Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Ranchos de Taos Church in New Mexico

The San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico has been for decades one of the shrines of modern photography. Painted by Georgia O'Keeffe, and photographed by Paul Strand and Ansel Adams, before WWII, it was placed on the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1970. Constructed in the late 18th Century by the Spanish missionaries, of adobe, it has been kept in repair ever since. Both the front and rear views of the structure have pictorial interest, primarily because of the massing of support required of adobe construction. The tamped-earth buttresses lend a primitive strength to the visual impression, and make it seem like an expression of solidity and permanence, though adobe is not particularly sturdy as a building-material, and the of loss of light in the interior space is a sacrifice to that limitation.

I've visited the church twice, and came away with wonderful negatives both times. It's hard not to see interesting compositions in the ground glass. As you move around the structure, the angles and bulk of the massing rearrange continuously, bringing striking views into position. Different artists and photographers have seen the structure in many different ways. My own vision required the intensifying of contrasts, to empasize the clarity of the form(s) under the sharp Southwest atmospheric light. Others might prefer to photograph a woman in Indian garb, leaning with her back to the wall. Or a painter might see a cheerful, almost childlike quality to the rudiments of the arrangement, perhaps emphasizing the color of the flowers in the front entry courtyard.

The rear nave wings look different in photographs taken by Adams and Strand, because renovations actually change the surface finish periodically. But it's the basic structural massing that works. No later technical modification to improve its performance under weathering, or the usual decay over time, would improve its appeal. It works best just the way it is. When a structure is as beautiful as this one is, we must adjust our use of it to respect its original design, lest we destroy its natural beauty. There's nothing "natural" about a man-made structure, of course, but a building like this is clearly closer to the material realities of man's place on the earth, than a steel or glass or concrete construct. Available materials, used in a way that takes advantage of their innate qualities, usually have that quality.

These two prints were derived from negatives made in the late 1980's--the top one with my 8x10 Deardorff, and other with a 4x5 Wista View. The film was probably Tri-X 320. I'll go back some day to pay homage once again. Are the Ranchos de Taos photographs clich├ęs? Without any doubt they are. When you photograph something like a famous building, you can't help repeating other people's discoveries and preferences. But consider portraiture. The variations of facial features and expressions are seemingly limitless, but the basic form--an oval--or an oval with neck and shoulders--is unusually restricting. Yet you don't hear people complain about the "monotony" or lack of interest in photographic portraiture. That's rather how I see this church: It has a basic structural form, but the changing light and our individual reaction(s) to it are various. Each person sees something different in it. If 10 different photographers did portraits of Garbo, or Marilyin Monroe, or Jack Nicholson, each one would see something different. We wouldn't complain that Garbo or Monroe were hackneyed subjects, or that just "photographing them again" would be repetitive or predictable. I feel the same way about this church.

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