So, does this look familiar? I swear I did not know what I was doing when I took this shot. After I got home and started developing my photos digitally, there seemed to be something oddly familiar about the angle and the shape of this church. I couldn’t figure it out, and I originally thought that this shot was unusual because I chose the back of the church to focus on. There was something iconic about the shapes and how they fit together — the tonality of the adobe — that made me really want to capture it.
I’m not the only photographer or artist who has taken a look at the backside of this church and thought “I must have that.” It turns out that many examples of the back of this church appears in the dialog of images of the Southwest.
I found Ansel Adams’ image, taken circa 1929 to be very interesting. I had no overt knowledge of this image before doing a bit of research upon my return from Taos this week.
I decided to see what I could do to approximate the same image ratio and color. The second image shows my results after utilizing Darktable and Gimp for processing and desaturating the color. Side by side, Adams’ image looks taller and more austere. Of course, his format is different and his materials and technique, wildly different; not to mention his expertise and skill at capturing the universal elemental expression that is felt at this very spot, if one simply looks.
What I find intriguing is that I chose virtually the same angle as my predecessor did over 80 years ago. When editing, I decided to keep my lens flare in the image. My photo was obviously taken at a different time of day in a different season, but the similarities to me are incredibly striking. I must have stood in almost the same spot Adams chose. Note also that the present day stucco is quite different and softer. By my understanding, the structure is re-stuccoed just about every year by the villagers.
Ansel Adams wrote in his book Elements, “it is not really large, but it appears immense. The forms are fully functional; the massive rear buttress and the secondary buttress to the left are organically related to the basic masses of adobe, and all together seem an outcropping of the earth rather than merely an object constructed upon it.” This is even more true with age and the softening of the edges by repeated application of adobe.
“We should never deny the power of intuition or hesitate to follow its revelations… It is essential that the artist trust the mechanisms of both intellect and creative vision. The conscious introspective critical attitude has no place in the luminous moments of creative expression, but should be reserved for later, when the work is complete.”
He stated, “I seemed to know precisely the square yard of earth on which to place my tripod.” He also says, “Some intuitive thrust made this picture possible.”
I completely agree.
Another famous artist also found the back of this church irresistible: Georgia O’Keefe. Also apparently completed in 1929, her painting is a bit of a different take, because she chose a different angle and different materials to communicate the timelessness and the elemental quality of the structure.
And of course, not being able to help myself when in the presence of this church, I felt the need to document it from other interesting angles as well.
It appears I was more interested in the buttress on the left, and O’Keefe was rightly more interested in the rectangular shape of the rear of the church and the visual asymmetry of both sides. From my light reading, O’Keefe and Adams were in Taos the same year, and both were intrigued by this church.
Originality be damned, it’s reassuring to see that these two luminaries, as well as many others, experienced and attempted to communicate the striking presence of this church. I took what I believe is a unique angle of the structure, and I find the sky against the snow and adobe textures elemental and sensual in this image.
I suppose this image could have been taken at almost any adobe structure in town, but I do like the shape and grain of the buttress with the thin frosting of snow against the strength of the towering adobe walls and the clear blue sky. I believe that while being abstract, the image reflects the strength and compassion I have found in the people and land of the region.
Overall, I guess I accidentally learned quite a bit from this church at Ranchos de Taos. It is rewarding to recognize a happy accident and look at other interpretations (sometimes eerily similar) after an experience, especially considering the expanse of time, technique and season.
This photograph was taken around 1900, in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). This is my great-great grandfather. I restored the image using GIMP. Details on how I did this and the full size image of the original are in this post.
Last week, my mother sent me a photograph of my great-great grandfather, Moses Maurice Smith, who came from Georgia and settled in Indian Territory in the 19th Century. He died in Bohchito, Oklahoma in 1925. Anyway, another relative emailed her the photograph, and I thought it was really cool. This must have been taken in Oklahoma – or Indian Territory, as it was called then (Oklahoma became a state in 1907, right around the time this photo must have been taken). Whoever scanned it used a good resolution – the original is 1981 x 1601 at 300 dpi. That’s not really huge, but it’s worth working on to get some decent results, especially if all I want to do is display it at screen resolution, and it might make a nice small print as a bonus.
As you can see, the original had tears, folds and scratches after being passed around for over 100 years. I decided it was worth it to take the time and restore it using GIMP on my Ubuntu. All told, this restoration took about four hours, just so it’s not as simple as hitting the “Fix Photo” button. But it isn’t that difficult, either.
I don’t have a huge amount of experience with GIMP, but I’ve done photo restoration a few times. I usually use GIMP just for fairly quick photo manipulation and color correction, so this was going to be a learning experience. Enter Google and my world-wide network of sharing experts!
First, I needed to remove the tears and generally clean the image up. If you looked closely, there were scratches that were minor, and some staining and foxing. Some of that would be all right to keep just for character, but much of it should go. We wanted to see Ol’ Mose looking good.
After Googling around a bit, I found the web site of a Russian guy who wrote a script that separates the grain and the color into two different layers. You will need this and you might as well grab it now at:
Scroll down for the English version of the instructions. Also, he’s using Windows, so if you are using Ubuntu, you will want to install the script in /home/yourdirectory/.gimp-2.6/scripts where “yourdirectory” is whatever your user name is. You may also have a different version of GIMP so the directory might be .gimp-2.5 or some other version. You get the idea. Also note that directories with a “.” in front of them are hidden, so if you are using Gnome to browse your files, hit “ctrl-h” to unhide them.
Start or re-start GIMP and look under “Filters.” You should see “Leon” on the list and “Grain-Colors” in the sub menu. Great. You’ve installed the script.
Now let’s get to Leon’s instructions for fixing up your vintage photo. They are at:
Always use a copy of your original, and save versions as you go along. I’ve found this very handy. Leon is Russian, and tends to be spare with words, but he’s really very good and it’s fairly easy to follow along with what he’s doing. The script he wrote separates your image into two layers. You can use this script to totally remove people from images as well (see the script download page). What we want to do here is remove all the tear marks, and then go back in and fix some tones that were damaged with age.
First, you’ll work on the Grain layer, smudging out all the tear marks, then you’ll switch to the Colors layer, and use the Clone tool to match adjacent areas. Although time consuming, I think this worked out pretty good for me. I confess to not understanding the last part of the tutorial where he creates another layer, uses a black mask, and draws in details with white, but I don’t think I needed that because this wasn’t a portrait like his example.
I also decided that the image looked too gray (perhaps I should have tried to work more with Leon’s script and get the masking correct), and I wanted a more sepia tone look. So, back to Google. You can just use the “Old Photo” filter that comes with your GIMP install, but I wanted something more subtle. I found a tutorial at gimp.org by Eric Jeschke to give me that kind of control:
It uses masking as well and he’s working on a modern color photograph. He also gives credit to another site (http://www.retouchpro.com/tutorials/lum-mask-sepia.html) that details the difference between auto sepia tone (ie. Old Photo filter) and the controlled method of doing it. His tutorial has visual examples, so it’s easier to follow.
So here is my final version of Moses Maurice Smith (Old Mose), probably taken somewhere in Indian Territory around the turn of the century.
I wish his face and hand could have been more distinct, but they were too damaged in the original. I lost some tonality somewhere – you can’t see his horse’s eyes in my version, and in the original you can. It just looks darker overall, but I’m pretty happy with it anyway, and I learned a couple of new tricks.