Capturing Temple Photographs: An Interview with David Sidwell

June 2011

In the homes of Latter-day Saints, it’s not uncommon that a photograph of a temple is the only original artwork on display. From an art acquisition standpoint, it’s first base for many Mormon collectors. We asked David Sidwell, a member of the Church and a photographer whose work includes temples, some questions to explore temple images from an artist’s point of view.

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For members of the Church, what happens inside a temple is sacred, but the exterior of the buildings don’t try to portray that. They don’t rely on sculpture, for example, murals, or stained glass to tell the story of what goes on inside. When you take a photograph of a temple, how do you make it feel like sacred space?

While it’s true that the exterior of most of our temples certainly do not display the extravagance of symbolism or literalism that other Christian denominations sometimes display, but I still think that each temple portrays a certain archetypal nod to things eternal. The spires, for instance, point heavenward. Moroni appearing on some buildings hearkens to the “ensign” to the nations. One thing I most like to do when photographing any temple is to try to reduce human-made objects in the point of view as much as possible so that only the temple remains and nature, including sky. My favorite temple photos have lots of sky in them, and I usually wait for dramatic skies to be present when capturing most temples or dramatic light. To me, the sky is so big like the Gospel is big, like Heaven is big, like God’s love for us is big. If I can capture a stormy sky with a temple, I see awesome powers at work in both—the same power, really, so the more I can tap into that, the better.

One of the things that I like about LDS photographers’ images of our temples is their connection to drama and narrative. Since storytelling is also a passion of yours, I’m curious about the emotional quality of your temple pictures. For you, do the images tell a story? How do you capture those qualities in a photograph?

I’d like to think that each photograph of mine evokes a story, hints at a story, or somehow captures a defining moment of a story. When photographing people, I wait for those fleeting moments when a person suddenly smiles or displays a unique emotion and reveals themselves at the same time. I can’t ask a temple to smile, but I can wait for the right moment to click the shutter. Usually that moment is when the temple is speaking to me in some way, calling to me or simply standing strong and on guard for me as a sentinel or fortress (which is one reason why I really like the Logan Temple). Since a photograph is static and communicates only one specific moment in time, it is vitally important to select the point of view, time and other factors that help the photo suggest a story, or if not an entire story, the possibility of one.


Maybe more than other visual art forms, photography has always been about technology, whether that’s a manipulation of negatives in the darkroom or of digital files on the computer, the use of colored filters, artificial lighting, or editing software like PhotoShop. Do you think of your photographs as documents that captured a single moment, or are they compositions that you build up with separate elements?

For nearly all of my photographs, I consider the snapping of the photo to be about half of what will ultimately be in the final piece. The rest is post processing. I am definitely not a purist, and I love to work with photos in PhotoShop. Sometimes people ask me, “Did it really look like that in real life?” The real question, in my mind, should be “Did it really look like that, feel like that, and make me feel this in real life?” There are lots of things a photo can communicate beyond how something merely “looked.” My own feelings, the atmosphere of the space, symbols that I may be alluding to, etc. all have a place in a photograph, and even the most advanced camera cannot capture these things. Much of what can be communicated can be captured on the site, but some has to be done later. In the three featured photographs here, these were all relatively as found, but with enhancements of contrast and clarity. There is a current trend in temple photographs to add a dirty, grungy quality to them: specks, lines and sepia tones that make it look old fashioned. I have mixed feelings about adding this look, but mercenarily speaking I want my photos to sell and so I sometimes follow these trends, but I often do appreciate the grungy quality in that it bespeaks a kind of nostalgia, especially with the older buildings. I think this preference will pass in a few years and we’ll wonder why we added grunge to everything, but I also think that some photos that contain these elements will stand the test of time, too.

Your image of the American Fork temple, for example, is tumultuous with all of those clouds and fog. The light on those clouds is pretty incredible. Either you camped out in front of the temple for a long time waiting for such a dramatic moment, or you got really lucky that day. You must be a patient man. How did that image happen?

To be honest, I actually did camp out in front of the temple waiting for a dramatic moment. I was there before sunrise and left about four hours later. I took a lot of photos from the time I arrived to when I left, but I do remember being on the south side of the temple, photographing some architectural details when the sunlight suddenly shone through the clouds—and I knew I was in the wrong spot. I grabbed my equipment and literally ran to the west side and began shooting. The light you see there was only there for about three minutes—about as long as a really nice sunset, so I’m used to that. Luck had everything to do with it, then, but I also have become relatively familiar with how the sun interacts with clouds and sky and so hoped that such a dramatic occurrence would happen. When it did—when it does—it is always surprising how lovely the world can be and each new situation like that manages to be shockingly original.

Looking at your temple photographs and also at other LDS photographers’ work, I notice that there are almost never any people in the pictures. Given that the spiritual work of temples is all about connecting people, why is it that they don’t appear in our imagery of temples?

Wow, that’s a great point. I noted above that I try to isolate the temple from human-made objects, including humans themselves. One reason I think many of us try to exclude people is that we want our viewing of the temple to be private and personal, and having other people in the photo may undermine that. It may also communicate “people going to the temple” rather than “the temple as God’s house on Earth.” However, your note makes me want to explore the inclusion of people. I do some street photography, and I can see some of the same ideas and techniques coming into play perhaps.

I suspect, looking at your images, that you have strong feelings about the temples. What do these buildings mean to you?

The temple is a place of peace, but it is also a place of power. I can really feel a sense of enhanced energy of some sort when I attend a temple session or do other ordinances there. My 12-year old son was troubled the other day, and he requested to go to the temple grounds. It was late, but he found peace in simply being there on the grounds. He told me later that the peace didn’t just come to him; he had to use the extra power the temple gave him to drive his troubled thoughts away. I feel that same way. The temple holds power that I can tap into. I don’t know that I’ve had an experience like my son’s, but I do feel the evaporation of power if I withhold my attendance for a time, and I can literally feel myself weaker—almost exhausted—if that makes sense. The energy the temple gives me makes it easier for me to be cheerful, easier to deal with problems and challenges in positive ways.

Additional David Sidwell photographs can be viewed at this link.