld as only a divine being might “see” it.

Chapel of St. Ignatius; Seattle, Washington; Steven Holl.

Chapel of St. Ignatius; Seattle, Washington; Steven Holl.

First Presbyterian Church; Stamford, Connecticut; Wallace K. Harrison.

First Presbyterian Church; Stamford, Connecticut; Wallace K. Harrison.

Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati; West Chester Township, Ohio; Ramzi Mahallawi.

Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati; West Chester Township, Ohio; Ramzi Mahallawi.

MIT Chapel; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Eero Saarinen.

MIT Chapel; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Eero Saarinen.

Roofless Church; New Harmony, Indiana; Philip Johnson.

Roofless Church; New Harmony, Indiana; Philip Johnson.

Unitarian Society of Hartford; Hartford, Connecticut; Victor Lundy.

Unitarian Society of Hartford; Hartford, Connecticut; Victor Lundy.

Wayfarers Chapel; Rancho Palos Verdes, California; Lloyd Wright.

Wayfarers Chapel; Rancho Palos Verdes, California; Lloyd Wright.