Review of The California Missions

The California Missions
by Ruben G. Mendoza; Melba Levick, Photographer

Rizzoli International Publications, NY, NY, 2018
256 pp. Trade, $55.00
ISBN: 978-0-8478-6151-4.

Reviewed by
Allan Graubard
February 2019

When I lived in California, which I did for a good many years, I was always drawn to its missions. Not only did they represent the origins of the state and the conflicts that formed its history -- first as a Spanish colony then as a Mexican possession -- they embodied in architectural form its foundational cultures: Hispanic and, if lesser, indigenous. Contrast, at least in the cities I lived in, was another attraction. In San Francisco, not far from upper Market Street, still there on the broad avenue named after it, Dolores, was San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores). With an apartment nearby, I passed it almost daily, marveling at its age, founded in 1782, and design -- elements of which other, modern buildings in the neighborhood sometimes aped. However well or poorly they did so, did not matter much. What did matter was the odd, anomalous continuity established between then and now, however frail or false it seemed at times. Several hundred miles south in a Santa Barbara park by a stream was its impressive mission, founded in 1786. As a university student I often used its front garden for reading and reflection, linked to the outside world only by light tourist traffic, the few school kids who played there after hours, and the occasional drone of low flying planes.

But what was the story of these and the 19 other missions built in Alte California, as its initial Spanish cartographers named it? Recently, I came across the current book, The California Missions, and found within it the kind of perspectives that respond to the question, both historically and visually. A collaboration between photographer Melba Levick and archaeologist Ruben Mendoza, it provides a view into a vanished time, which these missions preserve, as much for us and as for future generations, along the Camino Real; the original 600-mile road that connects the missions south to north, from San Diego to Sonoma.

Brief historical encapsulations sufficient to frame the time and place of each mission’s founding and subsequent development open to poignant photographic essays that Levick presents. Although modest in scope, she explores the exterior and interior of the missions and environs with an eye tempered by atmosphere and place. Here, the dance of sky, light, shadow, structure, and vegetation absorbs into it the quietude that visitors can find when touring the missions. More to the point, Levick’s photos reveal an immanence that the missions carry -- as if they were still inhabited by their priests and parishioners, and the local Indians that worked the gardens and land around them, whether graciously or by indenture. Perfectly refurbished to preserve the state’s patrimony, the missions yet have a subtle, impalpable feel that their curation frames but does not, in Levick’s photos, disturb; a kind of rare living presence I can grasp just as it vanishes.

This muted visual dynamic seems perfectly suited to balance the explicit documentation that the book otherwise offers. From interior baroque Spanish accents, ornate Rococo altar screens, and geometric native designs to exterior Moorish architectural motifs, the missions can also be read as temporal guides to cultural melding; the kind that makes California such a diverse state with the fifth largest economy in the world.

The arcade alone at Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1806 -- its church California’s oldest in continuous use -- is a subject ample enough to focus on. Levick’s several photos of the arcade build to a poignant hiatus when shot from inside it; its length amplified by the supporting columnar archways into an ever-diminishing perspective. What of the red, green, and blue pulpit with pink and blue striped sounding board, a white dove seemingly floating in space above but beneath a small cupola higher up at San Miguel el Arcangel, founded in 1797? Why does a simple white staircase of some 10 or 12 steps stop me, the right-hand wall painted brilliantly, if partially, in red? Is it merely the dramatic color contrast, accentuating the quick climb to a dark wooden door? Or does the scene suggest lives and events that seep through its photo yet resolve incompletely as I gaze at it?

Broken into eight parts that track the history of these missions, which begins in Mexico prior to colonization north, initiates then in San Diego, and ends at San Francisco Solano, in 1823 (which our current downtown Sonoma grew from) -- the only mission built after Mexico’s independence – the book portrays a past that appears, slips away and returns. My only caveat is the absence in the book of a map, noting traditional and contemporary place names where the missions are; certain help for readers new to the state and its manifold history.

Nonetheless, that history, as portrayed by the missions, is here. And writing this brief review from winter New York City, I’m back in those missions because of the book, enjoying the dry mid-day heat suffused with the odors of thyme, sage and rose…