On my road trip to Boulder, Colorado last week I had the opportunity to pass through Taos, New Mexico. This is one of my bucket list destinations. The sad part is that there are two things to see on my list in Taos and I only got to do one of them. There is an amazing pueblo there which has been inhabited continuously for the past 1,000 years, and I was ready to pay the entrance fee plus the per camera fee to see and be with it for awhile. When we got there a Native Indian standing guard at the pueblo entrance in the middle of the road was turning everybody around saying very curtly, “Pueblo is closed for a week.” He was much bigger than me and, from his demeanor it was obvious he wasn’t open to taking any special requests. *RATS* I went through the grieving process within a few seconds, realizing there was no way I was going to get visit the pueblo on this trip so turned around and went onto my second target, the Saint Francis De Asis Church.
The first photo I ever saw of Saint Francis De Asis church by Ansel Adams, taken in 1929, is epic. Back in the late 1970′s when I got my first real camera, an Olympus OM1, I was shooting black & white exclusively. My nature is to always learn from the best and I put a lot of effort into my passions so I read and studied everything I could from Ansel Adams, who was still alive then. His photograph of this church intrigued me a lot. So now that I was so close to Taos, I wanted to go see this place.
How interesting it is to finally see a place like this that you only know from photos. Upon arrival and taking in the scene, it really titillated my right brain. The structure wasn’t as large as it looks in photographs, yet, in a way it was larger than life. From the right angles it looks like the Ansel Adams photo and the Georgia O’Keeffe paintings of the church, yet it’s so different too. Artistically it’s quite a growth experience so see something like this in person and go through the creative artistic process personally to see how I respond to the reality of the scene vs. how the artists before me responded to it and then rendered it in their medium of choice.
If ever there was an image destined to be rendered in monochrome, this is it. While the color in the scene is gorgeous, the real essence of this church belongs in the shapes, lighting, form, and texture. Maybe from another angle, especially from the front of the church, color is appropriate. Not here. This is definitely a subject to be appreciated for it’s essence and that is a job for black & white photography or impressionistic painting.
While I was there it occurred to me that the Franciscan Priest who built this church almost 250 years ago must have been somewhat of an artist himself. What would possess a man to built a church in this form anyway? Is there a functional purpose for the conical blobular (a word I make up) shapes at the corners? None I could see. Asnel Adams said that the shape makes the church appear to have grown from the earth instead of something created upon it. This structure is a truly a piece of art.
Before going to this church I purposefully didn’t look at the Ansel Adams photograph. Not wanting to be influenced as to my point of view I went with a fresh head to took time to see this place. Obviously it looks strikingly different throughout the day. Shadows play an important part so the sun & clouds matter. I saw two perspectives that I really like. This one and the other is looking straight from the rear fo the church… the same point of view of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.
My setup was on a tripod and using my Tokina 11-17mm wide angle lens. Most lenses are sharpest at an aperture setting of f8, so that’s what I try to always use as long as lighting condition allow that. Back in the day, when I shot black & white film, I often used filters to alter the tones in my photographs. I was a big fan of red & orange filters which dramatically darken the sky so I processed this with that in mind to achieve that look. The walls of the church were so bright I decided that a contrasting dark sky would set them off even better.
After finishing the processing of my photo I went back to Ansel Adams’ photo of Saint Francis De Asis church and noticed that his sky is nearly white! This seemed unusual because he almost always had very dramatic sky and clouds in his photographs. Hmmmm, I needed to learn more about that. A little more research is in order. Ansel Adams has written a lot of books, most of which I have owned for years. What I found out then was that he intentionally did NOT use any filter on this shot. I read where he says that as he was setting up his shot an Angel whispered to him , “no filter“. By using no filter at all, it rendered the sky very light which gives his photo an intense sense of luminosity. So, I’m still learning from the Master. Having a little guidance from The Angels doesn’t hurt either.