(Published May 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)
Churches are photogenic, especially ones that are heritage subjects. But they don’t have to be ancient or elaborate to be good photo subjects. Denomination aside, in this article I’m using the word “church” in a generic sense and I’m visiting some large and small regional buildings purely as architectural photographic destinations.
The mission at Tumacácori is the supermodel of the
borderlands region: the camera loves her from any angle.
The serenity, charm and visual splendor of any house of worship, whether it’s a church, synagogue, mosque, or other form of this structure, derives from its inspirational purpose and the attention given to its design and maintenance. These structures either contain works of art, or are themselves works of art.
So, naturally, they make great photo subjects. In the Arizona borderlands, some of the original European colonial religious structures sadly are gone or have been reduced to lumps of clay. Others have been stabilized and protected, and there are a few which are remote and hard to protect, so their access is restricted.
These remnants usually aren’t very good photo subjects anyway, since lumps of adobe or mounds of earth don’t amount to much visual impact. The most notable restorations are at Tumacácori just north of the Mexico border and, near Tucson, at San Xavier.
A great little church in a troubled
place: the border town of Sasabe.
These two structures, Mission San José de Tumacácori, and Mission San Xavier del Bac, are among the most photographed structures in the borderlands region. They’re so popular, in fact, that they amount to a photographic cliché, like Grand Canyon.
But I’ll do it anyway, since they have such significance to you, the borderlands photographer. Briefly, the facts are as follows: I’m not an expert on the Jesuits and Father Kino, so I’ll say little about history; there are at least four different ways to pronounce “San Xavier”, so take your pick; San Xavier is still a fully functioning parish church within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson; Tumacácori is administered by the hardy souls of the National Park Service.
These structures merit photographers' attention because they’re so striking that it’s hard to take a bad picture of them. Just point and shoot.
San Xavier may be the greatest gem in Arizona, and Tumacácori is the next best, with its semi-restored frontier splendor and the dramatic backdrop of the nearby Tumacácori mountains and the slightly more distant Santa Rita mountains.
Currently, visitors to San Xavier are a bit disappointed because the west bell tower of their “White Dove of the Desert” is ensconced by scaffolding and sheeting. Visitors want to take a postcard-perfect picture of the structure with a sunset or rainbow background, and they can’t. (Plans are in progress to remove the scaffolding on the west tower, and to begin similar work on the east tower if funding permits.)
But the inventive photographer to San Xavier soon finds more opportunity than just a frontal view of the main structure. For example, inside. This mission is the rustic equivalent of a major European cathedral with artworks throughout the interior. Capturing this detail requires a tripod and the right camera time exposure to compensate for the dim light. Regular flash is inadequate.
Outside the church, the photographer avoids the scaffolding by focusing on other parts of the building and grounds, such as the rear of the complex, the courtyards, mission school, the Mortuary Chapel and, of course, people. The Hispanic and native-Americans residing in the area surrounding the mission who work, worship, or school there can themselves be some of the best photo subjects.
|St. Augustine Cathedral in Tucson, Arizona.|
Farther south, the folks visiting Tumacácori, on the other hand, are mostly tourists, so the best trick there is to avoid them in your viewfinder completely and wait until they pass!
Truly, just about any angle at Tumacácori can provide great images. Different times of day multiply the opportunities using natural light and the resulting shadows. The smooth curves of the plastered adobe walls on the main structure and out-buildings yield results that make any photographer feel like an expert.
I mustn’t forget some other churches in the area. The large St. Augustine Cathedral in downtown Tucson recently underwent minor improvements. More modest area churches are St. Rita in the Desert in Vail, and structures in the tiny border villages of Sasabe and Lochiel.
While the smaller buildings are less imposing as architecture, the skillful photographer can exploit the charm of their design and milieu, using creative camera angles to prove these churches are as photogenic as any others in the borderlands region.