San Francisco de Asis: Infrared Homage to Ansel
I captured this photo of the famous San Francisco de Asis mission church in the spring of 2019, just over a month after my Sony a6000 camera was first converted for infrared photography. I had only been out with the camera a couple of times before the trip to New Mexico, and although I still had a lot to learn about shooting infrared images, I was putting the camera to good use at Ghost Ranch, Ojo Caliente, and Taos. It turned out that my problem was not with capturing the images in infrared, but in processing them to reveal my visualization of the image.
I’ve been reading through Ansel Adams’ Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs lately. The photographs are of course spectacular, and many of my black and white photos have been inspired by Adams’ Examples; but the short essay Ansel wrote to accompany each photo is the reason I pick up this book again and again. Adams was a true artist, and many of the essays discuss his visualization of the final print. However, Adams was also responsible for advancing, with the creation of the Zone System, large format film photography from an art based on empirical procedures, some of which “had about as much validity as alchemy,” to a technical craft that could provide predictable and repeatable results with scientific accuracy. His essays provide a glimpse into the mind of the artist and the technician working together to produce fantastic masterpieces revealed through the printed images.
Adams said that “the negative is the conveying phase of the process, between the subject and the finished print.” In modern digital photography, while we may not be dodging and burning a print in the darkroom, the same is true of the RAW file and the finished image. My aesthetic idea when I captured this photo was the image you see in this post; what I lacked at that time (and took a few more years to develop) were the digital darkroom skills required to process the negative into a print.
San Francisco de Asis
Said to be one of the most photographed and painted churches in New Mexico today, San Francisco de Asis was already popular with artists when Ansel visited in the late 1920s. Paul Strand and Georgia O’Keefe both visited the church in 1930. Although I don’t specifically recall it now, I must have visited San Francisco de Asis with some intention of re-creating Ansel’s photo of the church from c. 1929. Standing there almost 90 years to the day after Ansel, I tried to get a similar framing of the back side of the church but nowadays a road circles the structure and much of the available parking is on the northwest side of the building. I captured a few images from the northwest then moved on and explored all around the church.
Ansel describes his image as “an experience in light.” He captured the photo on orthochromatic film which is sensitive only to blue and green light and chose not to use a filter to enhance the contrast. In his words, “a darker sky would have depreciated the feeling of light.” In my ignorance, I took the opposite approach, photographing the backlit church in infrared using a 590 nm filter to block out the blue light and turn the sky black.
Capture and Processing
The church is the central feature of the plaza in Rancho de Taos and is surrounded by shops, so there’s not a lot of room to step back from the structure to frame a photo. I was using the Samyang 12 mm f/2, my widest lens, but I really should have framed these images as two or three frame panoramas to allow more room for correcting the perspective distortion. As I moved around the south side of the building, the sun was behind the church and I realized I could create a nice backlight effect by shooting low to the ground to hide the sun (although my first shot from this side of the church with the sun in the frame produced some wild internal reflections in the lens since the anti-reflective coatings don’t block IR wavelengths).
I’m not sure if it resonates with anyone else, but the finished image is one of my personal favorite infrared photographs. To me it evokes a sense of esoteric mystery with the sunlight emanating from the roofline and the solitary cloud contrasting the black sky. The flat face of the wall and bulbous buttresses are somewhat abstract, so I made sure to include enough of the building to the side with the Viga beams so that the structure remains recognizable (although my friend Tony said, with his East Texas drawl, that it reminded him of a nekkid woman.)
My first attempts at processing this image were dismal failures, and like several of my other infrared captures, this one sat languishing on my hard drive for a long time. I spent some time working with Silver Efex Pro 2 and Photoshop on this and other images, but ultimately those techniques just didn’t work for me.
When I discovered the work and teaching of Joel Tjintjelaar in early 2021, I finally had the tools and techniques around which I could develop skills to transform my raw negatives into the images I had visualized. This image was processed entirely using the B&W Artisan Pro X panel and techniques in Photoshop. Processing of black and white infrared images is all about controlling contrast, and the Artisan Pro panel is designed specifically to do that.
The remaining images in this post were processed in Lightroom with minimal edits other than perspective correction. All images were captured with an infrared-converted Sony a6000 and Samyang 12 mm f/2 lens with a 590 nm filter.
Thanks for reading my post and taking a look at my images. If you would like to see more photos of this old church, check out the fantaistic work by local Taos photographer Geraint Smith.