Featured Photograph

Convento de Santo Domingo, Ocotlan, Mexico 2005

I discovered this beautiful 16th Century Church on my first trip to Oaxaca in 2001, just a few months after the death of Rudolfo Morales, the celebrated Zapotec artist who had lovingly restored it some twenty years earlier. Pressed for time, I was only able to photograph a detail of the carved wood screen and frescos just inside the church's entrance (see image #8 in Architecture & Artifacts). During the next four years, I often thought about returning to make more images.

From humble beginnings in the Zapotec village of Santa Ana Zegache, near Ocotlan, Rodolfo Morales went on to study art in Mexico City and become a high school teacher for the next twenty five years. In his free time he produced many paintings, drawings and prints. At the age of 50, his work came to the attention of Rufino Tamayo, one of the most renowned masters of Mexican art. Tamayo moved quickly to help Morales gain international exposure and the two became, along with Francisco Toledo, the great triumvirate of Oaxacan artists.

In the late 1970s, Morales undertook the costly restoration of Ocotlan's convent and church, then in shambles with large sections of the roof missing. Financing the project himself as a gift to his native community, Morales hired a team of young apprentices to execute his designs. The resulting structure fuses ancient Zapotec, colonial Spanish and contemporary Mexican design elements to create a one-of-a-kind architectural masterpiece. Hidden in a dusty market town forty-five minutes from Oaxaca City, this gem resonates brilliantly as a metaphor for the fusion of Hispanic and pre-Hispanic cultures that is modern Mexico.

When I returned to Ocotlan in 2005, I skipped lunch with my travel companions so that I could shoot non-stop for nearly three hours inside the church. I focused mainly on small details and attempted to capture the Zapotec people as they prayed in front of its many shrines and altars. As I packed up my digital camera and tripod, I glanced upward and thought about taking one more wide shot of the ceiling from the exact center of the church. Exhausted, I unpacked the camera and mounted a 16mm ultra wide lens. I was so tired that I didn't bother to bracket my exposures so that the difficult contrast of the scene could later be controlled with file layering. As a result, the final print required hours of remedial PhotoShop work that could have been saved by spending an extra minute or two bracketing exposures.

Paralleling the layers of history and culture in the restored church are layers of artistic interpretation and reinterpretation. The original Spanish architects employed indigenous craftsmen, who brought a pre-conquest influence to the building. In his restoration, Rodolfo Morales used ancient Zapotec motifs but also applied the 20th Century lessons of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros in creating modern frescos. By stripping the scene down to its black & white essence and squeezing it into an ultra wide angle frame that the unaided eye could not see all at once, I have added my own layer of interpretive homage to Morales and all of the artists who came before him.

– Joel Pickford

← Back to the current featured image