Site search Web search

Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online

Dragon, University of Pennsylvania. Canon D60, 100-400mm IS lens, white balance overcast.

Shooting Gargoyles 
by Jim McGee

Once you've mastered the basics of photography there is a tendency to take on pet projects. They start innocently enough. One day you realize you've accumulated a lot of images of a certain subject. That piques your interest further and you start looking for that subject when you're out shooting. Then one day you realize you've become obsessed.

I've met photographers who are fascinated (a nice way of saying obsessed) with all kinds of subjects. For some its old barns, horses, rusted machinery, peeling paint, cows (seriously), billboards, flowers, bugs, cats, antique Coke bottles, take your pick. If you can imagine it, there's someone who's obsessed with photographing it. Moose admits to having over 21,000 images of grizzly bears that he can't sell - and he's still taking more. Now that's obsessed!

Along the way one of the things that I've become enamored with are gargoyles. I've shot them from Washington to Salem and from Philadelphia to Dublin. For some reason I just can't seem to get enough of them!

The good news is that you can find gargoyles in almost every city and culture from China in the East to Europe in the West and across the United States and Canada.

What is a gargoyle and where did they come from?

For the sake of this article we'll confine ourselves to European style gargoyles. Gargoyle, gargle and gurgle share the same root, gargouille, an old French word for "Throat".

Detail of greenman over a fanlight, The Custom House, Dublin Ireland. Nikon N70, Sigma 70-300mm 3.5-5.6 w/polarizer 
on Kodak Royal Gold 100

Gargoyle properly refers to a stone decoration that hides a rainspout. To be strictly correct, creatures that don't serve this purpose are called grotesques but today we pretty much call any stone creature that ornaments a building a gargoyle.

Among gargoyles there are several broad types. Bestiary, are imaginary animals. Greenmen are faces and figures adorned with leaves, grapes, and other symbols of nature that represent the cycle of life, the seasons, and man's place in nature. Symbolic gargoyles represent stories and legends. Finally there are comic gargoyles meant to invoke sarcasm and poke fun at something or someone.

Scholars can't seem to agree on where gargoyles came from or why they appeared. They do agree they started showing up on European gothic architecture in the 13th century. These early gargoyles served the practical purpose of directing rainwater away from the walls and foundations of buildings. At around this time the Catholic Church was trying to bring European Pagans into the fold and it's theorized that many early gargoyles represented oral Pagan legends that have been lost to history or changed so much through the centuries that they no longer bear any resemblance to the stories that inspired the original carvings. In some cases the statuary represented Christian stories for people who could neither read nor write.

Half human half beast, the Quadrangle University of Pennsylvania. Canon D60, 100-400 IS, white balance overcast

Others have theorized deeper meanings, postulating that the fanciful and often dreadful creatures frozen in stone on the outside of cathedrals represented evil spirits turned to stone as they fled from God; or that they are instead guardians meant to frighten evil away from the church.

One other theory that helps to explain the detail and variety of medieval gargoyles is that books called bestiary were popular in the Middle Ages. These books portrayed fanciful imaginary creatures that may have inspired stonemasons given the opportunity to exercise their creativity.

In modern times gargoyles became a way to express humor. Today football players, robots, politicians and scholars guard the ramparts alongside gothic dragons and demons.

Finding Gargoyles
Cathedrals, 19th century buildings and especially universities are great places to go searching for gargoyles. Older cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Boston are positively loaded with them. If you live in these cities chances are that you pass beneath the stony gaze of horrific monsters on a daily basis. Even Independence Hall in Philadelphia has a greenman looking down on the rear courtyard.

I've included a short list of Web sites and books as a starting point for the aspiring gargoyle hunter. But the real trick is to get in the habit of looking up. When you park in an urban parking garage drive up to the roof to park and look at the adjacent buildings. Visit any university over 100 years old and stroll around the old buildings. Look up into the eaves, along the roof, and around keystones above upper story windows. You may be jolted by what is looking back at you. Two buildings in particular jump out as great gargoyle buildings.

The first is the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. This building is positively crawling with the suckers. Most are the modern comic variety and they poke fun at everyone from scientists to crooked politicians - as if there were any of those in Washington!

The other is the Quadrangle on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It seems every inch of this building is covered with a combination of bestiary and comic figures. As a matter of fact, as you walk the campus and the adjacent grounds of the University of Pennsylvania hospital, it appears that the whole area is dedicated to gargoyles. In plain site and far up in hidden corners gargoyles and comic figures leer down at oblivious passers by below.

Angel with quill and parchment, Tabernacle Church University of Pennsylvania. Canon D60, 100-400mm IS, white balance overcast

Techniques for Shooting Gargoyles
Good gargoyle images can be tougher than you might think. There can be a huge difference in exposure between the shadows under the eaves where a gargoyle dwells and the bright sky that is often unavoidably part of the frame. Overcast can be your friend or your enemy in this situation depending on the light. Bracketing helps if you're shooting film. This is one case where I've found that the preview ability of digital really helps. A glance at the LCD tells you if you've gotten the shot or not. It also helps you dial in exposures for surrounding creatures. A camera with a spot meter is almost a necessity for hunting gargoyles. 

Tripods are also a necessity when using some of the long focal lengths you'll need for gargoyles. A 300mm zoom and a 2x converter will work in most situations but I've shot some gargoyles where a 400mm zoom and a 2x converter still required a substantial crop. When you're talking 600mm and more there are few of us who can handhold for tack sharp images. Digital also has a leg up here as you can (with some cameras) zoom in the LCD enough to determine the sharpness of your image.

There is a problem with tripods though. When hunting gargoyles you'll often find yourself shooting up between trees at extreme angles close to the building at angles that many tripod heads won't tolerate. This requires a lot of gyrations of shortening two of the three legs and kneeling or squatting behind a tripod/camera combination that is leaning over at a precarious angle. Be prepared to draw curious spectators.

Earlier I mentioned that the tops of parking garages can make great platforms for shooting gargoyles. Adjacent buildings can also be great shooting spots since they put you at eye level with your subject. The problem comes when you're forced to shoot through grimy windows or from odd angles that are less than optimum for your subject. Resist the temptation to go into areas in buildings that are not public spaces. Security folks are not likely to understand or be tolerant of your gargoyle obsession!

My preference for weather is either bright blue skies or dark ominous storm clouds. Simple overcast just renders the sky dull and lifeless. Fresh snow can make for some unique shots!

It's a Fun Obsession!
Hunting gargoyles with your camera can be a fun obsession. You'll find them everywhere from office buildings to cathedrals to crypts. Just remember to look up. You never know what you might see looking back.

Fireman & hose from a turn of the century firehouse in Philadelphia. Nikon FG, Sigma 70-300mm 3.5-5.6 on Kodak Tri-X
Gargoyle Information 

Some Gargoyle Sites for the Aspiring Gargoyle Hunter
A Love of Monsters: Gargoyles & Architectural Details in NYC

A Guide to Gargoyles at Washington University

The Gargoyles of Princeton University: A grotesque tour of the campus

Walter S. Arnold's site details how he carved gargoyles for the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.: Cathedral & Gargoyle Index

Some good books on the subject:
Holy Terrors : Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings Janetta Benton; Abbeville Press, April 1997

The Medieval Menagerie: Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages Janetta Benton, Abbeville Press, 1992

American Gargoyles : Spirits in Stone Darlene Trew Crist, Potter Books, NY 2001

Gothic Gargoyles Bill Yenne, First Glance Books, 1998

Nightmares in the Sky Photos: F-Stop Fitzgerald Text: Steven King
Viking Studio Books, New York, 1988

Green Man - The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth William Anderson Photos: Clive Hicks. Harper Collins, London and San Francisco, 1990

A Cloisters Bestiary Richard H. Randall, Jr. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1960

A Little Book of Gargoyles Mike Harding Aurum Press, London, 1998


  Subscribe to Vivid Light 
Photography by email 

Tell Us What You Think


































Vivid Light Photography, monthly photography magazine online

Site search Web search

Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online