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April 20, 2005

Ratz on the Balcony


If it had been up to John Paul, those cardinals would have better timed the news cycle. 

Because the ‘Zinger from the Vatican occurred in mid-day in the States, the story missed the papers.  However, this was the image that fronted the NYT website for most of the day.  (You can refer to a subsequently cropped version here.)

The caption read:

Under the crucifix that was carried before him, Pope Benedict XVI, “a simple, humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard,” blessed pilgrims from his balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

One interesting thing about this shot is how little context it has to the balcony.  (In fact, in all the photos I’ve ever seen of that balcony, I don’t recall such a prominent view of a side wall before.)  With the lack of enthusiasm for the selection here in the west, does the image reflect the tendency to look askance at what’s transpired?  Could it be a case of isolating the new Pope before he gets the chance to do the same thing to more liberal Catholics, or to the secular or the Islamic world?

Also, the angle is disturbing.  It creates an inability to orient to the ground.  The framing marginalizes the new Pope and the icon, making the blackened corner the central focus.  It seems like a strange statement, but what is there to make of it — if anything?  Is the church suddenly off balance now?  Is the institution entering a black period, or working itself into a corner?   

Above all, you have to wonder — in this critical first shot of a Pope introducing himself to the world — how we could appear so isolated.  It would seem even the world’s most reclusive man would come off like a great populist at a moment like this.  In this image, though, there is no sense of the crowd and only the slightest connection to it.  Rather, we have Benedict as close to the house as he could be.

Ratzinger, however, is not just set back.  He is also situated to an extreme side.  Of course, this might suggests any number of things.  (Not the least, that he’s an extremist.)  It could also telegraph that the man has his own edges to deal with.  It raises the possibility — at age seventy-eight — he could have only marginal impact.  Considering the stature of his predecessor, it might reinforce the concern he’ll be seen as a side act.  Or, given the amount of time John Paul was ill, it might hint Ratz had already been running the show from the sidelines.

The other thing that’s notable is the prominence of that crucifix.  To me, its luster seems less about spirit than treasure.  (Of course, a Pope also prays for that.)  There was another thing that struck me about it, though.  If you count the five figures, it makes Ratzinger the sixth man in the picture. 

On your first day on the job, when the stage is yours alone, it seems a little tough to be so isolated, but, at the same time, to not quite stand out.

(image: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters in

  • cj

    My take on this is that the new Pontiff has his focus and his priority–the crucifix (i.e., church doctrine and tradition)–and that everything else is secondary, or subserviant. I consider this a keeping the eyes on the prize sort of photo. Perhaps he is isolated, but perhaps he is considering the “higher law” perspective. In other words, he is a man of doctrine, rather than the “flock.”

  • Munguza

    I think it’s just shitty work by the photographer & editor.

  • Glinda

    I just happened on your site and, frankly, loved reading your reflections on the photographs. You seem to have both an expertise in photographic techniques and photoediting but also a keen awareness of the interaction of the viewer with the photo and the visceral impact a well-crafted photograph can have — like Susan Sontag but not remote and intellectually purist.
    Truth be told, I actually got here by clicking on an ad at DailyKos. Great ad by the way!
    I’ve bookmarked this site and will be back.

  • TheCat

    It could just be that the photographer was standing off to the side as the new Pope came out, and really wanted a shot of both the pope with the hands outstretched or praying, and the gold cross, and this was the best he / she could get…

  • MonsieurGonzo

    Pope Pole just Rolled Over
    this guy is ex-Wehrmacht.
    indulge me while i type that again, just so i can feel the virtual blood-ink soak into the virtual white paper of my computer screen, scream:
    this guy is ex-Wehrmacht.
    “but he deserted in 1945,” said the handsome American man, sitting across from me at the cafe Vieux Colombier, a stone’s throw from the old church St. Sulpice.
    at which point the Frenchman sitting to my left leaned over (you know how small these tables are) and said, “so, too did Monsieur Hitler “desert” in 1945.”
    in doesn’t matter what they name this guy, Benedictine & Brandy or, what ever: everyone calls him il Papa RATZINGER. just seems to fit.
    God only knows what The Church was thinking. North / South America, Northern / Western Europe : you can write all that off, sweetie.
    camera angle? composition? context? FRAME / fugeddaboutit. (how would YOU like this P.R. campaign contract :) every time we’ll see this RATZINGER around children, we’ll cringe.
    this guy is ex-Wehrmacht :-/

  • moses

    The photo is gorgeous, artistic, and mysterious and compelling and the commentary/comments by Gonzo, likewise!!
    I think it is a truly beautiful photograph, and its being askew– an artistic necessity of composition, I think, if one honors the golden cross that is accorded ascendancy in the photo– is so appropriate given this horrific, nightmarish, throwback selection of Pope.
    Did anyone think of Dr. Caligary? Of the place and time of that movie and what it foretold? This man harks from that place, and that madness.
    I imagine the photographer is an artist and framed the photo according to what was most compelling– the cross as an objet d’art and also probably quite ancient and older than the man in the corner dressed in his shiney new garb.
    I imagine the photographer loving the beauty of Italy and Rome– it’s beautiful marbles, its tones, as is shown in the photo– its history of great art which broke forth– happening to often have religious themes particular to the place as the political theocracy that was centered there– — that’s what the money was buying at the time– but in the end, to many, the art transcends its subject matter, or carries the subject matter to an even higher plane. (as in this case, the despicable Ratzinger is found in the photo of the beautiful Italian setting).
    While the photographer may have meant to show the transcendancy of Christ or the ancient mysteries of the church — its greater importance than the man in the corner– a Protestant perspective would be that you have a man praying to an Icon– and this would be, to a Protestant, and apt symbol of this man, and the Catholic Church, having elected him .

  • anonymous

    Clearly it shows an insignificant man (in the bottom left corner), bowing to the far-right, off-kilter Catholic beliefs. Or maybe the photographer just tripped while snapping a poorly composed image…

  • chris

    i love this website! i just discovered it. here’s my rambling take, easy on the semiotics:
    i think previous comments were right in saying this tis the best a photographer could come up with, and it’s not too bad.
    framing on the diagonal allows the largest image of ratzinger and cross possible, without including other details (including other people) on the balcony. compare this pic to other photographs to see this. this shows intent of the edited picture was to dramatize the man. that’s the story, right? the cross is the obvious symbolic corollary, second subject almost. it’s a natural framing idea for anyone taking such a picture. including the picture of the cross in the pic of the man increases the semantic, iconic nature of photo. from a sheer practical newspaper perspective, the cross increases the pure informational load of the image. who is that man, oh there’s a cross and a man, it must be the new pope?
    cropping of ratzinger is compositionally clumsy in that it skews the pic from the horizontal, but necessary if you’re isolating ratzinger. could easily have been fixed by photoshopping tilting and moving the cross closer to ratzinger … but isn’t that a “sin”, to photoshop the pope? (i can imagine the editor thinking … what would ever happen if anyone found out we photoshopped a picture with the pope?)
    apart from the too-close cropping of the pope, this image has grown on me. the pic is perfectly exposed for dramatic lighting of subject, natural light. hmmm despite my assumption that the photo wasn’t altered by moving elements, methinks the pope and the cross are highlighted a bit, maybe the image was “burned” a little bit, which really isn’t “altering”, right? still, very dramatic, a little chiarascuro, evokes renaissance paintings and the the dramatic interiors of sacred palaces, shafts of light streaming through clerestory windows, blue gray smoke rising from ornate censers … the godfather III …
    i won’t go where others did, that the skewed horizon and hooded eyes denote some type of uber-villian situation, a la batman, where the views of the villians’ hideouts are tilted at an angle of 22 and 1/2 degrees …
    or, that the “simple, humble worker in the lord’s vineyards” is wearing handmade vestments that cost more than a bespoke saville row suit. or that the cross in the picture is probably solid gold, crafted by one of the great florentine artisans of the quattrocento … and that this simple sheperd is assuming the reins of the most durable and ancient, most powerful and continuous monarchy in the history of the world … arguably the single greatest organizing force in all history …
    as for other’s comments about the man, i don’t know what to say. i sit in judgement of no man. i’m defintely no fan, i’m not religious (a neo-platonist agnostic if anything) but wonder at people’s automatic villification, a la Gonzo above. my eyes are opened, i thank you. a nazi pedophile, is that it? i forgot how life can be wonderfully precise. in my life, i miss the moral certainty that comes with an esoteric reading of seventh-hand ‘facts’. mea culpa. don’t hate the player, hate the game.
    i can only reserve judgment on the man. i don’t know him. he looks happy in the picture, though. so do the crowds. quite a love-feast.
    i’d love to see this guy on an episode of “cribs”

  • Drew Thaler

    Well, let’s see. The two deliberate elements in the photo are definitely Benedict XVI and the cross. The askew angle and framing of the pope in the far corner seem to be deliberate. The deep shadows are probably deliberate, as those could have been brightened up. They make it a very dark picture.
    The cross is very interesting because it seems a little dark, dull and tarnished, as well as leaning as if to fall over. The leaning is deliberate, the dull look was probably not a deliberate choice but more an accident of circumstance.
    You could take it as the pope being subservient and praying to the cross for guidance, but for whatever reason I just don’t get that from the picture. He doesn’t look very subservient.
    Really I almost feel like it puts the smiling pope in *opposition* to the cross. He is well-lit and appears to be standing straight, while the cross is dull and in the shadows. He is on one side, the cross is on the other. The cross still occupies its higher heavenly position, but it seems neglected compared to the earthly pope.
    There was definitely an editorial statement being made by whomever picked this photo out.

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