The idea for this project took shape over several years. The first inkling of the idea occurred to me one day as I was driving down one of the freeways that crisscross my hometown of San Jose. I happened to notice how many signs there were along the roadside pointing towards Historical Sights. It occurred to me that, even though I had lived in the area for several decades and even noticed the signs before, how few of these places I had ever visited. It further occurred to me that this might be an interesting photo project. At the time I was pretty busy so I never really had the chance to pursue the idea and as time passed, I soon forgot about it.
The idea didn't resurface until a few years later while I was heading down Highway 101 (I think to my 40 year High School reunion) and I noticed the same type of signs for the Missions of California. I had visited the Mission at San Juan Batista several times and even taken some photos there. Plus, any time I would get a little further south on 101, I would always take note of the Mission at San Miguel, which sits in plain view right next to the freeway, and I'd think to myself , "One of these days I should stop and check that out". At the time I didn't know exactly how many more Missions there were, though I did know there were quite a few more than just these two. After a bit of web research I found out there are 21 Missions stretched over a 730 mile path from San Diego, near the Mexican border to San Rafael, a bit north of San Francisco. With that discovery the idea solidified in my mind as something I'd like to do. Even though it's not a unique idea, there are many sites dedicated to "The California Mission Trail" (see below for some links), since my web research didn't turn up any purely photographic explorations I decided to plunge ahead.
There are some unique challenges to a project of this nature. First and foremost is the logistics of covering the 730 miles of travel from the southern most Mission to the northern most one. Fortunately, since I have relatives in the San Diego area, I was able to tie in a visit to the "Southland" with this project and I knocked off the "Southern 13" in one trip. As luck would have it the remaining eight are close enough to my home base that I easily finished them up with several day trips.
There were also some photographic challenges that I hadn't considered. Foremost among these is the fact that you are taking a lot of pictures of very similar things (crosses, bells, statues, altars, arches etc...) . That's not necessarily a challenge in itself except that, if you have any kind of creative streak in you, then you start to run out of "new" ways to take the same subject pretty fast. A challenge yes, but I highly recommend that any photographers reading this try something like this as it really opens you up to seeing things differently than you normally do. Fairly early on I decided to take this challenge to a new level as I noticed several "Themes" developing. The most prominent was that almost every Mission had a statue of the guy in charge of the founding the Missions, Father Junipero Serra (in most cases exactly the same statue). Another feature found at most of the missions is the "El Camino Real Bell" (and again, mostly exactly the same bell). I also found the "Arch" to be an architectural device found prominently in most every Mission. There were a couple failed "Themes". For instance the first several Missions I visited had Sundials which became an early theme but then disappeared when I failed to find them with any regularity. Also some of the "Themes" didn't develop until after I had done a few Missions already. So anyway look for these "Themes" throughout my photos here.
Another challenge was the amount of indoor, low light shooting that is required (inside churches and museums mostly). I decided to forsake the flash attachment and concentrate on using my tripod (which I usually dutifully carry around but rarely use) and go for longer exposure times. Yes, it's a bit more of a pain and takes a bit longer than that quick snap with the flash, but boy am I'm glad I did it. Rather than the usual unevenly lit, unnatural looking photos you get when using a flash I got these wonderfully natural looking, saturated photos. I'm a tripod guy from now on! (Yes, I do know that the flash is still an important tool in the right circumstances.) I do have to say that I strongly recommend that any budding photographers out there reading this should try doing a project of this nature. Because of the many challenges that you need to overcome in doing a project like this you will definitely expand your photographic horizons and become a better photographer. I know I did.
Some things about the Missions themselves. I was surprised to learn that each Mission is privately funded so the condition of each Mission varies. Most confusingly the rules about photography vary considerably from Mission to Mission and very few post these rules. I only found about them when someone working there told me the rules. Some would say no flashes allowed, one said no tripods allowed, one said I couldn't sell any of my photos (and after some web research on photographers' rights I decided that might be an issue with all the Missions so none of these photos are for sale), and one told me I couldn't post any of the photos on the web. That said, I found most of the staff at the Missions to be very friendly, knowledgable and helpful.
A bit about the photos themselves. As I mentioned there is a lot of similar subject matter in these photos. In order to get some variety in the presentation of this similar subject matter I not only tried to come of with different ways of shooting the subjects but I also explored various digital post-processing tools that I have at my disposal. I do believe that photography is an art form so as a photographer I should use all the tools available to create that art (albeit hopefully the proper tool at the proper time). I've tried to keep a good balance of "reality" vs. "art" in my choices, but some may disagree. What I'm trying to say is that some of these photos are real representations of what was there and some more impressionistic. 'Nough said? As far as the order in which to present these photos, I came up with three choices: in the order that I shot each location, in the order the Missions were built, and finally, in the South to North sequential order of "The California Mission Trail" (strangely not the same order they were built, check the map below) . There were good and bad points for each method but in the end I chose the latter (The Mission Trail one). I felt it was the most straight forward and meaningful way of the three for the general public. I felt both the other two methods only had any kind of order or value in a historical sense (the order I shot them would be my personal historical sense and the other a factual historical sense).
A final story and then you should get on to the point of this whole thing, the photos.
At San Juan Capistrano there was a plaque that explained why the Spanish built all the Missions. I have to admit that I always assumed it was an enterprise that the Catholic Church undertook to spread Catholicism. However it seems that the King of Spain at the time (late 1700's) was actually the main instigator. It seems he was concerned that the Russians were going to claim the California coast for Russia and he wanted to claim the land for Spain. He didn't want to make it appear to be a political move so he contacted the Church and, offering financial backing and other resources, asked them if they would be interested in managing a program to build a string of Missions in California (Oh, and while you're there, would you mind claiming all the land for Spain?).... and, as they say, the rest is history. I guess it just goes to show you that politicians have been trying to hide their real motives for things for a lot longer than we think.
Anyway, if you made it this far, thanks for reading. I hope you found all this at least somewhat informative (or entertaining) but now stop reading and get to the photos!
PS: Some links for more info on the Missions: