Adobe Church Project Awarded Landscape Grant from the Luminous Endowment for Photographers
aMy Adobe Church Project is a visual narrative of cultural preservation in the great tradition of documentary/fine art photography exemplified in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Edward Weston, Edward Curtis, and William Christenberry. Christenberry’s work is especially important to me. It captures the fragility of the world he observed.
In the tradition of Eudora Welty who wrote, “Place is my source of knowledge. It tells me important things,” their work focused on specific places, and rendered them iconic. Like these photographers, place is the primary theme in my work.
In New Mexico, there are few places more crucial to a sense of place than its adobe churches –- especially those still overlaid in the traditional manner with either mud and straw or lime plaster -- which are quickly disappearing from the landscape. These traditional churches are the focus of my project. They function as the metaphoric spine that binds the people of New Mexico to their religion, rituals, traditions, and culture. The remaining churches are monuments to the Native American and Hispanic civilizations that first settled New Mexico.
Social, religious, economic, cultural, political, and natural forces all threaten these sacred buildings so deeply rooted in New Mexico’s past. Tragically, too many traditional churches have been replaced, fallen into disrepair, or been plastered over with modern building materials. While the social scientist in me appreciates the cultural alienation that attends modernization, the resulting neglect of these churches signals a growing disconnect between parishioners, their churches and their traditions. My objective is to photograph and document these endangered churches before they literally melt away, yielding to both natural and social forces.
I made a very deliberate decision to tea stain the photographs from this project. Staining these images was not simply an aesthetic choice. Nor was it a mere attempt to evoke a nostalgic response in the viewer. Rather, the old-fashioned look refers to a time when communities upheld and honored the traditions and rituals crucial to maintaining their adobe churches. It suggests an age when the community church was the religious and social center for towns and villages throughout New Mexico. Its use is meant to fill the viewer with the conviction that these remaining longstanding structures will be revered well into the future – perhaps for an eternity.
Since 2004, I have made several trips to New Mexico to research and photograph these beautiful historic buildings. Three churches, in particular, exemplify what continues draws me to this project.
First is the original chapel in Santa Rosa. Today, it is in ruins. The community simply outgrew this tiny structure, and its spiritual needs are attended to by a large modern church.
The chapel continues to serve as the centerpiece for the local Catholic cemetery, and, in its current state, lends a certain other worldliness to the timeworn graveyard. I cannot help but wonder if, in the still of night, this tired and frayed sanctuary ever senses its past glory.
Second is the San Rafael Church in La Cueva. When Joe Gurule’s and Gina Pacheco’s father returned from World War II, he gave thanks by taking a sacred vow to maintain the decaying church. Today, only his son, Joe, his daughter, Gina, and her husband, Raymond, remain to carry on. It is a tremendous responsibility, especially considering that, over the years, layer upon layer of mud and straw have stressed the exterior walls. Recently, they had to removed the exterior layers down to the adobe bricks and started all over again.
Third is the San Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos. For economic reasons, several years ago the local residents decided to cover the exterior of their church with stucco. However, they were disappointed with the look of this modern building material. For both historical and cultural reasons, they removed the stucco and replaced it with traditional mud and straw.
Adobe needs constant care. Its use speaks to the steadfastness of faith and culture to endure despite the relentless erosion of not only time and environment, but from the pressures caused by the rapid modernization that took place in New Mexico during the 20th Century. This project is dedicated to the volunteers who contribute their time and resources to maintain their community church in the traditional manner. Their unselfish efforts are truly an inspiration.
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