“Street” photography at Le Mont-Saint-Michel
by Dirk De Paepe
I remember coming back from Brest, France, in August 1989, taking another route than usual. I drove east down the “Route Nationale” N176, through the flat landscape of Brittany and Normandy, and stayed pretty near to the coast. As I approached Pontorson, all of a sudden my attention was hijacked by this cone-shaped rock with medieval-looking buildings on top, that stood out left on the horizon. In the flat landscape, this looked so totally out of place, and the buildings so intriguing, that it acted as an irresistible eye-catcher to me – a mega magnet. There was no escaping from it. Although I had to return home that same day, some 600 km further to Flanders, Belgium, I just couldn’t resist to go see what this was and went north towards the coast on the smaller “route Départementale” D776.
Getting there revealed the mountain to be completely surrounded by water. Although not too far from the coast, the rock protruded from the sea. It was loaded with buildings and had kind of a cathedral at the very top. And then it dawned on me. This was Le Mont-Saint-Michel. I had heard of it, but I didn’t realize it was situated here. Indeed, as I had imagined from the stories, it offered a pretty flabbergasting sight. I surely wanted to go there, but at that time, my schedule didn’t allow me to spend any more time.
Ever since that day, a visit to the Mount was on my bucket list. But it was only on last September 27 that I finally could tick that box.
(This article contains 33 pictures. They are places in the order that they have been taken. There’s another 33 pictures, that are not included. You can find the whole series of 66 on my Flickr pages in a dedicated album, that has the same title as this article. In that album, all pictures can be viewed in full resolution and in the right order. Click here. https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/albums/72157712049762708. )
Picture 01. Backward-forward bus
The shuttle bus doesn’t make a U-turn. It has two driver’s posts and just goes backwards and forwards.
Picture 02. Get closer with horse and carriage
In addition to the shuttle bus, you can also go by horse and carriage shuttle, which brings you even closer to the entrance.
Picture 03. Village garden view
In addition to the innumerous shops, there are also some beautiful village gardens with a great view over the planes. It is not difficult to photograph the surrounding plains while people are walking around. At low tide there are always groups that make the crossing or a circular walk on the plains.
Picture 04. Bridge traffic
The shuttle bus brings you from the car and bicycle parkings, near the trees in the background, to halfway the bridge. The horse and carriage brings you right to the entrance, at the foot of the mount.
Picture 05. Pretty crowded
Even on an average day, off season, there’s still a lot of people making the climb towards the abbey.
Le Mont Saint-Michel is a rocky island with a surface area of just 3,97 square km. It is located in a large bay at the mouth of the Couesnon, a coastal river, whose lower reaches were once the border between Brittany and Normandy. Today, this border lies just a bit further to the west – about 2 km. The granite massif of Le Mont-Saint-Michel has been crowned with a medieval abbey. The steeple of the abbey church has a statue of Saint Michael that rises a hundred and seventy meters above the bay. The island is located less than 1 km off the coast in the far west of Normandy, north of Beauvoir and southwest of Avranches. It is a tidal island that was only accessible by land at low tide, since at high tide it is surrounded by water. With an up to 15 meters higher water level at high tide, the bay has the largest tidal range in Europe. The island “was” only accessible at low tide, because since 2014 a small bridge with a shuttle service runs to the island. The narrow, sloping streets of Le Mont Saint-Michel are only accessible to pedestrians.
In 1979, Le Mont Saint-Michel with its abbey complex and the surrounding bay was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.
Picture 06. Upwards
Once you entered the abbey, the climb continues. But now it’s stairway after stairway.
Picture 07. Wall of contemplation
After so many alterations and restorations, one regularly wonders what the origin and functions of the constructions were.
Picture 08. The plateau
Behind every doorway, a new surprise awaits you.
Picture 09. What a plain!
Enlarging the view, one can notice six groups of people and three individuals within this frame, wandering around on the plains.
The very short version is that the island popped up from the ocean in one night.
The more detailed version is as follows. Originally the island would have been a mountain in a wooded area, the forest of Scissy. That forest was close to the coast and was not protected by dunes. The druids of the Celts already used the place for their cults and to make sacrifices to their gods. During a gigantic tidal wave in the year 709, the forest was destroyed in one night and much of the ground washed away to the sea. As a result, the land where the forest used to be was just low enough to be flooded by the sea at high tide. The mountain became a tidal island where later on an abbey was built.
There are various legends about the origination of the abbey. One of the nicest goes as follows.
Around the year 700, Archangel Michael appeared in three consecutive times to the bishop Aubert of Avranches at (what later was to be) Le Mont-Saint-Michel. At these appearances, he asked again and again to build a chapel. The bishop was not immediately convinced, but when the angel appeared the third time and pierced his finger in the bishop’s forehead, Aubert tacked. Whether or not this is true? Anyway, you can admire his skull with the hole in the Saint-Gervais church of Avranches.
Picture 10. Looking down
No view for those who suffer from heights.
Picture 11. Also looking down
It remains pretty impressive to look over the wall.
Picture 12. Entering the abbey church
Picture 13. Walkabout
Picture 14. Working towards the shot
Making precious memories.
In 708 a chapel was actually built on a rocky hill close to the coast at that particular spot. Originally there were canons (members of the clergy who are on the staff of a cathedral) at the chapel. They were later replaced by Benedictine monks. The Benedictines founded a monastery and build the pre-Romanesque church Notre Dame Sous Terre, which was inaugurated in 709. But in the same year there was a tidal wave, which caused the hill to lie completely in the water.
When the Normans arrived in this area, they build houses around the monastery. From the time that the Normans Frenchified (their region became “Normandy”) and were converted to christianity, there was an expansion around the monastery. An important phase in the history of Le Mont-Saint-Michel hill began in 966, when 30 Benedictine monks were asked to build a large abbey church on top of the hill. Archangel Michael was chosen as patron saint, because of (the story of) his appearance to the bishop Aubert. Hence the origin of the name “Le Mont-Saint-Michel”.
The first stone of the abbey was laid in 1017 and it was finished in 1144. But in 1203 a large part of the church burned down. The abbey was almost completely rebuilt in a Gothic style. Because it was a wonderful building, it was named La Merveille (The Wonder). In the eastern part (1211-1218) one could find the entrance, the chapel, the guest room and the refectory. In the 14th century the defensive walls to protect the entrance also were erected on this side. The northern part (1218-1228) contained the knight’s hall, the cells of the monks, the store room and the cloister. The abbey buildings from the 13th and 15th centuries, with the living quarters of the abbot and the garrison, were on the southern side.
A period of great pilgrimage to Le Mont-Saint-Michel began. As if by miracle, the hill could not be captured during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337 to 1453). As a result, the pilgrimages were yet multiplying, with the result that a lot of money poured into the island.
And then came the French Revolution (1789), which also played a major role in the history of Le Mont-Saint-Michel. The monks were chased away. The abbey was stripped down and converted into a prison. It remained that way until 1863. As from 1874 the abbey and the ramparts were assigned to the services of the historical monuments belonging to the Ministry of Fine Arts. Since then, no expense has been spared to restore the buildings to their former glory. The current bell tower was added in 1897, which rises 157 m above sea level and is for sure one of the special sights of Le Mont-Saint-Michel. A golden Archangel Michael adorns the steeple at a hight of 170m. Still it has to be said that the restoration works are not completely undisputed in the light of preserving the authenticity.
Its turbulent history has made Le Mont-Saint-Michel today an extremely complex set of elements that have been expanded and altered numerous times. It often makes you wonder why they were constructed, what their original purpose was. To me this meant a huge boost for my imagination, always thinking about what could have happened, how people lived here centuries ago…
Anyway, the complex remains a unique and grand phenomenon, more than worth a visit.
Picture 15. Seizing the opportunity
In the marvelous corridor around the central garden of the cloister (La Merveille), everyone wants to photograph and be photographed.
Picture 16. How many may have jumped…
My imagination ran wild here. Now a window has been mounted, but erst, this was just an opening to the abyss?
Picture 17. Initiating
The refectory is yet another impressive room.
Picture 18. Impressive indeed
Picture 19. On to the light
Not every stairway is just as easy to climb or descend.
Picture 20. Awe
Since built on a hill, almost every abbey corridor is actually a stairway.
The number of photos that have ever been taken from, in and around Le Mont-Saint-Michel for sure must amount to many hundreds of millions. You can easily find an endless variation online.
So I wondered: do I have anything to add to this huge existing stock of images? If this were possible at all, then perhaps with a different approach…
Instead of trying to display “the item” Le Mont-Saint-Michel as radiant as possible, I wanted to visualize the atmosphere of an actual visit. That’s why I attached great importance to the people in my images. Withal, it’s impossible to ignore them when you’re there. I rarely want to portray a space in the typical “ideal” way. I rather try to show how people interact with it, as everyone would be able to observe at any random visit. I hope that some of my picture can create some curiosity about what is next to the image. In fact, I’d love it if I could get some of you interested in an actual visit to Le Mont-Saint-Michel… 🙂
I preferred the pictures to come from just one session. I considered that this would be more truthful than when I would select the pictures from many days of shooting, trying to photograph each scene in optimal conditions. It guessed that, with this approach, my images would stay closer to what one can expect when actually visiting the site. I was there on Friday September 27, 2019, out of the high season, i.e. a day with not too many visitors. Going up to the abbey, I chose the route behind the village – a lot quieter and with a better view on the houses, their gardens and the surroundings. I returned from the abbey through the village with its countless shops and eateries.
All photos were taken between 12:30 pm and 4:00 pm, the duration of an average visit to the abbey, although it’s for sure worthwhile to spend much more time.
Picture 21. Knight’s hall
Great medieval light makes its way through the high windows. This is the knight’s hall.
Picture 22. Great entry
At the right, one of the fireplaces in the Knight’s Hall.
Picture 23. Broad shoulders
A matter of support. There is a lot of weight to carry.
Picture 24. Picturing the wheel
After the French Revolution, when Le Mont-Saint-Michel was turned into a prison, this wheel was constructed. The wheel brought the food to the prisoners on the higher floor.
Picture 25. In between the columns
In yet another surprisingly beautiful room, right at the end of your abbey visit, the light meanders sparingly along the columns.
So I approached the shoot as street photography, which to me means trying to sketch the interaction between environment and human behavior. I believe timing is a crucial parameter in this. I try to capture the action immediately, without the slightest delay and prefer not to waste time focusing, let alone zooming. That’s why I use a classic manual focus prime lens, made for zone focusing. Sometimes, when the action is further away, I imagine a smaller frame within my viewfinder and will crop later. Because of the cropping potential, I like to shoot with a hires sensor. So I’ll crop instead of using a tele or zoom. Of course, when I have the time, I like to use my legs… 🙂
When looking at 100%, you can sometimes notice a bit of motion blur, due to the speed of shooting and the fact that I regularly shoot while moving – to draw the least possible attention. Also, because of the dark environment in the abbey, there will sometimes be quite some noise in the images. But most of the time, I don’t mind these flaws in street photography. The content and the mood prevail to me. Often the picture’s final resolution doesn’t necessarily have to be very high anyway. When viewing, in most cases the resolution reduction will flatten these flaws. With some of the pictures in this series though, it can be worthwhile to enlarge certain parts. As I said, I find the people very important. I think it can be interesting to zoom in on them, within the whole of the image, to better see how they act.
As said, I like to shoot with a typical old school lens, with which I can easily zone focus. I usually prefer a larger depth of field, because I think that this often can tell a better story. I believe there are sufficient ways to assign importance to topics, other than applying shallow depth of field. There’s composition, lighting+exposure, contrast, colors, etc. I try to treat these with great care. I also like to regularly include things in my pictures that are only noticed when looking just a bit longer or a bit more in detail.
At the moment of shooting, I want to provide all necessary potential, regarding composition and exposure. In those cases that I shoot really fast, to get the perfect timing, I compose by feeling. When reviewing, I analyze the composition to perfect it. I intend to take great care of the composition, and will as a rule work in great detail. In this phase I will often spend a lot of time on the precise finish.
So I do the ‘fine-tuning’ and finishing in post production – which of course always takes a lot more time than the shooting itself. I have sometimes fine tuned the framing, sometimes straightened the lines (when this added to the architectural value) and sometimes cropped (when there was no time or opportunity to get closer to the action).
I always shoot in RAW, so for all pictures, I performed the color processing and fine tuned the exposure in post production. I did not convert the images to black and white, as is normally considered typical for street shots, because in this case the colour allowed me to accentuate the drabness of the centuries-old buildings. With the exposure and the color treatment I mainly wanted to emphasize the beauty of the roughness of the surfaces, as well as the half darkness that prevails in most rooms of the abbey.
My intention was to make the images fit to the impression that the site left on me when I was walking around there. Not all photos needed the same level of processing, but I still pursued homogeneity.
Picture 26. Need a break
After the visit. How a simple sill can act as a welcome seat…
Picture 27. Vintage publicity
No neon nor led advertising in the medieval streets. Of course.
Picture 28. Busy street
On an average, quiet low season day…
Picture 29. Pointing out the light
A ray of sunshine, dropping down the narrow streets.
All photos were taken with my good old Zeiss 2.8 / 28 ZM Biogon lens. Well, for a lens it’s actually not that old at all, because I only acquired it in 2010. But it is indeed the first M-mount lens I ever bought. For street shooting, I want my gear to be light, compact, unobtrusive and simple and quick to use. The 28mm ZM has become my favorite lens for street photography. Being just a tad wider than a classic street photography lens, I often feel as if it ads a bit of mojo, but without adding too much distortion to the perspective. It performs at its best in the middle area of the aperture and that is what I want for zone focusing. At f/8 and careful manual focusing, I get a depth of field from 1.5m to infinity, which means that I get enough detail in almost all circumstances. For this use, I think the rendering of this lens is excellent. When I bought this Zeiss, I tried it alongside a similar Leica – I think it was the Summicron, although this is a f/2 versus f/2.8 for the Zeiss. At that time, I found that the Zeiss performed significantly better at larger depth of field. I therefore chose the Zeiss.
As a body I (still) used the Sony A7R2. I read in comments that the two (Zeiss ZM and A7) do not form an obvious combination – that there are some issues. But I don’t want to dig into that, due to the irrelevance for this article. I really do like this set for street photography, where character comes first. The whole is quite compact and not very striking or disturbing for the environment. To me, for street shots, it ticks all the boxes.
After a whole period of immediate switching at the launch of a new generation, I stayed with the A7R2. For my style of photography, I saw no significant improvement with the R3. At the launch of the R4, I initially thought that I would take this step, but then I started to doubt. The 43MP of the R2 is really a lot, and already allows strong cropping. Even with an exceptionally cropped framing, like an equivalent of an 85mm tele, I still get around 5MP, which is sufficient for most street photography publishing conditions. But as said, that kind of cropping is exceptional. I don’t find that 60MP really adds so much more in that regard, to make it worthwhile.
In the past, I was always left with things that I really wanted to see improved on my digital cameras. But, although not perfect, the R2 eventually offered me the level of quality that I had always wanted. I therefore doubt whether I could create clearly noticeably better images with a newer device. So for now I’ll just wait and see which way the wind blows. Maybe, when a new Sony body comes along that allows a much better recovery of the highest exposed tints, I will make a switch. But I suspect that retrieving pixels, that are hardly or not at all present, will always remain a problem. In one photo of this series of 66 images (33 in this article and another 33 on my Flickr pages) I have felt this lack. Only one.
All in all, I hope that my report can encourage some of you to actually go visit Le Mont-Saint-Michel. It is more than worth the effort. I can also advise you to look for some background information – this will certainly give your visit more cachet.
Thanks for reading and viewing. I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour. 😉
Picture 30. Back through the gate
Hopefully it will stay up…
Picture 31. Retrospect
Back outside, after all that medieval obscurity, one is almost blinded by so much open space.
Picture 32. Final pose
You can see couples photographing each other in abundance. This is just one example.
The crowd for the shuttle back is greater than for the departure.