Shooting stained glass is passion for Kanapaux


CHARLESTON — Bill Kanapaux is reluctant to say that he is obsessed with photographing stained glass windows, but he does admit to a passion for the work. That passion has resulted in a project that has both documented the historic beauty of the stained glass in the diocesan cathedral and made the art available to the public.

Kanapaux is an amateur photographer who takes it seriously. He began as part of a photography club at the Medical University of South Carolina, where he was registrar. He won slide essay competitions at the Coastal Carolina Fair and has produced other memorable work in the past, but his avocation turned passionate when he first noticed the detail of the Angel Gabriel in the Annunciation window in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

“It got to be a calling,” he said. “I could almost hear a voice saying, take pictures of the windows.”

He soon realized that the windows were so complex — and oftentimes so busy — that worshippers who tried to take in the impact of a whole glass tableau were easily perplexed. There was simply too much to see all at once.

The same was true of photographs. Photos of whole windows were cluttered. The window framing and the lead borders got in the way. Kanapaux started looking at the elements that made up each window as he began formulating a general plan for his project.

“The detail is where the true artwork lies in stained glass windows. The expressions on people’s faces, the details in their garments, the colors. If you try to see it all at one time, you don’t get the overwhelming impact of the art,” Kanapaux said.

He cites as an example the crucifixion window. He breaks it down into its four components: the crucifixion, Mary and John in deep grief, the angels, and Mary Magdalene reaching up her hand to touch the cross. Each component was an artistic study in itself. When he shot the window in sections, he saw that the leading holding the pieces of glass together was hardly noticeable, not intrusive as it often was in full-window shots.

The photographer began a two-year study of the art of stained glass windows. He researched techniques, haunted libraries and churches, even took a trip to Germany. German artists and artisans created most of the cathedral glass in the late 19th century. Kanapaux can tell you, for instance, that stained glass originated in Europe in Christian churches; he can tell you about the properties of glass, a supercooled liquid, and about the staining and painting techniques of creating the artworks that grace our worship spaces. Then he spent two years on a ladder photographing the glass in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. He shot 500-plus slides. His goal was always to catch the natural beauty of the glass. “Light is everything with stained glass. I wanted the slides to look like the windows look on a sunny Sunday morning.”

He spent another year editing his work, finally ending up with a set of 70. Franz Mayer of Munich, Inc., bought a set. President Gabriel Mayer called the slides beautiful and thanked Kanapaux for his “great interest in our historic work.”

The pastoral team at cathedral parish chose eight of the slides and Kanapaux commissioned a press to turn them into notecards. The cards, which sell for $10, have proven to be popular with locals and tourists alike. The cathedral also uses a Kanapaux stained glass photo to grace Christmas and Easter cards. They are printed with liturgy schedules on the back; since the cards are keepsakes, the schedules don’t get lost.

Kanapaux has also produced a lively and informative slide show that he has presented to groups across the Lowcountry. He will even visit a few shut-ins to make his presentations.

“No one should be deprived of the pleasure of seeing these treasures,” Kanapaux said.

Other Catholic churches in South Carolina have similar stained glass treasures. St. Peter in Columbia, St. Mary in Charleston and St. Mary in Georgetown all have Mayer windows, for instance. William J. Kanapaux, stained glass photographer, can be reached at 795-5228.