Friday, July 15, 2011

Mission Work

San Xavier del Bac Bell Tower, 2005

The thing about photographing the mission at San Xavier del Bac, just south of Tucson, is that on all three occasions I've been there much of the mission has been covered with scaffolding. San Xavier del Bac is also located on an Indian reservation, which adds interesting elements of regulation and squalor.

Coming as I do from the East, I don’t have much experience with the Spanish missions of the American Southwest. We studied them in school. I suppose I might have seen one or two during my travels to California. But until I visited San Xavier del Bac I hadn’t actually spent much time inside a real mission.

It comes as no surprise that it’s hot and dusty in the desert south of Tucson. You only drive through a mile or so of the reservation to get from the Interstate highway to the mission. But in that short distance you see dilapidated houses, abandoned vehicles and lots of trash. It doesn’t particularly speak well of the Native Americans who live there. But the more I think about it, I wonder whether this is intended to be a statement to visitors about how the United States treats the descendants of its most original residents.

Once you get back all that and the dust bowl-like parking lot, the mission itself is a splendid place. I don’t know much about Catholicism. But having visited a number of Catholic parish churches, basilicas and cathedrals here in the United States and also in Europe, I’m at least familiar with the arrangement of statues and icons. (What’s interesting is how some Catholic churches are so austere and others are so full of all of the trappings of religious pageantry.

San Xavier del Bac Market Square, 2005

I suppose San Xavier del Bac tilts slightly toward the more theatrical end of the mission church design spectrum. The exterior is obviously intended to signal that this is a significant church. But there’s little adornment on the exterior. It doesn’t need special adornment, however. In its desert setting, the whitewashed stucco exterior walls make for dramatic contrasts with the dark blue Arizona sky. The bell tower rises well above the surrounding territory.

San Xavier del Bac Sanctuary, 2005

The sanctuary part of the interior is relative simple, but has some interestingly ornate images to punctuate the plain walls. It must be challenging to design a large public space like this for a desert site that allows lots of natural light in but doesn’t also make for a very hot room. Even on the hottest of days when I’ve been there, the interior of San Xavier del Bac has been cool and comfortable. The altar and surrounding areas are awash in rich red and gold colors and the flickering shadows of prayer candles. The combined effect of all this can come off as garish to an outsider like me. But I suspect it all has symbolic meaning to the faithful. I’m not a person of much formal religious faith. But I do respect the integrity of places where other people feel and celebrate religious conviction.

A place like San Xavier del Bac can be a challenge for a photographer hoping to capture something of the essence of the place. On all three of my visits there have been lots of people milling about. There was the aforementioned scaffolding that made taking a clean exterior photo impossible. The interior isn’t small. But it’s small enough to require a wide-angle lens if you want to capture much of it in a single shot. I accepted that challenges and alternated between a 17-35mm wide-angle lens and a fisheye lens.

Looking Out from the Entrance, 2006


  1. What great photos you got! I like all of these a lot. You really captured the nature of the place with these shots.

  2. I love this series, Chris! Each image seems to trump the one before and they're all wonderful.

    The cool interior reminds me of some of the places I visited while on temporary duty in Panama. Thick masonry walls, high ceilings and slow moving ceiling fans were amazingly efficient at keeping rooms comfortable even in the steamy summer months.