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Phil Douglis | all galleries >> Gallery Seventeen: Memories in Metal and Stone: How monuments, sculpture, and tombs express ideas. > Soldier, Bom Jesus Shrine, Braga, Portugal, 2004
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Soldier, Bom Jesus Shrine, Braga, Portugal, 2004

Soldier, Bom Jesus Shrine, Braga, Portugal, 2004

Bom Jesus is a religious shrine on a steep hill overlooking the city of Braga in Northern Portugal. Behind the shrine, a bizarre 17th century staircase winds down the hill Ė each of its landings featuring a fountain, statue or tableaux interpreting stories and characters from the bible. At the top of the steps is an enormous horseman carrying a spear and an incongruously surreal shield -- the Roman soldier who crucified Christ. I framed this horse and its rider in foliage, which seems to bring it to life. Itís a fairly routine image, until you get to that shield, which screams and keeps screaming. Yet it pretty much remains in context with its times. In the 17th century, religious art was entertainment, education, and sacred ritual. Thatís why this strange staircase seems like a 17th century version of Disneyland, and this statue its thematic symbol. No matter where you look within this photograph, the shield, like a kid throwing a tantrum, will keep demanding your attention.

Leica Digilux 2
1/250s f/5.6 at 22.5mm iso100 full exif

other sizes: small medium large original
Phil Douglis15-Dec-2005 00:33
I liked your suggestion of isolating that shield and the soldier's leg with a crop -- it certainly brings the shield to life in an unusual way. However in executing the crop, the arm and bridle also are isolated, and the image becomes quite confusing. Good idea, though. And yes, I also played with various Photoshop filters to simulate the wonderful morning or evening light effect that might have animated this subject had I been able to be there during such light. Alas, the filters did not work -- the image looked contrived and lost whatever reality it might have offered. But it was worth a try. Thanks.
Phil Douglis14-Dec-2005 22:06
Your comments are right on the mark, Rod. This image leaves a lot to be desired as expression. But I included it here as an example of the kind of image that tries to express an idea but does not quite make it. It is not a failure, by any means -- the screaming face on the shield is incongruous when compared to the business as usual expression on the face of the soldier. And that was what drew me to this subject. But you, Jen and Likyin correctly point out the lack of abstraction, mood, and meaning in this image. I wish that I could have been there earlier or later to work with more expressive light, but that was not in the cards. I was limited in vantage point as well. Yet on balance, the image still works marginally as a travel photograph because of the screaming shield. I use it here for what it can teach us, rather than for what it can say to us.
Guest 14-Dec-2005 18:57
I was just playing with different compositons in my head for this statue. If you could crop around the single leg and that animated face, it would look like an incredibly interesting 1-legged creature (I'm not kidding). Especially if given more dramatic light of early AM or late PM.
Guest 14-Dec-2005 18:55
I've not yet read the various comments (I try to write my own, before reading others). This photo's subject is very hard to photograph. I am aware of why it is in this particular gallery, but I am not sure what exactly the statue is expressing, in this composition. I look at it, and I see a simple snapshot of a statue--not much more or less.

When I look at the statue, I'm immediately drawn to that unusual face on the shield (it is a shield, yes?). My first thought would be, as you have said "less is more" and I would have given more focus to that wonderfully animated face.

If you still decided to shoot the entire statue, I feel the photo needs more supporting elements to tell a story, or convey a meaning. Stone is so "cold" and is virtually lifeless (visually).

I am thinking if you can pick a time (either very early AM, or late PM, whichever provides light the proper direction) the lighting would have been more dramatic, added some shadow to the contours of the stone to make it more 3D to bring out more texture, as well as made the statue glow, a little.

I can understand why you framed with the vegitation (it helps) but I am not sure it is enough. I think a more dramatic sky and lighting would be needed in addition to that natural framing.
Phil Douglis28-May-2005 18:16
You are so right, Jose Paulo -- this was a very difficult situation. It is an attractive solution, but not a particularly expressive one. I like your impression of the stairs that lead down from it, however. It is very simple, and incongruous. And yes, I know Guimaraes -- I have several images from that city in this cyberbook, including The Old Parade Ground ( ) and Ducal Palace ( )
Jose Paulo Andrade28-May-2005 13:25
I know perfectly this place - Santuário do Bom Jesus. It is near my home city, Guimarães (20 km) and the city where I live, Porto (50 km). I have been there recently trying to photograph it (I have a photo see Very difficult to photograph without falling in clichés! I think that your photo using the trees as frames has captured well some of the spirit of that strange place with stairs, fountains and statues.
Phil Douglis30-Apr-2005 05:48
Yes, Sonia, if we did zoom in on the screaming shield, this picture would no longer be the same image that I wrote that caption for, so the caption would be invalid. As for this image, it is essentially a postcard, but even a postcard can have value when teamed up with words printed on its reverse. You are right in calling attention to the fact that this strange statue is indeed a symbol of a 17th Century version of Disneyland, and given that verbal context, this image does have symbolic value. The screaming shield, by itself, would not have worked as well in that context.
Guest 30-Apr-2005 04:41
Sorry, Phil, I forgot to login when I posted the comment below.
Guest 30-Apr-2005 04:40
When I looked at this picture, I was ready to ask how this picture is not a cliche? Yes, I do agree with Likyin, Jen and Cecilia about the screaming shield. However, I notice one thing you said in your comments, "That’s why this strange staircase seems like a 17th century version of Disneyland, and this statue its thematic symbol." Phil, you have expressed very well here if you're looking for a reminiscence of the Disney castle, I would completely agree with you when I read the caption - the statue being the center of interest. Zooming into the screaming shield, I guess, would lose this expression, right?
Phil Douglis29-Sep-2004 18:15
Yes, Celia. I admit it. This image is a classic "here is a statue shot." I loved the screaming shield, but as you say, it is a postcard view. And that is why it is here. To draw such comments as Likyin, Jen, and now you have brought to it. By working over this picture as you have done, you show us how empty descriptive images are, even those that might well have incongruous details within them such as this shield gives us. It is a snorer, and I did make it and include it in this gallery to draw such comments as these, and make people think about the alternatives And it stays in here too -- as an object lesson in literality.

There was no other possible vantage point -- all others were obscured by trees or perspective. Using Photoshop, I tried to crop into it and bring up the scream, but the context around it looked like a stump of a shot. By chopping into it to stress rider and shield, you chop into the horse as well and a chopped up horse looks dreadful.

I expected my critic in residence to weigh in on this one. Every argument you make against it is exactly what I had hoped you and others would say about this picture when I included it. Let it stand in sharp contrast to the monuments in this gallery -- all of which I do believe express substantive meaning. (Including, incidentally, the keynote image in this gallery, which you mauled earlier today!)

Cecilia Lim 29-Sep-2004 17:59
Phil, surely you must have included this one in your gallery to get a rise out of people! You're definitely asking for it - for people to rip it to shreds and prove how bad this piece of your work is. And judging by the feedback, you sure got it! It is sterile crap! Hardly artistic! Postcard at best! A perfect textbook example of a photo taken according to the rules of photography that strives to describe, but doesn't express anything! Look at it - it's "perfect" - your subject (the equestrian statue), is perfectly placed according to the rules of thirds, is perfectly exposed and then predictably framed by foliage to add depth. But it's just that! ZZzzzzzzz.... Snore snore!

This statue may not be moving, but it doesn't mean that the photographer should not either! I agree with everyone here that vantage point and focus on details are key in expressing the outrageous, screaming head that the soldier is holding. Moving around the statue to get a more dynamic angle will help avoid making a mugshot of the soldier. If that's not possible, zooming in on the details of the statue would have at least drawn our attention to the screaming face, which I think would have looked even more hysterical when it is clearly seen juxtaposed next to the extremely calm soldier. This way you can at least avoid all the unnecessary and meaningless stuff like sky and trees that fill your image. I don't expect you to lie with Photoshop and paint a dramatic fiery warrior riding into the flames of a glowing red sunset, but I would expect you to crop and trim all the excess "fat" in Photoshop to get to the heart of the story. New digital camera these days have resolutions that are so high that you can crop 50% of your image and still be left with a decent, sharp photo. (Weren't you the one who told me that?) Where vantage point and limited telephoto lenses might not do the job, zooming in digitally on Photoshop could very well salvage the image and help you define or express what you know is there.

Doing what you did here is perfectly acceptable for beginners. But for you, definitely NOT! Especially when you've claimed that your cyberbook does not concern itself with literal travel snapshots and artistic picture postcards! The technique you used here to shoot your subject is usually something that a photographer might resort to when the subject is not very interesting, but think that it could at least be artistically enhanced with fancy framing. However what you've done here is take a fascinating subject and made it absolutely boring and literal. This image is a real eyesore to the great galleries that you have on your site. If it was a postcard in a souvenir shop, I would never buy it!
Phil Douglis27-Sep-2004 17:46
Please do, Jen. And be sure to be just as critical of them as you were of this one, because constructively criticizing work that you respect can help you better understand the weaknesses and strengths of your own images. You can not only help me to sharpen my thought process, such you did here, but you will also discover new directions for your own work. This is why I post these pictures, Jen. To stimulate the discussion of ideas that can help us all. Thanks, as always, for your consistently helpful comments, suggestions and critiques.
Jennifer Zhou27-Sep-2004 15:52
Got your point Phil!! Thanks!!
I will study your other pictures in this gallery later!

Phil Douglis26-Sep-2004 19:24

Your criticism of this image is extremely helpful, because you not only tell me why I failed to bring this statue to life, but also tell me how I might have been able to do it. You said simply, "create a better mood." I agree -- if I would have been there as the sun was setting, the horseman and that screaming face on the shield might have turned orange or red, and the message of that fiery color would have been greatly enhanced the mood and meaning of this image. However I was already back on my ship, sailing on to Lisbon, when the sun went down that day, so that picture was never made.

Your comment, Jen, has caused me to ask myself a question. What if I had changed mood by changing my exposure either at the scene, or later on in Photoshop? I could have cropped in on the horseman, removing the trees, and darkened the image to bring up primarily the highlights of the sculpture, and make the scream more frightening. (I also might even have changed the coloration in Photoshop to bring an orange glow to it, but I don't like to do things like that in travel photography, because it would be a lie. And travel photos should not mislead. Ehance, yes. Manipulate, no.) But your point is excellent -- changing the mood of this picture would have definitely added meaning to that scream.

I hope this answers your excellent question, Jen, as to what to do here. You will make me work harder next time to do just that.

You also make a good point here about how difficult it is to make expressive photographs of lifeless objects. That is exactly what this entire gallery is devoted to. I hope you will find that some of my other examples here will do just that for you, and I look forward to your comments on those as well.
Jennifer Zhou26-Sep-2004 11:35
I agree with Likyin that screaming face should be more emphasized here.

I always think monuments, statues this kind of subjects can be very difficult to make great photographs..Even themself full of histories, stories, but physically they are lifeless..How to bring them to life requires lot of background, foreground information that help telling the story and the atmospheres we create is also important. So if we only frame the statues here in this picture to emphasized the screaming face we would lose the context for it. But what else we can include in the picture to make this outstanding? Trees? in my point is not a big help..

I really wish you were there that day when the sun about to set..Sky is getting dark and the screaming face alone with the houseman appear to be orange from the setting sun which would create a better mood..

Phil Douglis26-Sep-2004 01:56
When I plan a gallery, Bruce, I try to use a range of images, some more successful at expressing ideas than others. This image worked, but marginally. I encourage my viewers to be critical of my work, because criticism can teach us a great deal about how images may work or not work. As you can see, Likyin Yeung took me up on the invitation, and tells us why this image, screaming shield and all, failed to stimulate her ample imagination. For Likyin, this image may have failed as expression, yet for me it succeeds as a teaching example, which is equally important in my view. Thanks, Bruce, for recognizing this.
bruce berrien25-Sep-2004 20:20
I respect you for including this, despite your recognition that it may not be as successful as you first thought. We can all learn, not just by being taught, but by watching others learn as well. Thank you, Phil.
Phil Douglis19-Sep-2004 20:09
Thanks, Likyin, for your frank criticism of this image. It is very helpful to me. It lets me expand on several important points you raise here. Yes, I should have taken that confrontational viewpoint you suggested to create that "strong interaction between the image and your eyes." Unfortunately, two things kept me from doing that. The soldier looks to the left. The shield looks at us. To get that soldier to look directly at us, I would have to sacrifice that wonderfully incongruous scream on the shield. There was also was no place for me to climb up on and shoot the soldier coming at us head on. What you feel in this picture is passivity. The viewer is a bystander, not a participant. I had to take this passive, off to one side, vantage point and hope that the scream on the shield would be strong enough to create that "strong interaction between the image our eyes" that you ask for. But it isn't.

As you say, the scream is too far away -- there is too much else going on elsewhere. And so "the screaming face sank." I loved that comment, Likyin, because you show us how important it is to make key details large enough to be seen quickly, without distraction. How could I make such a mistake? Because I was there! I saw the screaming shield with my own eyes. I shut everything else out of my mind but that scream. This is called "selective seeing." But the camera does not see selectively unless we make it do so. I failed to make it do so. My camera saw everything else, too, and my point was lost. My passive vantage point and my small shield detail makes this picture, as you say, "too routine."

You teach us all three great lessons hear, Likyin. First, we should take active, not passive vantage points. Second, make key detail large enough to work, and keep other details from competing with it. And third, make the camera see selectively as your eyes do. I teach these lessons to my students all the time, but I obviously failed to use them myself here. Thank you for this criticism, Likyin. It is a wake up call for me, and for anyone who reads this. And for you, too, my friend.
Likyin Yeung19-Sep-2004 15:57
I still feel this one too routine, even after reading your caption.
Maybe the shield is special, but it is not outstanding with the framing and deep clear view. The framing took care of the trees and the horseman with its stage, but had less to do with the shield. There're too many details work together, the screaming face sank. The angle also didn't help, maybe letting the eyes staring at audience would do better.
In a word, I found no strong interaction between the image and my eyes ...

By the way, among all these horsemen I met, I found the one in Verona's old castle the most interesting! Oh I miss him ... But I haven't captured the feeling well enough with my camera! I know how to do it better next time ...
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