Skip to content

Penance and Forgiveness, The Church at Ranchos de Taos, NM

So, does this look familiar?  It may sound naive, but I swear I did not know what I was doing when I took this shot. After I got home and started processing the photos, 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’m very pleased that I chimed in on the conversation about that church. If you stand on this spot, you realize you must snap your camera. I unknowingly stomped inside the footsteps of many, many other photographers.

Ansel Adams

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.

Georgia O’Keefe

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.


My Take-Away

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.

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.