I had the chance to see a few of the old Spanish Missions last week while in San Antonio. It was kind of an impromptu visit, and those aren’t necessarily the most productive as far as photography goes, but it was still rewarding. There’s some amazing history preserved in these eighteenth century landmarks, dating back to early European settlement and what would eventually lead to the establishment of the city of San Antonio.
Some, myself included, might find it difficult to be overly enthusiastic about these missions when considering the cultural connotations and purpose they served in converting Native Americans to Catholicism. Often times the people who entered these facilities did so out of desperation, and were forced to abandon their own beliefs simply to survive. However, you don’t necessarily have to agree with the story to appreciate it; or at least appreciate its significance. And like all else, very little is black and white- there are always shades of gray. I think that was my biggest take away from the visit. If nothing else the morning provoked thought and a desire to keep learning more.
If you’re ever in the area, I would urge you to take half a day (or more) to ponder such things for yourself. Whether you’re a history buff, a fan of architecture, interested in ancient culture or visiting various units of our national park system; a tour of the San Antonio Missions is definitely worth your time.
As far as my photo-specific experience from this day- what is it they say about the best-laid plans? Regardless, that probably doesn’t apply here because I hadn’t laid any plans at all; I was kind of already astray. I’ve been to San Antonio many times, so I was always aware of the Missions and sort of kept them on my radar, but having “awareness” and having a knowledgeable approach are two very different things. I didn’t have any concept of access, surroundings, geographic orientation (which direction the structures face and how they receive light at different times of the day) or many other tidbits that could have proven useful; I just kind of showed up. And honestly, I didn’t even get that part right…
What happened was my wife, my mom, and I had all gone down to Texas to visit family; but they flew while I drove. When it was time for them to leave, I had to drop them off at the San Antonio airport at six in the morning, and figured while I was out at that hour I might as well get somewhere before sunrise and take advantage of the early morning light.
I decided to pass on the two northern most sites, because of their proximity to the city center. The Alamo (most famous, of course) sits right downtown and is the only one I’d actually been to before. Mission Concepcion is also a little further north. I still don’t know if this was really justified or the correct decision, but my thought process was to get a little further out of the city to try and capture unadulterated natural light and perhaps avoid line of sight issues within more urban surroundings.
(For example, I didn’t want a McDonalds signs glowing in the background. Again, maybe a slight issue with the Alamo- and there a greater possibility of having other people unexpectedly walk through the frame. In hindsight I doubt it would have been problematic at Concepcion, and most likely could have been worked around with the Alamo, so I wish I’d just started there and made my way down the line…)
Anyhow, the plan kind of backfired when I arrived at Mission San Jose. Here I discovered that a stone wall, the same that had once been used to fend off Apache and Comanche attackers, was also effective against modern day photographers when paired with a locked gate. I made my way around the perimeter in the dark, found a sign at the visitor center that indicated they wouldn’t open for another two hours, assumed the other missions would be the same, and went back to sleep in my car. Not the first time, and probably not the last…
The rest of the morning didn’t go too badly, but it was still full of those slight little problems that are only significant from a photo standpoint. Mission San Jose glowed beautifully at sunrise, but by the time I could get in for a clear shot the sun had climbed behind the building. Mission San Juan was pretty but had a bright silver SUV parked right at its corner that shimmered in the midmorning light. Mission Espada had a gorgeous courtyard, but amongst the flowers and green grass were a couple of large orange parking cones that made things seem somehow slightly less serene.
But, I was able to push through these challenges to capture a few shots, and better yet I got to scout each location so I can take a more calculated approach next time around…