Category Archives: City
Many of the destinations that I photograph are justifiably popular with tourists. I can’t blame them; they’re drawn to the same beauty that I am, after all. But sometimes, especially when I’m working, I like to escape the crowds. I like to see a place as it is, free of crowds and free of the commercialization that often intrudes into beautiful places.
St. Moritz is actually a small town; its fame far exceeds its size. But we were there just on the cusp of the main ski season, a time when the number of visitors to St Moritz may triple the town’s population. I quickly found that one of the best times to photograph the city was in early morning, before many of the guests were up and about.
I wanted to capture St Moritz — the actual, authentic place. I walked to a different part of the town, away from the center where most of the hotels and resorts were located. Then I walked a short distance away, just enough to give some perspective on St Moritz and its relationship with its environment.
From that vantage point, I could see the true scale of the mountains that surround St Moritz. It was the Alps — formidable and breathtaking — that gradually turned a pilgrimage spot into a holiday destination. From my spot just outside the town, I could see how tiny and insignificant it all is when juxtaposed against the mountains. It’s a theme I return to often in my work — our small place in the world — but viewing a still – sleeping St Moritz against the backdrop of the Alps, it wasn’t difficult to find myself thinking along those lines again.
I set up my tripod, and while St Moritz slowly came to life, I framed a shot that captured the majestic scale of the Alps.
As a photographer, I am almost always working. Even when I’m “officially” on vacation with my family, I can’t help but be drawn to beautiful, interesting places. I always have a camera with me, so even my down time usually results in at least a few photographs.
My family and I made a trip to St Moritz for the holidays. Skiing is one of my favorite pastimes to share with my family, and St Moritz lives up to its reputation as a beautiful winter retreat.
But St Moritz is, as we quickly learned, much more than a winter ski destination. In St Moritz, it’s possible to experience any number of weather extremes — snow, storms, mist, and even sun — over the space of a day. Every day seemed to bring totally different weather than we’d had the day before. And there were more brilliantly sunny days than most people would ever expect.
In fact, the large number of bright, sunny days in St Moritz is one of the things that made the resort. For centuries, it was a popular spot for religious pilgrims who made the trek to drink from the area’s mineral springs. Pilgrims who made the journey to the springs were granted absolution from their sins. It was only in the mid-1800s that a pioneering entrepreneur, Caspar Badrutt, realized the unique appeal of a place that offered snow-covered natural beauty with 300 days of sunlight each year. Badrutt invited a handful of English friends to St Moritz during the winter, promising that if they loved the place as he expected, they could stay at his expense. If they didn’t like it, he would reimburse their travel expenses. The English tourists came, and as Badrutt expected, they loved the place, and a major tourist destination was born.
Like Badrutt’s English guests, I find the juxtaposition of snow and sun strikingly beautiful. But the most beautiful days in St Moritz were the ones when we had a snow storm followed by brilliant sunlight. The light that fell over St Moritz on those days — when sunlight broke through an atmosphere still heavy with snow — was enchanting and bathed the town in a fairy tale glow.
A view like this one, taken over St Moritz as the sun broke through the snow, is the reason that my family vacation became a semi-working holiday.
Copenhagen isn’t just a city with an appreciation for the arts. It’s a city where design is a national obsession and architects are celebrities. One of the city’s most acclaimed — and controversial — structures is the Copenhagen Opera House. Located just across the canal from the Royal Danish Playhouse, the Opera House is built on a former navy pier and is part of the city’s forty-year-long redevelopment of its waterfront.
Once a gritty naval and industrial space, the waterfront is now the centerpiece of Copenhagen’s cultural life. The city’s success in transforming its waterfront has become a model for urban planning around the world. And the focal point of that development is the Opera House, which was designed by Denmark’s most well-known architect, Henning Larsen.
It’s a striking and very modern — even futuristic — building. It was controversial from its inception, because of its design as well as its cost. The building, which is estimated to have cost $500 million, sits directly across from the royal residence, an audacious decision that did not go over well with everyone in Copenhagen. Larsen, as it turned out, was himself troubled by the building; he and Arnold Maersk McKinney Moller, the building’s sole financier, disagreed over virtually every detail of the building’s design.
I can see how the Opera House would have both its admirers and its detractors. It’s strikingly modernist facade is quite a contrast from the more Old World appearance of the royal residence. Still, on a pleasant early evening in Copenhagen, in the blue hour before night falls, I found the Opera House and the light it cast over the canal captivating. It was — to me — emblematic of Danish creativity and ingenuity.
I believe that you can tell a lot about a society by the importance that they place on the arts. I’ve sometimes been amazed and disheartened to find that in some cities, it was all but impossible to find a museum, a gallery, or a performance venue. Those places always seem somehow empty to me, as if something essential were missing, some critical part of the city’s soul.
In other cities, the arts are given a prominent place, signaling to anyone who enters that the artistic life of the city is just as essential to the well-being of its people as the world of business and commerce. I find that I feel more at home in those places, I feel that I am among kindred spirits.
Copenhagen is one of those places. The arts aren’t tucked away in Copenhagen; they’re a vital part of the life of the city. The city is full of museums, galleries, and theaters. It occurs to me, thinking of the well-known happiness of the Danes, that perhaps the two are related.
One of the newest and most significant developments in Copenhagen’s arts scene is the Royal Playhouse, a strikingly modern building that almost seems to levitate just over the waterfront. The building, which was just completed in 2008, is already considered an architectural masterpiece and is a designated City Landmark. It’s no wonder that the building is so highly regarded; the city began planning a building to replace the original playhouse in the late nineteenth century.
Perched at the water’s edge, the playhouse’s blue-green glass shimmers with reflected water. I see it as a monument of sorts, but not only to the arts — to the Danes themselves, a people who would spend more than a century designing a theater.
I’m fortunate in my travels to see some of the most beautiful destinations in the world, and I often find myself lost in my own thoughts at these places, mesmerized by their beauty. But sometimes, especially when I visit manmade structures, I can find myself transfixed not only by their beauty, but by their stories. I think of the human spirit that went into their construction and how stone and mortar often contain untold histories.
Copenhagen’s Round Tower is one of those places. It’s not an easy structure to miss; it’s one of the most distinctive buildings in the city and is located in the city center. The tower is popular with tourists, and a climb to the top reveals some of the best views of the city, making it a staple of guidebooks.
But as I prepared to photograph the tower, I found myself thinking more about its history than its striking facade or the views from the observatory.
There was a time when Copenhagen was one of the world’s leading centers for the study of astronomy. Astronomy was a newly popular field of study, and countries across Europe established national observatories to further study the new field. Denmark’s preeminence in the field was due largely to the work of Tycho Brahe, a nobleman, astronomer, and writer.
In the late 1500s, Frederick II, who had an interest in astronomy and an appreciation for Brahe’s contributions to the field, ruled Denmark. During his reign, Brahe was something of a darling of the Court; Frederick even funded two observatories for Brahe on the island of Hven. The observatories, Uraniborg and Stjerneborg, were the most advanced of their day.
Following the death of Frederick, his son became king. The new king — Christian IV — did not share his father’s interest in science and Brahe, whose political beliefs put him at odds with the monarchy, soon ran afoul of the new king. The famed astronomer was exiled from Copenhagen and the grand observatories, Uraniborg and Stjerneborg, were demolished.
Years later, perhaps realizing the mistake he’d made, Christian authorized the construction of a new observatory, the Round Tower. It was completed in 1642, nearly a half century after Brahe’s death in exile. Brahe eventually resigned himself to his new life in Prague, but still wrote with sadness of the experience of exile: “Denmark what is my offense? How have I offended you my fatherland?”
I think of this as I photograph the tower. I think of how the tower was born of a petty dispute, that the shame and sadness of Brahe are etched into the tower’s facade. I imagine the old astronomer, if he were alive today, looking out over the city from the top of the tower, amazed at its changes but grieving for what was lost.
My work as a photographer often takes me to the world’s most beautiful places. I’ve been fortunate to see incredible works created by human hands and breathtaking wonders created by nature, and occasionally I’ve visited locations made beautiful by their history — sometimes a noble history and sometimes a tragic one. All of these places, in their own ways, are dear to me.
But sometimes the world surprises me. Sometimes I find myself deeply moved by the simplest of things. Sometimes my travels lead me to places that manage to capture the spirit of a people in a simple and endearing way. Copenhagen was one of those places.
Danes are consistently ranked among the world’s happiest people. It’s true that Denmark is an affluent country and the government offers more social protections than many other countries. But the Danes seem to have a sort of inborn happiness, a lighthearted, easy approach to life that inures them to the stresses of life. It’s difficult not to be envious of their relaxed take on life.
Walking the streets of Copenhagen — which can indeed become congested and busy, like any other large city — I still felt that life somehow moved more slowly and deliberately there. The Danes’ lighthearted approach to life agreed with me. And as I walked, I eventually made my way to Amagertorv Square, the city’s central square, as well as one of its oldest.
The centerpiece of Amagertorv is the Stork Fountain. Created in 1894, the fountain honored the silver wedding anniversary of Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Louise. Over the years, it became a tradition that newly graduated midwives gather and dance around the fountain.
I don’t know the significance of the storks, if there is any. But I found the fountain charming, whatever its meaning. The idea that the Crown Prince and Princess would be honored through three storks poised to take flight seemed to me to be emblematic of the Danes and their slightly quirky, carefree take on life. And the image of young midwives dancing around the birds which, in myth, deliver their young charges, made me smile to myself as I setup my tripod. Denmark may or may not be the happiest place in the world, but on an early morning in Copenhagen, as I prepared to photograph three bronze storks, I felt quite content.
Sometimes, as a photographer, you set out to photograph one thing, and along the way, you find something unexpectedly beautiful that changes all of your plans. When I set out to go to the Isle of Eigg, a place I’d long wanted to see, I planned for a short stay in Edinburgh along the way.
I’d seen photographs of the city and read bits about here and there, but none of it had left a particular impression with me. I planned the stop in Edinburgh mostly as a lark.
But in the way that things often happen, Edinburgh surprised me — the city is a wonder. I wandered through the Old Town, down its narrow streets and hidden alleys, each one seeming to hold untold stories. The twenty-first century doesn’t intrude much in Edinburgh’s Old Town; walking along the brick streets in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle is a bit like stepping into a Harry Potter novel, and I say that admiringly.
I made my way to the top of Calton Hill, one of the main hills overlooking the city. Calton Hill was planned to be a monument to soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, but money ran out and it was never completed. It’s difficult to imagine now, but for years, the hill was seen as an embarrassment to the city, known as “Edinburgh’s Shame.”
Nowadays, no one views the hill as an embarrassment. Attempts to turn it into a commercialised tourist attraction mercifully failed. It’s ruggedly beautiful and from the top of Calton Hill, I had views of the entire city. It was my first trip to Edinburgh, intended only as a quick stop along the way to another destination, and I felt lucky to have gotten to explore the city and its Old World charm. Looking out over the city as the sun set, I understood Queen Victoria’s remark that Edinburgh is “fairy-like and what you would imagine as a thing to dream of.”
It didn’t take long for me to become thoroughly charmed by Budapest. It’s a beautiful city, and it seemed that every time I turned a corner, I found another stunning architectural work. It was tempting, at times, to simply find a bench, sit, and spend hours out of the day admiring some of Budapest’s grandest structures.
But I knew that as taken as I was with Parliament and St. Stephen’s Basilica, there were other sights waiting for me in the city. After a few days of exploring, I decided to photograph Saint Matthias Church, another of Budapest’s most striking churches. It was my birthday, and I wanted to spend the day in and around the church, hopefully getting some great shots.
To get a good view of Saint Matthias, I walked up to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a large terrace built as a viewing platform between 1899 and 1905. As I discovered, calling the Bastion a “terrace” is a bit misleading; it doesn’t give an adequate sense of the scale and grandeur of it. The Bastion has seven turrets, a parapet, and a monumental double staircase; it’s the kind of place you’d expect to find in a children’s fairytale. Calling the Bastion a “terrace” is the equivalent of calling the Louvre a “gallery.”
I became so consumed with exploring the Fisherman’s Bastion that I decided to save Saint Matthias for later. It was early morning, and the white stone of the Bastion glowed pink in the breaking light. It was one of those spectacular sunrises that you catch every now and then, and the light made the detailed stonework of the Bastion even more special.
I didn’t get to Saint Matthias that day. I spent the day among the seven turrets of the Bastion in perfect sunlight, on a day that felt like a gift from the universe.
On my second day in Budapest, I visited the other of the city’s two unmissable structures, St. Stephen’s Basilica. Though the buildings serve very different purposes — one celebrates sovereignty and the other faith — they have one thing in common: they are the same height. Current city regulations prohibit construction of anything taller.
Ecclesiastical buildings are almost always breathtaking, and this one is no exception. A large, intricate mosaic marks the entry to the basilica (it’s so beautiful that I decided to make it the focus of the shot), and the building’s interior is magisterial. The monumental size of the basilica is really only apparent from the inside, where various marbles and precious stones shimmer in candlelight. The massive structure is one of the most photographed buildings in Europe.
Remarkable buildings often have remarkable stories, and the basilica has its own tale of tenacity and vision. Built on the site where wild animals once fought each other for public entertainment, the original church was a refuge for many residents during a devastating flood in 1838. In their gratitude, the survivors vowed to build a larger church in its place.
In 1845, architect Jozsef Hild began plans for a massive domed church, but there were numerous delays — not the least of which was a revolution — which meant that the foundation was not laid until 1851. Hild died before completing the basilica, and his successor, Miklos Ybl, faced an even bigger challenge. It was already apparent that Hild’s design would have to be reworked when, in 1868, the huge pillars that supported the dome began to sink. The walls of the grand church broke apart and the newly constructed dome collapsed to the ground. It was such a catastrophic failure that the only solution was to completely rebuild the basilica from the ground.
The basilica was finally completed — by a third architect following the death of Ybl — in 1906. It was said that at the consecration mass, Emperor Francis Joseph kept looking upward, wary of another collapse of the dome. The dome did not collapse, however, and today offers one of the best views of this beautiful city.
It’s easy to be awed by a structure like St. Stephen’s simply for its incredible beauty. But as I positioned my camera and waited for just the right amount of early morning light, I was also awed by determination and vision that went into its construction. I was reminded once again that buildings are nothing if not a reflection of the human spirit.
My work as a photographer often leads me to some of the world’s most beautiful places, both natural and manmade. While the natural world is frequently breathtaking in its beauty, I find myself no less awestruck by the work of human hands and our small attempts to leave something of ourselves behind.
When I’m fortunate enough to photograph some of the world’s most beautiful buildings, I often allow my mind to wander and I frequently find myself thinking that structures are far more than brick and mortar. They’re reflections of the human spirit, the spirit of a designer who possesses a vision and, in the case of national buildings, the spirit of a people. They’re a reflection of the way a nation sees itself.
Budapest is easily one of the most striking cities in Europe, a jewel perched along the banks of the Danube. On my first night in the city, I took a walk along this storied river, and was instantly charmed by Budapest and its architecture. In the blue light of an early evening, with the lights of the city reflected in the Danube, Budapest is especially beautiful.
But what I was most drawn to was its Parliament building. It’s a striking, neo-Gothic structure and the tallest building in the city. Overlooking the south bank of the river, it’s impossible to miss. As majestic as the building’s exterior is, its interior is equally impressive.
The building was inaugurated in 1896, to honor the nation’s sovereignty on the thousandth anniversary of its founding. It’s a structure worthy of a thousandth anniversary. Designed by the great Hungarian architect Imre Steindl, the construction involved almost 100,000 people. In the seventeen years it took to complete the building, nearly half a million gemstones were used. Think about it: almost half a million gemstones. The Parliament was the crowning achievement of Steindl’s career, but the master architect went blind before the grand building was completed.
As I prepared for the shot, these are the things I thought of. I thought of a nation’s pride reflected in its Parliament and the brilliant man who designed it, unable to see his masterpiece completed. These are the stories that buildings would tell if they had the ability.