Photographing Historic New Mexico

Pueblo Indian legend says blue windows and doors help keep evil spirits out of their home.

Before the Americans moved west and had confrontations with the Native Americans that changed the lives of the indigenous peoples forever, the Pueblos encountered others who shaped their cultures almost as dramatically. New Mexico offers plenty of missions, ruins, and Pueblo villages around the state where visitors can still see how the Spanish and others influenced the lives of the Native Americans.

Whether you’re planning a weekend or a weeklong trip, you have options available. A weekend trip can be based in one city or lead to numerous areas. During a weeklong trip, you can use the extra time to arrive in different locations when the light is best for shooting the structure you’ve targeted. (It’s no fun to show up at a place early in the morning, only to discover the building faces west.) 

To visit a number of areas, you can make a loop, regardless of where you enter the state. While photography is usually more than an “I-came-I-saw-I-took-a-picture” proposition, some of the sites demand more time. One area that deserves several days is Taos. The San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos is the primary reason for extending your stay. It is east and west facing, and both directions merit attention. The church, located south of town, was made famous by Ansel Adams’ and Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. Because of their choices, the back of the structure is more famous than the front. In the evening, there’s a nice mixture of shadows, light, and patterns on the rear of the church. Power lines and tree shadows make compositions a challenge, but with a little work, they can be eliminated.

San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos with a moon tucked close to one of its crosses.

Morning brings warm light to the front of the church. There’s no need for you to arrive for sunrise, as the sun takes a while to crest the mountains. Allow plenty of time to work all of the angles and isolated parts. One of the best things about working this and all adobe buildings is the rich color they display when the sun is low on the horizon. Another subject here is a house next to the church with its blue doors and windows. According to Indian legend, the blue keeps evil spirits out and good spirits in. Early morning is best for photographing the house. After working the church and the house trimmed in blue, you’ll have another good morning shooting the Town Plaza. Before the shops open, you can work the square and surrounding blocks, shooting parts of the buildings. Most buildings in town are made of adobe in the traditional Southwest style, and interesting designs are abundant.

North of town, you’ll want to visit Taos Pueblo, home of Native Americans. Great photo opportunities are abundant here with the buildings and ladders between the levels, but be warned that photos of this or any other Pueblo reservation can’t be sold or used commercially without permission. Fees are assessed for each camera brought in, and if you appear to be a professional (with a vest or tripod), they request that you read and sign a release. For you to use photos commercially, you must receive permission from and pay fees to the local Tribal Council. Some pueblos, like Taos, allow unescorted visits while others, like Sky City, provide only guided tours. Photo fees vary on each Pueblo reservation. When special events such as a religious ceremony or dance are taking place, photography is not permitted. Due to a late opening time, sunrise with its rich colors is not available. Winter (with its early sunsets) will provide some nice light shortly before the gates close. Photography of the natives inside the area is not permitted, unless you ask their permission first.

The back of the San Francisco de Asis was made famous by a photograph of Ansel Adams.

Heading out of Taos, you’ll do best to take the High Road towards Santa Fe. On this road, you’ll discover several missions worth shooting. The first one is the Church of San Jose de Gracia in Las Trampas. The front of the church faces west, so plan a trip towards Santa Fe from Taos in the afternoon or early evening. The church was built in 1750 and has great architecture for creating different compositions. Another famous and highly visited church is the El Sanctuario de Chimayo in the settlement of Chimayo. This church is off the main highway, but signs lead to it. A setting of trees and mountains surrounding this church makes for challenging and rewarding images.

Basing your excursions out of Santa Fe can provide you with several day trips in addition to access to the buildings and churches around town. Santa Fe is a living history. Learning about what made the city what it is will help you bring more feeling to your photos. Many buildings date to the 17th and 18th centuries, and information about them is displayed on plaques. You’ll need at least a morning and evening to work the city. Maps of the old town and its buildings are readily available and are a necessity to getting around. Early morning is a must downtown. Before offices and businesses bring the crowds, light is good, and lots of time can be spent exploring and taking images. Several buildings worth working include the St. Francis Cathedral, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Palace of the Governors. Along the Old Santa Fe Trail, you can photograph San Miguel Mission Church and Loretto Chapel–which houses the “miraculous staircase,” a staircase with no visible support. In fact, you could easily spend days photographing the architecture in Santa Fe with its hundreds of historic buildings preserved in their original state as well as newer buildings built to meet specific Southwestern guidelines.

Doorways through the back of church ruins at Pecos National Historic Monument.

Day trips from Santa Fe include excursions to several national monuments. Fort Union is the farthest away–about 90 miles northeast, off of the Interstate. The first Army base in the state, Fort Union’s ruins include an old cannon and wagon parts. (The 2003 National Parks Pass features a photo from there.) Since the fort is in ruins, any time of day will work to take photos. Pecos National Monument is located about twenty miles east on the Interstate. The mix here is unlike any others: an ancient pueblo, a Spanish mission, a cattle ranch, and a Civil War battle site. Within the main walls of the mission stand entrance arches that offer the best photography. Combining a trip to Pecos and Fort Union works well.

Bandelier, northwest of Santa Fe near Los Alamos, is one of numerous cliff dwelling sites in the Southwest. The main hiking loop offers views of a west-facing wall of dwellings that can be photographed in the morning hours but is better later in the day. Interestingly, seven Pueblo reservation sites with similar scenes to those in Taos Pueblo lie between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. A Pueblo unlike any other waits about an hour west of Albuquerque. Sky City sits high on a bluff. Views of and from Sky City are quite dramatic. Rock formations in the area also provide good photography.

Venturing south will provide you with more ruin sites. Around Mountainair, 45 miles east of Belen, you can explore three ruin sites that make up the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, and all of them can be covered in a single day. Photography options are few at these sites, but the more you look around, the more subjects you’ll find among the brick ruins. One of the few white adobe missions lies near Albuquerque at Isleta Pueblo. A rich blue sky in the afternoon or evening hours behind this west-facing building presents great contrast. Petroglyph National Monument stands west of Albuquerque. More than 15,000 images are carved in the rocks of this park on the west edge of town, including Kokapeli images in a couple of locations. The park is in three sections and features hikes of varying lengths.

Many buildings in Santa Fe are made of adobe in the style used by the local Pueblo’s.

Depending on when you plan your trip, you may have other photographic opportunities. During the winter migration season, one of the top birding locations in the country is located about 100 miles south of Albuquerque at Bosque del Apache. Snow geese, sand hill cranes, eagles, roadrunners, and various waterfowl winter at the refuge. In the fall, another option is the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, which draws people from all over the world. No matter when you plan your visit, most of New Mexico challenges the photographic eye. Seeking out striking compositions is the key to artistic success and a fun challenge to meet when you travel to these sites.

By Andy Long

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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