The Luminous Landscape Grant

Past Winner

New Mexico Adobe Church Project Proposal

John A. Benigno - Pennsylvania, USA

The goals for my project are to contribute a body of work that inspires the preservation and renovation of adobe churches throughout New Mexico; demonstrates how important they are to its culture, traditions and history; and spreads the word of the contribution they make to the culture of the Southwest beyond the region. While these goals go beyond the financial support provided by the Luminous Endowment, winning this award would make possible an extended stay in New Mexico to help me complete the photography phase.

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I began my Adobe Church Project in 2004. Its mission is to document as many churches as possible while still overlaid with their original mud and straw.

Unfortunately, many old churches have been replaced, fallen into disrepair, or been plastered over with modern building materials. My hope is to complete this project before the remaining examples simply fade away. And, as the social scientist in me fears, before modernization and neglect result in a disconnect between parishioners, their churches and their traditions.

My immediate need is to be able to spend an extended amount of time working in New Mexico. Although I started this project in 2004, because of my own limited funds, I only have been able to afford five working trips from my own savings. The actual amount of time spent working on the project comes to about six weeks. Moreover, in that short time, I am delighted to have produced some 20 images worthy of distinction.

While I feel that this is a good start, I would like to have 40 to 50 images for a major exhibition and the publication of a book.

The goals for my Adobe Church Project are to contribute a body of work that: 1) inspires the preservation and renovation of adobe churches throughout New Mexico; 2) demonstrates how important New Mexico's adobe churches are to its culture, traditions and history; and 3) spreads the word of the contribution adobe churches make to the culture of the Southwest beyond the region.

I realize that these goals go way beyond the financial support provided by the Luminous Endowment. However, winning such an award would certainly make possible an extended stay in New Mexico to help me complete the photography phase.

To accomplish my goals I will need the cooperation and backing of either a major New Mexico museum, educational institution or preservation organization. And, it is my hope that the prestige that comes with achieving the Luminous Endowment would make a substantial contribution to the networking needed to attract additional funders and such prominent organizations.

My hope is to present my Adobe Church Project to audiences in three ways.

The first step would be to mount a major exhibition. I hope that this would generate a greater recognition of the importance of this work, and stimulate a renewed interest in preserving these churches with traditional materials.

Second, with the backing of the exhibit hosting organization, I would like the exhibit to travel to the many small towns, villages and pueblos throughout the state - both those that maintain the traditional ways and those that have forsaken them. Perhaps, seeing the beauty and spirituality of their churches covered with the traditional mud and straw, as I do, residents would not be so quick to abandon the customs and rituals that go along with preserving the old ways.

This brings to mind the story of what happened in Ranchos de Taos several years ago. The members of the San Francisco de Asís Church, in an effort to economize, voted to cover their church with stucco. Once they saw the results, they immediately realized their mistake. They quickly removed the modern stucco and overlaid the exterior of their church with the traditional mud and straw.

And, third, I would work with the hosting organization to publish a high quality book. Its purpose would be to spread the importance of the churches and their contribution to the culture of the Southwest beyond the region.

I see this project as part of the great tradition of documentary/fine art photography exemplified in the work of the Bechers, Edward Weston and Edward Curtis. Their work, points to the importance of place, a theme that runs through all my work. To quote Eudora Welty, “Place is my source of knowledge. It tells me important things.”

My passion for place developed from my training in the social sciences, especially anthropology and history. And, there are few places more central to the culture and history of the Southwest than its adobe churches. The churches are our link to a higher being, and because adobe needs constant care, its use speaks to the steadfastness of faith and culture to endure despite the relentless erosion of time and environment. It is essential that, despite rapid modernization that took place in New Mexico in the 20th Century, these churches, so pivotal to its traditions, continue to be preserved in their original form.

With the exception of the “Riding the Rails” project, which is in color, all of my other work is photographed in black-and-white. My adobe church photographs, however, are very different. In the past, when working in the darkroom, I tea stained silver prints. I did this to make the colored borders part of the image. The borders represent the earth, the source of adobe mud. Now, I replicate the tea staining process with my own techniques in Photoshop.



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