To me, northern New Mexico is one of the last places in the United States that retains a distinctly regional cultural flavor. Among the things that contribute are the many adobe structures that dot the landscape. The church that is the subject of the image in this post, San Jose de Gracia in Las Trampas, is a well-known landmark and is a popular subject among photographers and painters.
When you take the time to see how this church has been represented in painting and photography, a certain theme becomes apparent. The depictions of the church in fine art painting and photography tend to place it in a pristine, unobstructed environment. Fine art photographs rarely include the telephone poles or the dirt road in the foreground. Paintings often take even more license, such as by changing the arrangement and proportion of the church to the ridge in the background, either to profile the church against the sky, or to position it in the shadow of the surrounding mountains.
I certainly don’t have a problem with any of this. An important element of art is interpretation of the subject. Most people probably take this kind of manipulation for granted with paintings, where the term “artistic license” is well known and understood. It may be less known (among non-photographers, anyway) that photographers also can take quite liberal and substantial artistic licenses with their subjects. Techniques such as framing, camera placement, lens selection, etc. routinely are used to make photographic subjects take on attributes and characteristics that don’t necessarily reflect the reality of how the scene actually looked. I myself work hard to present the subjects in my photographs in very considered ways designed to communicate a specific vision I have of the subject that I want the viewer to see.
Nevertheless, I am surprised that I don’t see more attention paid by artists to the environment surrounding their subjects. If you were to survey the body of fine art paintings and photographs of this church, you might come to the conclusion that it sits on an isolated hilltop, surrounded by rolling meadows that gently and perfectly blend into a magnificent mountain backdrop, with nary a telephone pole or dirt road in sight. It’s as if this way of presenting the church, while certainly valid, is the only way.
I hope that’s not the case. I think that showing this church in the context of its surroundings – it’s contemporary surroundings – is not only valid, but has a dignity and beauty of its own. While not appropriate for every photograph, the in situ approach of using surrounding elements to show the subject in its natural environment is a powerful and often underused mode of presentation. This is especially true where the subject is a popular and frequently depicted one, as is the case with the San Jose de Gracia church.