Chimayo: The past is a little glossy these days

Ok, I like churches, particularly very old churches… I’ve seen many of the big ones in Europe and countless tiny ones too. I lean towards the smaller ones, where it is evident a congregation is strongly connected to the spirit and soul of the structure. I like the vernacular expressions of faith — symbols that reaffirm our existence and struggle on this planet. Sometimes these include personal items left as a offering or personal prayer, symbols of harvest(s), objects of superstition, or of a miracle (headings in particular). That is what compels me to visit (and often photograph churches) although I’m not a religious person per se. I like the tradition and rituals of social groups, and for me, churches often provide me that experience.

My re-visit to Chimayo, NM was NOT that experience. As I drove into the sanctuary’s compound, I was struck by a level of graphic sophistication that is usually reserved for  upscale, well managed tourist venues… certainly not a church that dates back to 1816.

Since my last visit, the church has become a well designed, slick, and “protected” tourist-mecca. There are designated parking lots, signage, a new logotype, paved walkways, an outdoor amphitheater, a conference center, a museum, and several supporting structures all connected by pathways and a similar architecture aesthetic. As a former professional architectural photographer, I understand the nature of these improvements and how they function to “brand” a company or organization. But, I haven’t seen it applied to a historically significant site to this degree before. I’m no virgin to the nature of tourism and it’s connections to history having spent years of my academic life researching, visiting, and documenting the original site of ‘visual tourism,’ — the Wye River Valley in Wales.

I’m not here to disrespect the Santuario, instead I’m commenting on the nature of change in the New Mexican landscape and those changes which seem to defy logic or understanding. I’m looking with the same eyes I had before, but seeing a very different picture today. I did find a brief article about expansion and it might appear the Catholic Diocese of Santa Fe (who was given the church in 1929) is behind the improvements.

Some visual comparisons might explain my shock upon re-visiting Chimayo in this time.

Up first is a small church in Skenfrith, Wales that has weathered time (800 years!) and holds an important place in the lives of the local people.

St. Bridgets celebrated 800 years in 2007 and has remained largely unchanged in that time.



Another New Mexican church that  I love is the small and wonderfully parishioner-maintained Santo Nino near Three Rivers Petroglyph site (near Alamagordo). I’ve visited this small chapel many times in the last ten years, and I have seen a few improvements, but the essence of the place has not changed. The interior is a hodge-podge of Milagros, pictures, sculptures, rosaries, and other artifacts of worship… all donated and cared for by the visiting priest and parishioners themselves. It isn’t a major tourist destination and I wonder if it were discovered, it would also undergo a “make-over?”

Each artifact in the church represents a human touch, left as a connection between a deity and the wishes of an individual for a blessing, help, miracle, or just worship. It isn’t well designed, yet it offers an authenticity that would be hard to replicate by a design team.

 The current Santo Nino figure was donated by a parishioner and the upkeep is similarly provided by locals. The altar is loaded with these personal touches, and I continue attempting photographs that might do justice to the church.

Here’s a portfolio I executed a few years back. I’ve been attracted to the idea and history of Milagros since I first saw them in Puebla, Mexico in 1972. They still resonate that belief in something larger than the individual and a hope in miracles.








I was recently in Italy and photographed large and small churches, each of them were overrun with tourists and were happily conducting their mission in the same structures as many, many earlier generations. They haven’t been updated to satisfy tourist demands or any attempts to appear modern.

Sienna and Arezzo both have spectacular churches, with huge throngs of tourists visiting annually and Sienna has a separate museum (fee based) that holds their important works of art and manuscripts. The rule here is no FLASH photography, since the UV from the light will deteriorate pigments in the art or hand-lettered illuminated manuscripts.






Here is Chimayo today. (exteriors only since there are signs everywhere stating “No Photos!, in order to protect this shrine” … protect from what? Once inside, the beauty of the church/shrine is intact, little has changed and the experience returned for me. Although I chose to respect the signs, others have not.

<rant mode ON>…. I’ve encountered this idea of protection, whether as a ‘copyright’ issue, or as a means to protect sales at the gift shop, but it doesn’t really protect anything to do with the structure. <rant mode OFF>










I don’t currently have access to my original photographs of Chimayo, save one, but it’s conversion is a far cry from that time back in 1995.


One last image, from a similar church in Las Trampas (1760, but without an annual pilgrimage), just a few miles away… unchanged and still functioning.





A local native I’ve befriended surmised the changes were prompted by the demands  of tourism and the poor state of the economy, and I am mildly persuaded this makes some sense after viewing other areas of New Mexico. It’s a shame that a site with this much character and history needs such an extravagant change to remain viable. It will continue to attract believers and non-believers for decades to come, but it’s a pity they won’t have the same experience once possible. It would seem I am not alone in my concern of these changes, a local preservation group is discussing what might happen to the church’s historic status.

Time Travel: Where the past isn’t so easily found

I’ve visited a few sites here in New Mexico that are familiar to me because of my previous visits… at least, familiar in their latitude, longitude, and geography. In a matter of a few years (less than than twelve), many of these site have been transformed (mostly) by man and seem quite foreign to my photographic-memories.

I think there is a tendency to remember places and events through visual windows of our creation. In my case it’s through the photographs that I’ve made; for others it might be pure memory or remembering images that someone else made or placed into a scrapbook or shared on the web.

My memory of these places is connected first to the images I’ve made, and secondly to the events that surrounded their making. I made a few trips to New Mexico back in the mid-1990s with a group of students from Richland College (Dallas) as part of a class trip exploring infrared photography. I returned later to enlarge and expand that early work into a series I’ve entitled Terrible Beauty after being challenged by the Water in the West group’s presentation at the 1999 SPE (Society for Photographic Education) conference in Tucson.

Those images served a purpose then (commenting on water usage in arid regions), but today they serve as a reminder that we live in a very ephemeral trajectory. Nothing is stable, but I wish that time weren’t rushing by so fast as to make the more memorable places, people, and things unrecognizable within my own lifetime…. and certainly not within a mere decade. This is not the case with Truchas or Chimayo, New Mexico. Each place has undergone rapid change and in many cases (in my opinion) not always for the better, especially Chimayo. It’s a point also made by John Nichols in his novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, that pits older established ways of life with new residents, alternative lifestyles, and an inevitable collision of cultures. What was true for Nichols (and most of Northern New Mexico) in the 1960s, seems equally true today.

infrared photograph

Consider Truchas, once a small, quiet, and slightly derelict mountain village that I first photographed in 1995. Today Truchas has given way to an onslaught of art galleries enabled partly by the normal attrition process of aging home owners leaving the place or planet and the younger generation’s migration towards better job prospects in nearby cities. Add to that an influx of artists seeking to recreate themselves in this New Mexican mountain air (@8400 ft) landscape. I discovered one the first of these artist through a blog, The High Road Artrist, by Jeane George Weigel. She came to Truchas on a rather spiritual journey back about  2006. I found at least a dozen galleries on the main street alone and others just outside of the town limits.

The owner of Truchas’ general store commented that these new galleries contained art that “wasn’t very good.” While I don’t usually seriously consider unsolicited art criticism, I did sense these newcomers’ introduction hadn’t been totally welcomed. Whether the art was good or not wasn’t as important to me as to WHY there were now so many in a town that (as far as I remember) had none just a few years back.
The galleries of Truchas, NM

He offered these were rich or well-off individuals who were retired and perhaps pursuing a dream or something else to do which was personally satisfying. I could certainly understand that last part, but again…. WHY Truchas? It is on the “high road” to Taos, but still rather isolated.

What isn’t obvious is how much traffic comes this way during the ‘high season” summer months or possible connections to the art establishments of Santa Fe (38 miles to the south) and Taos (40 miles to the north) or how the entire area seems to be moving towards a self-fulling goal of becoming an art region like no other in the United States.

Robert Redford first put Truchas in the spotlight by filming John Nichol’s The Milagro Beanfield War in 1988. It’s hard to imagine that alone was the catalyst for Truchas’ popularity among artist, but it certainly isn’t hard to see the effect on Santa Fe that Redford’s presence and notoriety propelled. Santa Fe is routinely touted as a great place to live or visit… and I can distinctly remembering the press’ flurry over Redford sightings in the plaza and elsewhere and subsequent articles about Santa Fe in Time Magazine and others. Who knows? I’m trying to contact Ms. Weigel and John Nichols for some insight. Yes, I get obsessed about these things. Somebody has to, right?

Up next, Chimayo and the ‘branding’ of a religious icon.

Leaving and Learning How to Prepare for a Long Trip

What was I thinking?

I left Flint a few days ago to spend the rest of summer in Taos, New Mexico. I love northern New Mexico. I spent time traveling through the area last fall and stayed with my friend Keith in El Prado (just north of Taos and a short hop from the Rio Grande River.) I loved the different geographies and I made some photographs that resonated with me and wanted to return this summer. Keith has a great house that I’m renting, including his darkroom, and I will be able to access vast stretches of rivers, forests, mountains, deserts, and peoples. So, why am I’m so damned stressed?  What I didn’t know was how hard it is to leave for a long photography expedition that also includes setting up a new residence, merging my darkroom practice into that of another photographer, and adjusting to new surroundings, people, weather, and culture. Is my Honda Accord big enough? Am I big enough? Time will tell. As I packed, I was frustrated with my neediness and the desire to bring “comfort” to Taos. What am I afraid of, why should a grown man worry about things like having warm enough clothing for the arid desert nights (or mountains), good enough shoes, cool enough shirts for the scorching hot days, or enough clean underwear (of course he has a laundry closet and I could always go to a launderette)… Of course, none of this has anything to do with making photographs, but it’s a mental game played out to distract me from my real fear — the fear that I might not make any worthwhile work. That’s the scariest prospect of all, one that drives me to drink, to sleep at inappropriate times, and find mindless diversions to whittle away my precious time in New Mexico. But that won’t happen (much, haha), because I’ve given myself the time, space, and permission to go for broke. I’m going to put myself on the line and try to break through all the mental gyrations and theories about photographic images and I’m going to “feel my photographs” with my eyes before opening up the camera case and loading film holders into the back. I know when I feel like I’m looking at an illustration of my life that I’m about to make a good photograph. The photograph I’ll make will melt away all those fears and terrors of the artist and fill my spirits with a comfort that no car or fancy camera case could deliver.