Sacred spaces captured in Michael Stimola’s photographs


During the month of October, photographer Michael Stimola will exhibit a series of photos at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse which showcase a subject that has fascinated him for years. The 17 black-and-white images on display, taken over the course of 10 years, all capture scenes around the Basilica di Santo Stefano in Bologna.

The series is titled “A Sacred Place,” and the photos truly capture the essence of the ancient religious site — parts of which date back to the fifth century. The images convey a sense of solemnity and spirituality. “These places are very mysterious,” says Stimola. “The whole idea of faith is not something that can be described.”

In his artist’s statement, the photographer writes, “While I am no longer a practitioner of the faith of my childhood, the long, intense exposure to it has left a lasting familiarity with its history and symbols. These few photographs attempt to convey a small part of my time spent in this physical manifestation of them.”

The basilica, also known as Sette Chiese (Seven Churches), is a complex of religious edifices whose origins are still somewhat of a mystery. One theory has it that it was built in 430 to represent the places where the Passion of Christ had taken place. The site is also sometimes referred to as Holy Jerusalem. Some believe it was built on the site of an ancient temple honoring the Egyptian goddess Isis.

In the 12th century, the various small churches, some built with Roman- and Greek-era columns, were incorporated into a single complex in the Romanesque style of the period. Renaissance and Baroque styles influenced later additions and renovations.

Stimola has managed to capture the unique look of the various individual structures — some embellished with ornate carvings, others featuring simple rough walls or ancient bricks. Rarely are people visible in the photos and, in the few exceptions, robed figures are seen either blurred or in shadow. The scenes convey a sense of history, serenity, and quiet contemplation.

The photographer started the series during a second trip to Bologna. For a decade he and his wife have visited the area annually for her business. “Photos from the second year, in soft focus, represent how the place impacted me,” says Stimola. One titled “Spirito Santo,” shows a bird — possibly a dove — gliding high above a series of towering structures, shot at an upward angle.

Although the place has become more and more of a tourist destination since Stimola first visited, he manages to skirt the crowds, timing his shoots carefully. “The first thing I do is get the lay of the land,” he says. “See what the light is like. See what the crowds are like. I try to get there when it’s relatively quiet.”

Stimola often enhances the images by employing a variety of techniques. Many of the Basilica photos were built up through a layering process, adding texture by subtly incorporating scans of photos of stone walls or decaying frescoes from the interior of the churches. The results serve to heighten the sense of mystery, and sometimes add a painterly look to the images.

The photographer, who spends much of the year at the couple’s home in West Tisbury, has shown his work at the Field Gallery for many years. The Playhouse show represents the first time he has exhibited the basilica series. Though known for his Vineyard landscapes, more recently Stimola has been creating small gold- and silver-leafed gilded prints on vellum, some of which, including images of the Brooklyn Bridge and Notre Dame, are on display at the Field Gallery.

To capture his impression of each scene, Stimola tries to use an appropriate technique. As he explains in his artist’s statement, “It’s said that painters must decide what to add compositionally to their work, and photographers what to leave out. My process allows me to selectively add, however subtly, when I feel the addition completes what I want the photograph to convey. Beyond the consideration of composition, lens, and exposure settings, I may fog or smear a lens filter, or pan or gently shake the camera to alter the image I capture. In the process of making the final photograph, I often use techniques that include combining multiple images — more than one photograph or scans I have created. All of these interventions represent, for me, the multiplicity of ways a place or subject may be experienced and interpreted.”

The solo exhibit, “Michael Stimola — A Sacred Place,” will hang at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse from Oct. 5 to Oct. 31, with an artist’s reception on Saturday, Oct. 5, from 5 to 6 pm.