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Friday, 10 December 2010


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I have a thing about fine art depicting the beauty of man-made objects.

In this case, it involves this church with its monolithic (literally) buttressing.

The art here is not the photographer's. It is the architect's. The designer of the building who situated it in its particular locale where the specific lighting and surroundings already exist.

The photographer? Takes a snapshot of the architect's art, albeit on a tripod and with an orange filter.

Somewhere there's a critical essay which talks about what the two views of the Taos Church say about the contrasting styles of Strand and Adams. If anybody knows what or where that is, let me know, would you? Thanks.


I'm guessing the country side was much more pristine when the likes of Adams, O'Keefe, and Strand were in the working. Welcome to urban sprawl.

One of the things that I do not think gets discussed much about Adams' work is how much things have changed since he was working, and how much of his work is a record.

That's doubtless true. Remember Rondal Partridge's famous shot of half dome from the parking lot, at the bottom of this post, and if you haven't seen it, I heartily recommend a visit at your local library to a copy of "Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project" by Mark Klett et al. Fascinating to see the changes to the land over the course of a century--and not just the changes wrought by development.


Hilarious! If that's not a primary exhibit in the argument that the camera is a tool for quoting out of context I don't know what is.

Context means everything to nearly every building's presence and visual message. Living amidst, and often photographing, so many national landmark buildings (Chicago) I am always amused at visitors' disappointment and disgust upon finding,say, a "Dunkin' Donuts" eyesore glaring from the foot of a century-old Adler and Sullivan.

Of course John's eye for ironic humor is at play here. But still, the context of any building tells a fuller, and often very different, story than its more artistic portrayals.

By Ronin's definition all photography is not attributable to any photographer but to God (things in nature) or another human (anything "man-made"). So wrong. So wrong.

Strand = Masculine

Adams = Feminine

Camp = Shoreian

I also recommend checking out Rondal Partridge's loving rephotographic experiment with a pepper.


[You can see what Scott's talking about here. —Ed.]

I deplore the US' commercial attitude toward the environment which is so well demonstrated in the photo of this iconic church surrounded by ugly hotel and parking lot. I hoped that the esthetic beauty of the church so wondrously captured in the painting and the famous photographs would not be tainted by architectural demons. It is symptomatic of the general architectural blight of Western cities. We photographers need to portray more often this human ugliness with the intent to reform our built environment.

The O'Keefe and Strand portrayals look just like a comic of an elephant.

@ ronin:
"The photographer? Takes a snapshot of the architect's art, albeit on a tripod and with an orange filter."

The photographer of this particular subject must choose the proper time -- not just for lighting, but to avoid the nearly ever-present throng of cars parked right up next to the church by the ring of rocks (e.g., as seen in John Camp's enlarged photo). He/she must also choose the proper lens (angle of view) and the proper point of view to avoid the antennas on the roof, the electrical conduits emerging from the walls, the power lines in the background, the gas meter or water meter or whatever that sticks out of the west-facing wall, the KFC across the street, etc. THEN you put your camera on the tripod, slap on your orange filter, and make your exposure.

Or use PhotoShop's context-aware fill.

Without looking at the dates for the Strand and Adams photographs, I'm going to wager a guess that Adam's closer in/angled up/standing left approach was due to buildings encroaching on the left.

I see Adam's photo illustrating the masses of the church as a physical object, and Strand's photo as an essay on patterns of light and dark. (Though given John Camp's context, the second Strand photo's tight cropping seems almost comically expedient.)

Say, I want to hear more about the KFC at the pyramids. Is that anything like the Starbucks in the Forbidden City?

Bruce Hemingway, September, 2010:

Difficult but exciting to shoot in the footsteps of those from before...

Man-made, God-made or existential sprawl.

Isn't it really nothing more than what is seen?

"One of the things that I do not think gets discussed much about Adams' work is how much things have changed since he was working, and how much of his work is a record."

I always thought that Adams transformed his work from documentarian to artistic in the darkroom. No doubt he possessed a good eye in the field, but a vision that most decent photographers could accomplish.

What memories are we leaving behind? Pictures of strip malls?

This dilemma comes up constantly in landscape photography. We're motivated to capture some of the transcendent beauty of, say, morning light raking across a pastoral vista. But there's that ugly billboard on the left and those trashcans in the foreground, and that new McMansion on the third hill to the right...
You find yourself indulging in wild contortions of focal length and framing to exclude the unattractive bits. Or cloning things out in Photoshop. I don't think most folks have an objection to cloning out a discarded beer can on an inaccessible ledge ruining your perfect image, but it's a slippery slope indeed. Keats might have been mistaken; there are definitely times when truth and beauty are not the same thing.

>>a Virgil Flowers novel<<

Just not quite the same as that much loved, comfortable old piece of furniture - the Davenport.

But you have reminded me that I still have one of the latter to catch up on, so thanks.
(btw, given the season, a few more book recommendations might not be a bad idea.)

Adams was known to wait hours in order not to not depict Native Americans that regularly travesed "his" pristine views.

As citizens of this planet we should do everything we can to avoid the kind of overdevelopment portrayed above. As photographers, we can document its often tragic consequences, or revel in the visual ironies it sometimes presents.

Europe often does a better job at preserving and incorporating its landmark antiquities, as a result it is sometimes difficult to take other than standard postcard scenics (unless you somehow learn to incorporate the ironies that tourism often presents). I sure do eat well when I've been there, but it's often difficult to avoid photographic cliches.

When I go on an American road trip, the food is abysmal, but thanks to the prevalence of the American anything for a buck utilization of its land, people and resources (no matter the consequences), I come back with a lot more "winning" images reflecting that very attitude.

You know...the painting wins, no contest.

Strip malls? Why don't we make them put the parking in the back?

@ James: "Stonehenge is another example"
I couldn't agree more. Underwhelmed is exactly the right word.

The proposals that English Heritage have for Stonehenge may put it into a better setting, but it looks like after all the money is spent you still will not be able to get any closer than you can now.

It would also seem that when the new Visitor Centre is closed you won't be able to stop and peer through the fence from 200 feet or so as you can now, but would not be able to get closer than 500 feet, if there was somewhere to park.

I have emailed English Heritage tonight about the access.

My favorite crop job is this:


The front of this hotel faces 101 in San Mateo CA. The photographer must have used a 2 MM lens because there's maybe 2 feet between the highway fence and the access road in front of the property.

Unfortunately, this is literally a sign of the times, as my friend Jim (he of http://www.jimwitkowski.com/portfolios.html fame) and I were reminded recently when he took me onto the Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona to show me one of his favorite petroglyph sites:


...proving once again that photography really is an art of exclusion.


"US' commercial attitude toward the environment... is symptomatic of the general architectural blight of Western cities."

It ain't only the US or the West. Any photographer who would like to "portray more often this human ugliness with the intent to reform our built environment" has years worth of opportunities in Tokyo and Kyoto, and I'd expect in many other developed/developing countries in the region.

"Bruce Hemingway, September, 2010:

Difficult but exciting to shoot in the footsteps of those from before..."

Well you managed to do it with an excellent shot. As I often do, I converted it to BW for a different look. It works both ways as far as I'm concerned.

I should have said,
"I have emailed English Heritage tonight asking about the proposed access"

I'm also writing 500 lines all saying:
"I must not comment when in a hurry"


Why does the church get a free pass when it comes to encroachment and altering of the physical environment?

If I lived in Taos, the "strip mall" would surely be a more important piece of real estate for my needs.

Maybe all the pilgrims should pack up and go home.


Two reactions to this post:

One, the issue of contextual preservation vs. local realities is hardly limited to Taos. The awarding of a "UNESCO World Heritage Site" to a famous building can pose real problems as well as benefits to the locals. On one hand, the designation helps to preserve a unique monument to human creativity, or a an example of nature's sublime powers. In many cases, the WHS award can also energize the local economy with tourist income.

But, this is a double edged sword. The increase in visitor traffic can threaten the very thing to be preserved. For example, Ryoanji in Kyoto has a world famous rock garden that is commonly lauded as a the epitome of "Zen art." If you go early , you might find that the case, but the heavy crowds and loudspeakers during the tourist season tend to ruin the experience.

Furthermore, the WHS award imposes limits on development. While this helps to preserve the context of the site, it can also impose problems on locals trying to meet local needs. In at least one case, the WHS was taken away, because the locals needed to build a bridge across a valley in a WHS location.

Second comment:

Having lived in NM, the juxtaposition of the church and the hotel is part of daily life. My question is "Was the 'context' so pristine prior to the artistic visions that inspire our desires for purity." The Adams anecdote about the telephone lines indicates the answer is "No, or at least probably not." Consider this example: In their natural setting Russian icons or Buddhist statues are often covered with soot. Removing them to a museum for restoration can bring back the original beauty, and ensure there continuity. But, that may transform the religious objects into mere art. By seeing the icon or statue in its original, messy, location where it is a part of daily life, you can get a very different appreciation of the world it represents.


"... But, I was somewhat prepared for the scene since even Ansel Adams, I read, was granted permission to have telephone wires temporarily taken down for his shoot."
Really? So St. Ansel too is guilty of analog photoshopping!

Why would a church, or any other building regularly used by humans, other than perhaps a monastery, stand in splendid isolation in pristine wilderness? You would expect that such a structure, especially if beloved to the people of a community, would be situated amongst and surrounded by human habitation.

And why do we feel so strongly that this church, or Stonehenge be splendidly isolated? After all, isolated ruins and ancient structures are a product of human desertion and rejection, which are exactly the opposite of the conservationist instinct.

Roger and James, re: Stonehenge: Yes, it's an underwhelming experience these days, but this site is unique, and irreplaceable. Unfortunately, the public thinks otherwise. The hippies/pagans were getting stupid, climbing the stones to get closer to Gaia or whatever (as, I see, were several idiots in Rob's 1959 photo), and, on one occasion, digging a latrine trench close enough to the complex to have destroyed smaller artefacts dating back thousands of years. We get the access (if not the visitors' centre) we deserve.

On Stonehenge: there are ambitious plans which include re-routing or closing nearby roads, moving the coach park and building new visitor centre further away from the stones, etc, but so far the cost of these plans as well as opposition to some of the changes means that nothing has happened. I remember visiting Stonehenge as a child and I prefer to live with my memory from the sixties rather than visit again and be disappointed. And one can always look at a good photograph (or re-read the last part of Tess of the d'Urbervilles).

Re suburban sprawl (about 20 min long video): http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/james_howard_kunstler_dissects_suburbia.html

JHK is a little abrasive but the main idea from that talk is that it's a mistake to build places so ugly that no one cares about them. Eventually, you end up with an entire society not worth caring about. Dire and gloomy, of course, but with a germ of truth.

Someone asked a question above, why not build strip malls so that parking is behind the buildings. Good question. Weird priorities we've chosen for ourselves, but there are lots of people who don't care about these things.

This John Camp blog reminds me of a couple landscape photographs I have hanging on my livingroom wall. These two shots seem to represent god's work at his highest level, nature in its finest hour, landscapes you might find in heaven. But the truth is they were taken from the parking lot of a power station on the outskirts of a grungy metropolis. The river in one of the pictures is badly polluted yet in the photograph it appears pristine. In the unphotographed foreground trash was strewn about.

The idea of photography as truth is dubious at best, even without post-exposure legerdemain (but not that anyone is trying to disprove it).

as noted, The Taos church stands in a small shopping plaza, much as it did in Adams time. With some effort though a compelling photograph can still be taken. One can see in Adams photo that he too had to deal with some power lines. Actually we enjoyed a pretty good lunch at the restaurant in the plaza. I wanted to add an image but don't see a means to do it..

Ronin wrote:

"I have a thing about fine art depicting the beauty of man-made objects. etc."

Dammit don't remind me of this thought which so often occurs to me. The extreme is folk photographing in art galleries, what do they do with the result? But then an example of fine architecture crosses my path (or vice versa) and the light's right and I can kid myself that selecting the frame etc makes it something of mine. Then I take on a landscape and consider that "only God can make a tree"

I'm not trying to be a smart-arse, it's just that it's so often in the back of my mind. Perhaps this is what attracts many photographers to ruined buildings.

To return to the subject: I was fascinated to see in Los Angeles on one of the boulevards parallel and downhill from Sunset in North Hollywood (?) a stunning modern blue building (Pacific Centre?) which had a tiny and aged building right in front of it--the guy who wouldn't sell out?

Regards - Ross

The architect has already thought about the light and the shapes and the juxtapositions and the proportions and the colors and the points of view. That's the architect's job. Taking a snapshot without the Hardee's in the background? My 5-year old can do that.

Now, an interesting juxtaposition of multiple unplanned buildings? New points of view? Changed (intentionally or otherwise) buildings? Moving things (including people) in random split-second relationships? Getting up before dawn for a 5-mile hike to catch the first sunrays on a peak?

There are lots of things that are in the photographer's domain. We don't have to reductio ad absurdum about it all.

But taking a snap of a single building's dome and shadows and delicate stone filigree? A skilled craftsman already did the heavy lifting in that subject. It may take equal skill with pen and paper to reproduce it. The photographer cannot claim to have participated in that act of creation just by capturing a pleasing photograph.

This does not of course diminish the photographer. It rather recognizes the art and skill and craftsmanship of the architect and masons and finishers and foremen.

I guess it's possible for a photographer to really do something with a novel viewpoint with a single structure, without regard to its surroundings. I'm just hard pressed for an example that adds to what's already there.

It is really really not good when seeing this subject in its real context. Can I roll back to the past, just 12 hours ago, so that I am ignorant of the context as of now?

This is a story about change. Change for the better. The damn power line is down. Maybe the gas meter will soon be gone. The buildings that surround the courtyard at the front of the church are not new. They were there when O'KEEFE,STRAND and yes when ADAMS was there. Are you really upset about having to tightly frame your comp. to make it work? I was fascinated by the church, I have never seen a church so involved in it's community there is something going on in that church most of the time.I know because I waited 6 hours for the parking lot to clear. DO NOT GO INTO THE CHURCH TO ASK SOMEONE TO MOVE THEIR CAR. They are not impressed by photographers.I was going back because of the power line being down, but now I think I will wait a bit if that gas meter was gone there are a whole lot of comps. I want to try. This was a story about change. Change for the better.


"The idea of photography as truth is dubious at best, even without post-exposure legerdemain (but not that anyone is trying to disprove it)."

The same can be said for any "art form" or media. Truth in art would be boring, as we would have to reach concensus on what the truth is, rendering all representations to follow the same rules. Photography, by its nature, incorporates some elements of reality, if not truth. The art photographer is challenged to represent reality in his/her own context. Otherwise, all that you have is a historical record, a valid use of the camera, but not art. This same discussion occurs among painters, sculpters and other artists. Define truth if you think you can, but I've never heard a valid definition of art, in photography or any other medium.

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