Feeling Light: Elizabeth Bick’s photographs at the Pantheon, Rome

FT Weekend Magazine, September 3/4, 2022

Feeling Light

David Campany

FT Weekend Magazine, September 3/4, 2022

As visitors pass between the giant bronze doors of the Pantheon in Rome, their faces change. It is not the heavy awe we associate with a grand cathedral but something much more elemental. A rare combination of space, light and sound makes the senses crackle to attention. Nobody quite knows the original purpose of the Pantheon but its name, meaning ‘every god’, keeps it inclusive and somehow very human. All are welcome. The interior is circular and open plan, with nowhere to hide. Step inside and you are part of it.

High above is a domed ceiling with a looming oculus at its centre. The distance from the oculus to the floor is the same as the width of the space, forty-three metres. A sphere of that diameter would fit snugly inside. Staring upward, you feel as if you are within a giant eye, or perhaps a camera.  It is mind-boggling that this still unrivalled architectural marvel dates from 128 AD, but the real drama is the light. When the doors are closed its only source is that open oculus. On overcast days it gives is a softness to the volume of air. Raindrops plummet through the wafting incense to the coloured marble floor below. As your gaze moves from the brightness above to eye level, seeing becomes a conscious, physical experience, and the most compelling thing to look at is other people. They are doing exactly as you are. Feeling the light.

In high summer the sun hangs long and bright, and a beam of otherworldly brilliance pierces the space. It hits the wall, tracks downward, and reaches the centre of the floor. Crowds gather and the light bounces up to their faces. The background falls into near darkness and suddenly everyone is part of a Renaissance tableau. People slow down and watch each other. Every gesture, conscious or unconscious, is laden with symbolism. You can understand why all those painters fell in love with this light, Caravaggio most of all.

The photographer Elizabeth Bick comes to the Pantheon for a week or so around the summer solstice, when the light and the crowds are most vivacious. Next year will be her tenth visit. She used to be a dancer, but now she watches others move on the streets of New York, photographing with an eye that is analytical but deeply empathetic. Watch closely enough and life reveals rhythms and patterns no choreographer could invent.

Now and then, visitors step into the Pantheon’s circle of light, to pose or simply bathe in it, although the guards discourage this. All around, moments of unplanned beauty unfold for a sharp eye and a quick shutter. Passing interactions flare with brief drama. Movements mirror each other for a fraction of a second. Strangers drop their guard, surprised at the unity of just being here. Photography is a bodily act and Bick must move nimbly through it all, keeping her vision wide and her camera ready.  She is the first to arrive each morning, soaking up the atmosphere. Time passes, and the sun passes, its light transforming the space continuously. The stream of visitors rises and falls. Some, like Bick herself, are making their own return pilgrimages. There are people here she has photographed across the years. By dusk, her muscles ache and her nerves are shredded. A light dinner, wine, good rest and an early rise to begin again. The regular days make her more receptive to the little miracles humanity offers without knowing it.

In 2020 and 2021 the Pantheon remained open, but to limited numbers. Flying from the USA was impossible. The pandemic nearly scuppered Bick’s annual visits, until she found a way to operate remotely.  She worked with a trusted a photographer from Rome, relaying a live feed to her New York studio, from where she could direct the framing and timing. It sounds implausible, but think how much we all achieved online when we had to. Even so, the experience of almost missing out doubled Bick’s resolve to return this year. When she did, she could feel the crowd had an even greater intensity than before. People wanted to rediscover their public selves, and the Pantheon was an ideal place to do it.

Light is an everyday phenomenon. But when architecture makes light thinkable, it becomes strange. We do not really see the world around us: we see the light that it reflects. Although it shapes and gives meaning to mundane life, that light is cosmic, quite literally. It travels further and faster than anything we know. Looking up to that giant iris in the dome of the Pantheon, you sense the light that hits your eyes is concluding a long and mysterious journey. The Pantheon may not make you want to worship the sun but it will make you profoundly grateful for its light. And when that light illuminates us so sublimely, it might even make us grateful for each other.