Saint Peter in the Vatican – Interview with Cardinal Prosper Grech

by Paolo Mattei

Cardinal Prosper Grech told us that while walking across Saint Peter’s Square, he is often tempted to stop and help tourists with the photographs they are taking. “I see them trying absurd perspectives, or demanding debatable poses of the people they are portraying… And I feel like I need to tell them to change position, or angle, so they can use light in a different way, making their photos more interesting… But I resist the urge, and keep going”.

Meeting a cardinal in Saint Peter’s is not unusual. But one who is also a skilled and passionate photographer, eager to talk about photography and to give strangers his advice is something else…

We interviewed His Eminence Prosper Cardinal Grech at his home in Saint Monica’s International College – in the same complex as the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, the center for post-graduate specialization that the cardinal and Father Agostino Trapè co-founded in the 1950s.

On the second floor of the Augustinianum, there is a “permanent exhibition” of beautiful black and white photos Grech took around the world: squares and churches at sundown, silver perspectives over the sea, silhouettes of men and women in the sun.

Born in Malta in 1925, and created a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in the consistory of February 18, 2012, Grech – on top of his activity at the Augustinianum – taught Biblical Theology at the Lateran University for twenty years, and lectured on hermeneutics at the Pontifical Biblical Institute for thirty years. He has published a number of books and articles on scientific journals, has been Counsellor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for over twenty years, and is a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

In addition to all this, he has cultivated the hobby of photography – a great passion of his – for decades, and that is what we talked about with him.

Your Eminence, when and how did your love for photography begin?

When I was studying here at the Augustinianum, that is until 1950, I didn’t even have a camera. A brother of mine lent me his, so that I could take photos of the soccer matches we used to organize as students. Those were my very first shots.

Then I imagine you bought your own camera…

Yes. If memory serves me correctly, it was 1951 and I was in Germany. I bought a Paxette, and started to practice, obviously with black and white photos, focusing on architecture. In Rome, I used my camera to photograph books and documents at the Vatican Library, because copy machines were not popular yet… It was a very difficult task: I had to add additional lenses, measure the distance between paper and lens, and then take the photo almost without looking. More advanced reflex cameras made the job much easier…

But at some point copy machines started to take hold of the market…

That is when I started to be interested in photography in general. I was deeply influenced by the books I read by Florentine critic, Matteo Marangoni, who believed that beauty is in the form and not the content. I also had the chance to meet two of Marangoni’s students: Luisa Becherucci, director of the Uffizi Gallery, and Anna Maria Francini Ciaranfi, director of Palazzo Pitti. I studied old architecture designs with them, and learned a lot about composition.

Which artists inspired you the most?

I learned a lot by analyzing paintings from the 1500s and 1600s, mostly by the generations following Perugino. I carefully observed how artists put the main subject “aside”, not at the center of their painting, and balanced it with other subjects or light effects. I consider Rembrandt’s incisions and drawings a great source of inspiration, especially for my black and white photographs. I learned a lot by studying the lights and shadows in his portraits. And how could I not mention Caravaggio, my greatest passion…

Did you develop film yourself?

In the beginning I did. But developing makes you lose track of time: you guess half an hour has gone by, and instead you’ve spent three hours in the lab. I didn’t have that much free time because I had to study. So, I started taking my film to the Sciamanna studio, a historic shop in Rome, near Saint Peter’s. They made a contact print first, and then I could give them instructions on the size and contrast I wanted.

Then color arrived…

I wasn’t that interested in it at first: I have always preferred black and white. But developing black and white photos started to be too expensive: sometimes my hobby cost me almost all of my monthly allowance… I switched to a digital camera about eight years ago, both for color and for black and white photos.

But digital is not the same…

It’s true: digital photography misses out on certain contrasts and even hues… but you can achieve satisfactory results both in color and in black and white. I don’t use film anymore. I have only one analog camera left, and I hardly ever use it.

What is your favorite time to take photos?

Usually when I’m on holiday, or whenever I have time to myself – I could do nothing else but take photos. I like being alone, walking slowly, looking around until something grabs my attention. Often I can’t take the photo right away: I have to wait for someone to walk past, or for the passerby I’ve chosen to walk by. And then… I have to wait for a cloud to move to have the right light. The subject changes minute after minute. The façade of Saint Peter’s Basilica is four hundred years old, yet it is never the same. Everything depends on the light that reflects off its surface: the angle, the moment of the day, the season… you can take ten photos of it in a handful of minutes, and you will have ten different photos. When the light changes, the subject changes too.

You often portray common people, taking their photo without them noticing.

Yes, I like to capture aspects of ordinary life. And this obviously requires an unwitting subject.

You also shoot portraits…

Yes, I do. It’s a challenge, because people tend to pose as if they were in front of a mirror. They try to show a certain profile, that is premeditated and artificial. And sometimes a photograph can show psychological traits that are invisible to the naked eye. Some details – even dramatic ones – emerge only in a photo. Some people are surprised, others are scared, and wonder “Is this me?”…

And of course you assure them it is…

No, I don’t. The photograph does.

 

Photos via:

December 12, 2013