February 1, 2010

The Shock of the Actual

I have been reading a wonderfully entertaining book called, Spiral Jetta, by Erin Hogan. It is the story of her three-week odyssey across the western U.S., as she visited some of the major works of American land art, including Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. (For five bonus points: name the make of car she drove.)

In one scene, as she crosses the remaining few bone-jarring, off-road miles to reach the Jetty it finally comes into view, and she finds herself confronted with “a major discrepancy between what I had imagined — aided by images — and what the work actually was.”

I knew exactly what she meant.

Several years ago I traveled to New Mexico, and high on my list of must-see landmarks was the famous adobe mission-style church, San Francisco de Asis, better known as Ranchos de Taos. I couldn’t wait to photograph this structure, made immortal by such greats as Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O’Keeffe. I had seen countless images depicting the simple geometry of its facade, its mud plaster outer walls bathed in the magnificent New Mexican sunlight, and I eagerly anticipated the moment when I would finally encounter this glorious structure in person.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t anything like what I imagined.

Ranchos de Taos is actually the name of the small town in Taos County where this historic church is located. Settled in 1716, the San Francisco de Asis was completed almost a century later. To this day the adobe skin is in perpetual need of upkeep and repair. Once every couple of years, the entire outer layer is “remudded” by volunteers dedicated to its preservation.

As we neared the village from the highway I had expected to see the glistening white structure standing alone in stark contrast to the vast expanse of landscape that stretched to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Instead, we drove past a tight cluster of unremarkable buildings that lasted a few blocks. Something wasn’t right! We had obviously passed it, but failed to see it. After some backtracking, its distinctive form suddenly came into view… nestled in an alleyway, and somewhat smaller than I anticipated. Apparently, from the time Adams’ clicked the shutter of his view camera in 1929, to the time I stepped out of my rental car in 2007, a small city build up around it.

Then again, maybe the area had always looked this way and it is just that artists over the years have carefully selected the elements they wished to include in their works. Either way, I also think that there is a lot of truth to Hogan’s observation: that there is a discrepancy between what you imagine a place to be and what actually is. In fact, I had become so familiar with images of Ranchos de Taos, mostly in black and white photos, that I was shocked to discover the adobe walls of the church were a terra cotta color, and not the stucco white I had always assumed!

It is true that there can be a vast difference between perception and reality, but can both still be equally valid? I suppose if there is anything to take away from this experience it is that, as an artist, you must find your own truth. Paul Strand’s interpretation of Ranchos de Taos is unique to Ansel Adams’, yet both are a true expression of each man’s vision. I suspect that is why I decided to bring my camera with me: to try and uncover my own meaning.

. . . . .

This past fall I attended a weekend workshop with master photographer Bruce Barnbaum, who knew Ansel Adams personally. I showed Bruce the print I had made from my visit to the great church (below), and he told me that it was the best photograph of Ranchos de Taos he had ever seen!

Ranchos de Taos No2

It is truly humbling to receive such a complement, especially from someone whose work I admire so much. But, he understood the subject matter and its history well enough that, for me, his opinion was less about praise than it was a validation that I saw in the familiar something completely new.