Friday, June 6, 2014


A fellow tutor at the literacy center where I volunteer suggested that I arrange to do some photography at St. Joseph Chapel.  I followed up on that suggestion and, in my view, found the chapel to be an architectural masterpiece.  It was actually built in 1917 as part of the campus of the School Sisters of St. Francis (SSSF), located on Milwaukee's south side.

I had envisioned the chapel (perhaps like it sounds) to be small, but it is huge, really.  The order of SSSF included about 500 nuns at the time the chapel was built, and so it was designed to accommodate a congregation of 500.  The main chapel (there is a smaller chapel behind the main one known as the Chapel of Perpetual Adoration) is some 200 feet long by 90 feet wide and includes original mosaics, wood-carved stations of the cross, copious statuary, and some 115 stained glass windows, including several on the chapel's ceiling.   Moreover, the chapel has been maintained in superb condition.

As with most building interiors, the chapel's lighting presents substantial challenges from the point of view of photography.  I was helped substantially by the willingness of the personnel at SSSF to have the lights turned on.  And we were blessed with a bright and sunny day.  Even so, the interior walls and ornamentation were significantly darker than the stained glass windows.  And, as anyone who has photographed interiors would know, there is simply a great deal less interior light than is available outdoors.  In addition, white balance (light color) is also a challenge, as the sunlight streaming through the windows is generally much cooler than the incandescent light generated by the interior lighting.  I wound up relying on a "tungsten" setting for white balance, which I believe is close to what my eyes registered, but I could be off a bit.

Here is an initial, standard shot from the back of the chapel that gives some feel for the chapel's size and grandeur.

This clearly was an occasion when I lamented not having more of a wide-angle lens.  Moreover, my camera's "crop" sensor eliminates a portion of the perimeter of the scene that the lens was transmitting.  As a result, the effective angle of view with the lens set at its widest angle of 24 mm was only equivalent to what would have been 36 mm in a full-frame sensor camera.  So this was the best I could do.

Here is a vertical shot that manages to include the beautiful circular stained glass ceiling window above the sanctuary (more of that later).

Of course, I was using a tripod, and these, as well as most of the remaining photos were shot at f/8 and an ISO of 200.  Both of these photos had exposures of 1.6 seconds.  I have learned to be very compulsive in lining up symmetrical shots to ensure, where possible, that my camera is situated on the axis of symmetry (I mean within an inch).  If I am off by even an inch or two, it becomes impossible in post processing to fully correct for the lack of symmetry.

Here is another shot looking down from the balcony at the back of the chapel that housed the pipe organ and choir.

As well as another, asymmetrical shot that I took to give a better idea of the chapel's side balconies.

I think this second shot does a little better job of conveying how large the chapel was.  These shots also were taken at f/8 and with an exposure of 1.3 and 1.6 seconds, respectively.  Again, the staff at the SSSF graciously allowed me access to the balcony, something that doesn't always happen.

And while I'm at it, here is another asymmetrical shot taken from the main floor.

A couple of final "grand views," in this case looking toward the rear of the chapel from the sanctuary.

I took this last shot on my hands and knees with the camera about 15 inches off the floor.  I felt that by including both the central aisle flooring and the arched ceiling I was able to create a greater dramatic aspect.

As mentioned, and as is obvious from the above panoramic shots, the chapel includes a great deal of ornamental detail.  Here are a few photos that I got of some of those features.

A stained glass triptych window on one of the side balconies.

A lovely arch, again on a side balcony that framed twin stained glass windows.  Note the curved stained glass window in the arch's ceiling also.

And a portion of a mosaic at the end of one of the side balconies.

The amount of detail is extraordinary, and the cost of construction, even 100 years ago, must have been enormous.  Thankfully, the space has been beautifully maintained and is generally made available to the visitor to appreciate.

One of the nuns invited me to photograph the priests' sacristy, sort of a locker room for the priests that is off the sanctuary.  I felt a little uncomfortable, although there were no priests about, and wound up taking only a few photos of triptych paintings above the priests' lockers on either side of the room.  Here is a photo of one of the paintings.  It was done by an artist nun at the time of chapel's construction, in 1917.  I was told that the artist used actual priests, nuns, and other church personnel as models for the figures portrayed.

For me the real highlights of the chapel were the apse and the ceilings above the sanctuary and apse.

Here, first, is a shot of the gorgeous ceiling area above the sanctuary and apse.

The circular blue window is located above the sanctuary and another "D-shaped" window is just visible in the ceiling of the apse.  Below is another shot of the apse generally showing both the ornamentation of that space's statuary and ceiling.

This last photo, I thought, turned out particularly well, at least in terms of resolution.  It was shot at f/8 with an exposure of 1 second.

One minor distraction in the prior photos was the presence of some sort of rectangular loudspeaker system hanging from the sanctuary ceiling.  Fortunately, I was allowed direct access to both the sanctuary and apse and took advantage of the opportunity to get more closeup shots of their ceilings that eliminated or reduced that distraction.

Here are a couple of shots of the circular stained glass window above the sanctuary . . .

. . . including this closeup.

The only blemishes in the first of these two shots was the presence of a modest amount of flare streaking in the upper portion of the image, leaking in from a neighboring light fixture, as well as a light spot just to the window's right.  (A portion of the loudspeaker is visible in the lower portion of each image also.)

And below are some additional shots of the apse ceiling, including its D-shaped window.

I particularly liked the apse ceiling as an abstract and shot the following two photos with that in mind.

I took this last shot, as well as the two shots of the circular window above, simply by setting the camera on the floor pointing straight up and triggering the shutter using my remote.

I finished my shoot by taking a number of photos of the exterior.  These were, to be truthful, disappointing.  Because the chapel is part of a large complex of buildings, it is impossible to get a clear shot of just the chapel building.  Here, if only for completeness sake, is one of the shots I did take, which I converted to a black & white.

Again, I am very grateful to the personnel at SSSF for graciously allowing me access to the chapel to feed my photography habit.  I would commend this chapel to anyone who has even a passing interest in traditional architecture and particularly religious architecture.  It is well worth the visit.




  2. John,
    These are great photo. I would love to use one online to help entice people to a concert there, coming up a week from Saturday (on the 18th). I manage the Boston-based group Blue Heron, who will be performing. I would be happy to help secure you a ticket. Do let me know!

    1. Thanks. That might be arranged. Which photo(s) did you have in mind? You can contact me by email at