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Christmas at York Minster, by Duncan Lomax

1 December 2019

I’m lucky enough to photograph all sorts of events and services for York Minster, from the installation of a new Dean and the consecration of the first female bishop, to stonemasons at work and visitors. However, one of my favourite jobs has to be the Advent service, both as a spectacle to watch and as a challenging photography assignment.

The cathedral is dark at the best of times, but the advent service starts in complete darkness. The choir enter with a single candle, which is used to light the candles of the 2000-strong congregation. It’s an amazing sight – the flame is passed from person-to-person until every member of the congregation is holding a lit candle (whilst I’m worrying about my ISO, the Minster Police are keeping a keen eye out for fire hazards).

My role is to capture the atmosphere of the event, photographing choristers, congregation and canons (clergy, not cameras), but at all times respecting the service, staying out of sight, and being discreet (long lens, silent shutter). That’s not as straight-forward as it sounds – I meet with the clergy beforehand to go through the order of service, that way I know who is going to be where and when, so I can plan shots in advance and avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time (“Duncan - you can go wherever you need to but do NOT walk in front of the choir” is part of my brief.)

As a result, I find myself shooting from all corners of the Minster, but usually taking the longest route to get from A to B to avoid being seen, disturbing the congregation or getting in the way. I’ve shot from the tower, the floor, the pulpit and the archbishop’s seat (the cathedra from where cathedral gets its name) I’ve done this particular shot before – usually taken from the organ loft, which means that at a strategic moment, I have to run up a narrow, behind the scenes set of stairs, past the organist’s shoes and other belongings, trying not to let doors slam behind me, or clank my cameras against anything on the way, partly because I don’t want to be heard, but mostly because what’s around me is hundreds of years old and worth a lot more in monetary and emotional terms than my well-worn Canons (cameras not clergy).

The organ loft gives a great view of the Minster’s nave, but annoyingly for us photographer-types, it’s off centre. This shot however, is from 2018 and whilst pretty much everyone else in the Minster was disappointed that there was a huge wall of scaffolding up as part of an organ restoration project, I was rejoicing as it meant for the first time I could get a camera positioned centrally. What I couldn’t do however, was be with the camera. In the hush of a service, the last thing anyone wants to hear is me shuffling about on creaky scaffolding boards, so this shot was done remotely. Having done the similar, off-centre shots in previous years, I was able to work out my exposure – long enough to capture enough light to show the building, and also to show the light streaks from the choir’s candles as they moved around the cathedral. I triggered a number of shots from ground level as the choir moved, with the intention of overlaying them into one montage, as I had done previously, but this is actually a single shot which I preferred.

To see more shots from this shoot, see here: Ravage Productions

Duncan Lomax is a commercial photographer based in York where he runs Ravage Productions. Although working primarily for corporate clients ranging from large corporates to individuals, his work features regularly in business magazines, tourism brochures and in numerous national and regional newspapers.

See more work by Duncan Lomax

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