Spring Break in TAOS Part 2: Taos

NOTE: Be sure to read the previous post to get some context for this one.  And remember you can click once or twice on many of these images to enlarge them to full screen.

After an early breakfast it was time to head to the Taos Pueblo on the north end of town in time to catch the early morning light.  This “Tiwa” speaking pueblo is part of the 8-Northern Pueblo Council.  It has historically had major contact with Europeans from the Spanish to the mountain men to the American pioneers, sometimes more than some of the others… and I’m sure sometimes a lot more than they wanted.  That was due in large part to them being directly on the trail to important trading outposts along the famous “Santa Fe Trail” trekked by mountain men, fur traders, buffalo hunters, pioneers, and general traders bringing goods back and forth between the Spanish outposts and other parts of the US.

Like most pueblos it is divided into North and South clans and then further subdivided into a complex clan matrix that defined who could marry whom.   The pueblo is divided roughly north and south by the acequia  (“ditch” or water channel, canal) that runs through the plaza.

Pueblo apartments sit on plaza across from the Acequia in Taos Pueblo at the base of their sacred Taos Mountain.  Canon 5D MkII

Pueblo apartments sit on plaza across from the Acequia in Taos Pueblo . Canon 5D MkII  Click to enlarge

The “Indian” project I’ve mentioned before, concentrated on the residents of Pueblos speaking the related “Tewa” language though they are also part of the 8-Northern Pueblos Council.  That project, done 1980-1983 was all shot on film, mostly 4×5 and 8×10 with the prints, now owned by Mesa Verde National Monument, processed to a slight sepia/albumen tone.

I made the decision to do it that way at the start even though my commercial work was essentially all shot on color transparency film.  I like color but somehow, with all the historical photos, especially those of Curtis, black and white seemed like the right choice.  But sometimes it was frustrating because there is, to me, an inescapable visual appeal to the contrast between the earth tones of the adobe structure and the incredibly deep blue skies of the high country in the west and southwest. And some of the native dance costumes just begged for color.   So now I’ve varied the approach here to try to draw out what I see as the more important visual elements and message which is sometimes old-school, as above, and sometimes new.   I love having the options and artistic potentials so readily available these days and in ways that allow me to make that decision upon reflection of the image rather than quickly at the scene itself and then be stuck with it.  Sometimes a quiet “tone poem” is called for and other times the image’s “story” benefits from the splash of color.

Early morning light illuminates cooking fires drifting up in front of the sacred mountain.

Morning light on a Taos Pueblo street with cook-fire smoke and the sacred Taos Mountain in the background.  You can see some of the rock outcroppings sparkling in the morning light.  Canon 5D MkII

Morning light on a Taos Pueblo street with cook-fire smoke and the sacred Taos Mountain in the background. You can see some of the rock outcroppings sparkling in the morning light. Canon 5D MkII.  Click to enlarge

Drying racks (and shaded areas) provide working space in front of the homes.

Morning light on the north side apartments in the Taos Pueblo, Taos, NM.  Canon 5D MkII

Morning light on the north side apartments in the Taos Pueblo, Taos, NM. I love the contrast of deep sky and warm light on the adobe.   Canon 5D MkII  Click to enlarge.

This is a peaceful and timeless place, no wonder the early Taos artists were drawn here so strongly.  The graphic shapes and forms of the adobe house-block complexes is a visual feast whether you are interested in an overview or in the details.  But it was Taos Mountain, a sacred mountain to the Taos dwellers, that garnered even more attention from the painters of the so-called “Taos School” of art led by Nicholai Fechin.

Early morning light on Taos Mountain from the Taos Pueblo.  Sometimes with complete insensitivity to sacred areas and the distress of the Indians, artists flocked to its slopes and tramped all over the place in search of material for their painting and photographs.  Canon 5D MkII

Early morning light on Taos Mountain from the Taos Pueblo. Sometimes with complete insensitivity to sacred areas and the distress of the Indians, artists flocked to its slopes and tramped all over the place in search of material for their painting and photographs. Canon 5D MkII

The lifeblood of this agricultural people was the water flowing from the sacred mountain so it is fitting that the central acequia flows by the pueblo’s famous mission church.

The water canal (acequia) flows through the center of the publo and by the mission.  Canon 5D Mk II

The water canal (acequia) flows through the center of the publo and by the mission. Canon 5D Mk II

The Mission San Geronimo is one of the only ones I’ve seen decorated in alternating earth tones and white and has been an iconic landmark.  It has been painted countless times and been a photo subject since photographers began to filter into this area.  To an Indian mind, one cannot be too spiritual.  None of the related languages of the pueblos, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, or Keresan have a word for religion.  They ARE a religion.  So adding elements of other beliefs is no problem for them although for the friars and even a lot of modern religious zealots it causes massive heartburn just to think of it.  Oh well, their loss…

 the iconic Mission de San Geronimo in the Taos Pueblo, Taos, NM.  Canon 5D Mk II.  Click to enlarge.

the iconic Mission de San Geronimo in the Taos Pueblo, Taos, NM. Canon 5D Mk II. Click to enlarge.

The mission church in the Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. Canon 5D Mk II.  Click to enlarge.

The mission church in the Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. Canon 5D Mk II. Click to enlarge.

There had been a prior church for the pueblo but it fell into disuse and disrepair and now with its remaining bell, looks out over the main cemetery.  This is the fate of unmaintained adobe which, to the Indians, is perfect; it came from the earth and will return to it.

Old mission and cemetary at Taos Pueblo now melting back into the earth.  Canon 5D Mk II.  Click to enlarge.

Old mission and cemetary at Taos Pueblo now melting back into the earth. Canon 5D Mk II. Click to enlarge.

However there are other fascinating structures and another famous mission church in Taos, The Mission de St Francis de Asis, about 4 miles south of the Taos Village plaza at the cross road to the famous “Taos High Road” to the mountain villages.  Few other structures have been drawn, painted, and photographed as much as this simple old mission.

Photographed by the artistic giants who visited this area such as Strand, Weston, Adams; painted by O’Keefe and Fechin; and rendered by countless painters and photographers who followed their leads, the massive apse and its gigantic buttresses are proportionally incredibly massive yet seemingly simple in composition… and for many, including me, hard to pass by.  I confess that I didn’t even try.  We pulled over and with cameras in hand set to work.

Apse of Mission de San Francic de Asis in Taos, NM.  Canon 5D Mk II.

Apse of Mission de San Francic de Asis in Taos, NM. Canon 5D Mk II.

Unfortunately on the empty ground where Adams et al stood to shoot their similar views, there is now a parking lot and cars parked right up to its edge forced points of views different from theirs.   Perhaps that is a good thing as it precludes copying some already great shots.

But though the apse of the church got most of the attention, there actually IS a front courtyard and even a front door and here it is…

The seldom photographed front of the famous St. Francis de ASis mission in Taos, NM.  Canon 5D Mk II.

The seldom photographed front of the famous St. Francis de ASis mission in Taos, NM. Canon 5D Mk II.

As you see other mission churches from Acoma to Taos to Trampas, you can see the “template” used in their design and construction.

As another example of what happens when an adobe structure is abandoned, directly across from the front of the church façade is an old house, like the crumbling old church at Taos Pueblo, slowly returning the clay and straw back into mother earth from whence it came.  Indian faith is all about cycles and what man has and has made is merely borrowed for a spell.  There are few better examples of these endless cycles than the life cycle of an adobe structure, no longer borrowed, melting back into the arms of its parent.

An abandoned adobe house is Taos, NM, slowly melts back into the earth.  anon 5D Mk II.

An abandoned adobe house is Taos, NM, slowly melts back into the earth. Canon 5D Mk II.

Then it was time to go back to the room, clean up, and get ready to have dinner with an old friend from Taos I’ve not seen in probably 20 years.  He supplied major encouragement and quite a bit of support and help during the “Tewa” project.  I had lost track of him for a number of years and it was delightful to manage to reconnect.

Taos is in some economic straits having never recovered from the recession of 2008.  Even tourism has not recovered though it is slowly rising again albeit at glacial speed. Well DUH!  Despite the fantasy land talk about how we are all back on track, the reality among the actual working folks here as in much of the land, is not all that rosy.  Discretionary money is hard to come by and with major uncertainty in economic futures and the abysmal numbers of the percentages of able, willing workers actually employed, buying art and frivolous things is not happening as it used to.

I’m sure that economic reality played into the eagerness of the Mabel Dodge Luhan foundation to work out something vis-à-vis a workshop in Taos based at their place.  So I am really hoping we can work out the details and logistics.  I’ll have a special page on the Taos Workshop as soon as some workable details are set.

A good bit of news for the area on the horizon however is that a billionaire, you know, one of those evil 1-percenters, just bought the major ski resort and is poised to spend $300 million in upgrades and restoration.  That figure will have a huge positive effect on the local economy and workforce so the locals are holding their breath until weather allows the work to begin in earnest.

Tomorrow starts the return journey back toward San Diego that will take us first over the Taos High Road to Santa Fe, so I’ll pick that up in the next (3rd) post.  Remember that due to how this blog is arranged, adding new posts on top of the stack, the earlier posts are actually BELOW the current one…

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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One Response to Spring Break in TAOS Part 2: Taos

  1. Vina says:

    Prof David, Thanks for the travelogue. You’ve definitely wet my appetite. Can’t wait for details of the NM photo tour. If you have any ideas of dates, I’ll gladly save the dates, even if tentative.

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