Article and photos by Arthur W. Pierson, 32°
The challenges of Masonic photography provide one Brother with many interesting experiences, new insights, and warm friendships.
I have been making photographs ever since my grandparents gave me a Kodak Brownie in the mid-1960s when I was about six years old. The usual school photo clubs, newspapers, and yearbooks followed. During high school, I became involved in DeMolay, and, while attending college, I joined Stewart Manor–St. Albans Lodge No. 56 in Floral Park, New York. During my first year of college, I decided to make photography my life work.
Brother Allan Wayne Adkins, 32°, K.C.C.H., Grand Master of Virginia, 1997, his wife, Gerry, and son, Robert.
After moving to Northern Virginia, I became Chapter Dad of Alexandria–Washington Chapter, Order of DeMolay. Several years of interaction between the sponsoring Lodge and the Chapter allowed me the opportunity to get to know the members of the Lodge. It was suggested that maybe I should think about becoming a dual member with Alexandria–Washington Lodge No. 22. In 1990, my petition was voted upon favorably, and in May of 1997, I stood with my Brethren to celebrate my 16th Masonic birthday.
One of the first big photographic assignments I was ever entrusted with was to photograph the pastel (colored chalk) portrait of our Lodge’s Charter Master under Virginia authority, Brother George Washington, dressed in Masonic regalia. The portrait is by William J. Williams. During the shoot of this priceless portrait (pictured left behind M.W. Allan Wayne Adkins, 32°, K.C.C.H., Past Master, Grand Lodge of Virginia, 1997, with his wife, Gerri, and son, Robert), it had to be removed from the vault and frame. This itself was a historic event. Because it is a pastel, which is a fragile medium easily smudged, it cannot be touched. In attendance at the shoot were the Lodge’s Master, Wardens, Chairman of the Archives Committee, Lodge Archivist, Replica Room Curator, a professional paper conservator, a professional archivist, and archive framer—all to make sure the portrait was in good condition and to make sure I did not damage it in any way.
I could feel the beads of sweat on my brow as I perched my heavy 4" x 5" view camera over the fragile pastel to make the reproduction transparency. I could hear in the background several people urging me, "BE CAREFUL!" After a few minutes of this, I took two steps back and, in as authoritative a voice as I could muster, exclaimed, "I am nervous enough! You, you, and you can stay. Everyone else out, and there will be no talking!" I further explained that I had exactly one chance to get this photograph right. If I failed, it would be several more decades before there would be another chance. Surprisingly, everyone actually listened.
Since that time, I have been involved in more Masonically oriented projects than I can recall. It gives me a chill every time I think of the items I have photographed, for example holding and photographing the pen knife that Brother George Washington carried for 56 years. Ironically, I did not know why a pen knife was called a pen knife. If you don’t know the answer to that question, please refer to the October 1996 edition of the Scottish Rite Journal article "The George Washington Penknife." (A photo of the pen knife was that issue’s front color cover.)
Mark W. Underwood, 32°, K.C.C.H.
Another Masonic adventure in photography involved a stone tablet located in the outside wall of the second floor of the Alexandria City Hall. This tablet commemorates the Lodge’s relationship with the building from 1802. Wind and rain have taken their toll on the tablet to the extent that it is barely readable. This past year our Master worked very closely with the city to place a duplicate brass plaque at eye level directly beneath the original. In an attempt to figure out what the tablet reads, the city provided a cherry picker truck for us to inspect it.
Worshipful Brother Mark Wayne Underwood, 32°, K.C.C.H., Master of Alexandria–Washington Lodge No. 22 (1996), is a touch nervous about heights, yet I have a wonderful photograph of him in the basket 25 feet off the pavement hanging on for dear life (above). We next tried to do a rubbing of the tablet, which helped some, but the thing that made the difference was a photograph of the tablet shot with a hand-help strobe positioned at such an angle as to allow the light to rake over the surface of the engraving. After the photographs were processed, almost every word was legible. Even more exciting is that when I was up in the cherry picker, I made the mistake of getting the controls for my height too close to the building. Of course the duplicate controls at ground level were not working. I was stuck! After some deliberation, the only solution we could figure out was for me to brace myself against the basket and forcefully push it away from the wall. After several attempts, I finally got the basket far enough away from the obstruction to free the controls.
In another experience, I photographed the Lord Fairfax portrait where, in the original, age had muted color and detail. After the photographs were processed, color saturation and detail were better than viewing it in person. Similarly, photographing one of the keys to the Bastille resulted in a dramatic presentation appropriate for so important a part of history.
Fifty Grand Masters at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, 1996
Other Masonic shoots included a week and a half photographing every room and important detail in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Then, six years later, I was lighting director for the one-hour video program from Capstone Productions "A Tour of the George Washington Masonic Memorial." In an experience reminiscent of the Phantom of the Opera, I descended into the bowels of the Memorial and climbed on its roof to document systems in need of repair or replacement.
Also, never to be forgotten was directing 50 Grand Masters from around the nation and world, all with dynamic personalities, on two different occasions for group portraits (one above). In contrast to this, it was a piece of cake to take a dozen portraits of the Masters of Alexandria–Washington Lodge No. 22 and of several Grand Masters of the Grand Lodge of Virginia sitting in the chair that Brother Washington himself donated to the Alexandria–Washington Lodge from his library at Mt. Vernon.
These are just a few examples of the projects in which I have participated. The history that has been in front of my lens and the people that are making the history now are being compiled into a photographic record that continues to be published and displayed in literally millions of places all over the world. In this era of reawakening interest in Freemasonry and its values, I feel privileged to play a role in bringing Masonry’s message to the world. I hope to be lucky enough to have many more years to expand upon this vital visual record.
There is another facet to my photographic experiences with Masonry that has enriched my life—the people. Working on different projects has involved me with more wonderful persons than I could have imagined. The feelings of participating for the good of the Fraternity is a constant uplifting force in my life. The feeling of belonging to this Fraternity gives me the confidence that at any time I could pick up the telephone to solve a problem, share an idea, or transmit some good news. Finally, the sense I have of responsibility to this Fraternity will continue to inspire me to work harder than ever in upcoming years and so assure that I, as a professional photographer, and that Freemasonry, as the world’s greatest fraternity, will succeed photographically and fraternally well beyond my lifetime.