Category Archives: City
For a fine art photographer, shooting a place like Kolmanskop is a bit of a challenge. I’m accustomed to photographing some of the world’s most beautiful destinations — whether natural or manmade. In those instances, nature, or perhaps the deft hand of a builder, has done a great deal of the work; my role is to capture the spirit of the place. Through lighting and composition, I try to express some of the wonder that the world inspires in me.
But Kolmanskop is, after all, the ruins of a town. It’s famous not for its stunning natural beauty or its striking architecture, but for its desolation. People come to Kolmanskop to experience what the world would be like when civilization ends and there’s no one left to keep the elements at bay. It’s a fascinating place, but I wondered how I could photograph houses filled with sand in a way that made them beautiful.
I’d read about people who are enthralled with abandonment; abandoned homes, hospitals, and factories have become oddly popular tourist destinations, not unlike Kolmanskop. People are fascinated by the lives that seem simply to have stopped, with no explanation. Occasionally, the odd possession — a woman’s purse or a child’s toy — is left behind and gives the place an especially poignant feel.
What I realized at Kolmanskop is that there is a beauty there. The abandoned mining town and other such places remind us of our transitory existence, our smallness in the grand scale of time. In the left-behind, everyday objects — a single piece of silverware, a chipped saucer — I couldn’t help but feel something of the extraordinary significance of ordinary lives.
I spent the day in Kolmanskop, wandering through the remains of this once wealthy town. I watched the light change and the shadows grow. And I found that even in this forsaken place, in its peeling paint and cracked windows, there was indeed a sad and baleful beauty.
Kolmanskop was once one of the wealthiest towns in the world. Diamonds were so plentiful that they could be picked up off of the ground, even at night, when they twinkled in the moonlight. German miners came and built a town on the edge of the Namib Desert, and there, on the rough edge of civilization, they had virtually every luxury their diamond fortunes could buy.
The history of Kolmanskop began in 1908 when a railway worker, sweeping dirt and debris from the tracks, found unusual stones. He had unwittingly stumbled upon one of the richest diamond deposits in the world.
The town that became Kolmanskop grew at a frenetic pace. Diamond hunters descended on the area, and, buffeted against the wind and sand, set to work on all fours, picking diamonds out of the sand and putting them in jam jars. They coaxed a town of the desert, and because it was essentially a German town, it had German-looking houses, a school, a gymnasium, and a pub.
But this wasn’t an ordinary German town. Kolmanskop was wealthy — in 1912 alone, one million carats of diamonds were found there. The town had fresh water brought in by rail and electricity at a time when many towns in Germany didn’t have it. There was a swimming pool, a butcher, a hospital, and a grand entertainment hall whose acoustics —even today — are remarkable. The mining families of Kolmanskop imported champagne from France. And every day, someone was paid to sweep the streets clear of the sand that blew in overnight.
But as quickly as Kolmanskop’s diamond boom began, it ended. By World War I, the area’s diamond deposits were depleted, and another, larger deposit was discovered near the Orange River. The families who once made their homes in Kolmanskop picked up and moved south, leaving homes and possessions behind. The last residents left the town in 1956.
And then the desert began to reclaim Kolmanskop. Without a human presence to keep the desert at bay, the sand began to overtake the once grand homes, filling the parlors, dining rooms, and bedrooms where families once lived. Paint and wallpaper were worn away by sand and by time.
To walk among the empty town today is to be reminded that we humans are small, powerless creatures. We build our homes, we live our lives and do what we will. But ultimately, time and nature will have their way with these things, leaving scant traces of our small existence.
There’s something to be said for the people who chose to settle on Santorini, for the faith and the mettle of people who perch their most important town on the vertiginous edge of a cliff. People come to Santorini for its spectacular, made-for-a-postcard views of blue-domed churches at sunset. But they don’t often give a lot of thought to the island’s inhabitants.
It was my last day in Santorini. I’d climbed the steep passageways, wandered through its churches, and captured more than a few of the island’s famous sunsets. It wasn’t yet the high season, but the island was still crowded with tourists and I found myself wanting to spend the time I had left in relative solitude. Santorini and its history had given me much to think about.
You can’t look at Santorini without understanding something of its history — Santorini is, after all, merely the remains of a larger island destroyed in a massive volcanic eruption in roughly 1500 B.C. The modern-day towns seem to hang so near to the edge of the caldera formed by the eruption that a good breeze might blow them away. Santorini’s 1,600 residents exist on a spot 260 meters above the sea. It takes a certain kind of people to live in such an environment.
They weren’t people who were easily broken by their environment. Later, long after the volcano did its work, the residents of Santorini, faced with an unforgiving natural world and raiders from the Middle East, they dug homes into Santorini’s rough-hewn surface. Known as yposkafos, which means “dug into the rock,” many of these homes still exist on Santorini, a testament to the hardiness of its people.
The rock dwellings weren’t the only structures that Santorinians built for protection. Invoking their faith and the protection of God, they built churches by the dozens. By some estimates, there are 600 churches on Santorini, because for many years, individual families built them to ensure God’s protection over their husbands and fathers who made their living on the sea.
On my last day in Santorini, I entered one of these churches — the famous blue-domed Saint Theodore. My plan was to take a few last photos of Fira and its sunsets, and walking through its winding streets, I happened to come upon this view — the magnificent Saint Theodore Church in early evening sunlight. The view was all the more special because I knew my time in Santorini was coming to an end, and like all visitors to the island, I was completely charmed by the place.
As it happened, I didn’t capture one of Fira’s vivid sunsets that day. But what I did capture was all of the essential elements of Santorini in one image — its pastel-hued architecture against black, volcanic cliffs and the deep blue of the sea. And there’s something here, I hope, of the strength and faith of its residents. As for that last sunset – now I have a good reason to go back.
The next morning, I awoke early. I wanted to photograph Oia in the soft light of early morning. Its sunsets may be spectacular, but Santorini is no less beautiful by sunrise.
Walking along the winding streets and staircases of Oia with most of the village still asleep, I let my mind drift to Santorini’s history. So much of Oia is new — the necessary result of rebuilding after the 1956 volcanic eruption — that it was sometimes easy for me to forget that I was walking in the footsteps of one of the oldest civilizations in Europe.
The people who originally called the island home were the Minoans, an enigmatic people whose culture is, after many centuries, still something of a mystery. They wrote in a language that has never been fully deciphered; much of what is known about the Minoans comes from others, after the fact. Even today, the Minoans are a shadowy, mysterious people, with much of their history lost to the passage of time.
But what we do know about these early inhabitants of the Aegean islands suggests that the Minoans were a highly advanced people. Their palaces, particularly the palace at Knossos on the island of Crete, was not only aesthetically impressive, but was a technological marvel, complete with flush toilets.
The ancient historian Thucydides referred to the Minoans as a thalassocracy, or an empire of the sea. Protected as they were by the sea, the Minoans were virtually invulnerable; their palaces, even the grand one at Knossos, were not fortified. Their dominance of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas was so complete that they viewed their world as unassailable. Hundreds of years after Egyptian society peaked, the Minoans looked out over impossibly blue seas and saw a world that was theirs alone.
But unlike the Egyptians, the Minoans did not shut themselves off from the world. They were vibrant, dynamic people, as seafarers tend to be, who traded their textiles and metalwork in Cyprus, Syria, Anatolia, and Lebanon. Evidence of their artwork can be found in the Nile Delta.
But at the height of their power, the Minoans vanished. Without any obvious threats, one of the most powerful ancient civilizations simply disappeared from the historical record, leaving historians and archaeologists (and the occasional photographer) to puzzle over their demise for centuries.
For a while that morning, I had Oia to myself. The sun was just beginning to make itself known, and the tourists, likely still sleeping off the wine of the night before, were not yet out and about. I watched the sun rise over that beautiful island and pondered its ancient mysteries. It’s easy to become lost in the past in a place like Santorini.
By the time I got around to photographing one of Santorini’s famed sunsets, I was thoroughly captivated by this small sliver of volcanic island. Everything about Santorini was enchanting — I was so charmed by the island that even after climbing flight after flight of narrow, cobbled stairs, I only wanted to see more.
I spent days exploring and photographing Oia’s blue-domed churches and its windmills, and marveling at the view over the deep blue of the Aegean. I photographed its iconic chalk-white churches and homes, made all the more striking against the blue of the sea and sky. But I hadn’t yet captured one of the island’s sunsets.
Everyone knows Santorini for its famed blue and white churches, but it’s equally famous for its sunsets, so much so that crowds of tourists gather at certain points on the island for the best views. Oia, in particular, is regarded as one of best places on the island to watch the sun go down. In summer, which is the high tourist season in Santorini — finding a spot to oneself is all but impossible.
I was there in the shoulder season, and still Oia was crowded with tourists who had the same objective as I did — to see those spectacular sunsets. The windmills were a popular spot for sunset viewing, as was Oia Castle. I’ll admit that I went hoping to catch a few dreamy, golden hour moments to myself, and was disappointed to find that dozens of other people had the same idea.
After lugging my tripod and cameras up Oia’s maze of stairs, I found a great view and got set up to capture the sunset. Plenty of other people had the same idea, but I knew they could be edited out of the photo if necessary. As the sun began to set over the Aegean, the crowds were momentarily hushed as they and I looked in awe at the one of the most breathtaking sunsets I’d ever seen.
But then I happened to glance to my side — at Oia itself, and I realized that one of the most spectacular sights was in the other direction. As incredible as the sunset was, it left Oia’s whitewashed buildings glazed in a glowing, pastel light, and I thought the village had never looked lovelier. And while the crowds of tourists were mesmerized by the sea view, for a few moments, I had that watercolor-hued image to myself.
To walk the winding streets of Oia was to be continually reminded of the beauty that sometimes comes from tragedy. The island of Santorini is famous for its blue-domed churches, and there’s no denying their charm. The image of chalk-white churches and their blue domes against a clear blue sky is perhaps the quintessential postcard image from Santorini. But as with the island itself, there’s an element of the tragic behind the island’s iconic churches.
Perched high on a caldera cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea, Oia was once a village of fishermen, and the lives of fishermen were filled with dangers and uncertainty. The sea that provided for your family could turn deadly; there were no guarantees.
And so the people of Oia did what people have always done in times of distress: they prayed. To keep their husbands, fathers, and sons safe at sea, the families of Oia — the wealthy ones, at least built churches. Year after year, one family after another built churches, many of them named for the saints that the fishermen looked to for protection. The lucky fishermen who returned safely brought all manner of treasure — religious icons, crystal chandeliers — and as a result, the churches of Santorini often house remarkable valuables. Most of Santorini’s churches are still owned by the families who built them; they’ve simply been passed down through the years.
Like the fishermen who made their living in the Aegean and were keenly attuned to its dangers, to live in Santorini is to live with an understanding that the sea is violent, unpredictable. Many of the tourists who come to Oia and take their postcard-worthy photographs of the town’s sugar cube white buildings are unaware that in the not-so-distant past, Oia was nearly wiped from the earth, and that one of the only things keeping the town alive today are the tourists themselves.
On July 9, 1956, a massive earthquake struck Santorini. It lasted only twelve minutes, but in that time, much of the ancient villages of Oia and Fira were destroyed. More than thirty lives were lost, and almost ninety percent of Santorini’s buildings were damaged or destroyed. Much of the local population moved elsewhere, and villages like the ones now famous for their blue-domed churches were in danger of disappearing. Oia and the surrounding towns didn’t really begin to recover from the earthquake until the 1970s, when they began to look to tourism as their lifeline.
Here in Oia, so much of its beauty comes from the tragedies of its past. The faithful uttered fervent prayers and built churches to stave off disaster. In the wake of another, later disaster—the earthquake—the town was rebuilt and its churches were refurbished, painted in their trademark blues and whites. As the sun sets over Oia, I think of the incredible beauty of this place and the fragility of life.
It’s easy to be enchanted in Santorini. Walking among the pastel-hued houses of Oia at the end of a day, I find myself completely charmed by the small village, with its windmills overlooking the Aegean Sea. With golden hour sunlight falling gently over the village, Oia was particularly lovely.
With so much serenity and beauty, it’s easy to forget that Santorini’s history is steeped in destruction. Though largely forgotten by the rest of the world today, Santorini was once the site of perhaps the most cataclysmic volcanic eruption in history. Almost five thousand years ago, the volcano — known as Thera — blasted perhaps 14 cubic miles of magma twenty-five miles into the atmosphere. Even the eruption of Krakatoa did not visit that kind of ruin on humans.
On the nearby island of Crete was the ancient civilization of the Minoans, Europe’s oldest civilization, and for its time, remarkably advanced. The Minoans were the first Europeans to use a written language and the first to have paved roads. They were a sophisticated people, with a seafaring empire that put brought them in contact with much of the Mediterranean.
At the peak of their power, however, the Minoans disappeared. Their disappearance was sudden and mysterious, and vexed historians and archaeologists for centuries. Only recently have archaeologists determined that the two events — the eruption of Thera and the sudden disappearance of the Minoans — are likely related.
The eruption of Thera was so powerful that it caused tsunamis, sending massive, scalding waves and debris onshore at Crete, which is only a few dozen miles away. One can only imagine the horror experienced by the Minoans in the wake of the eruption. The suffering wouldn’t have ended once the eruption stopped; famine, plague, and the end of their seafaring economy would certainly have followed. In subsequent years, the Minoans, still weakened from the aftermath of the Thera eruption, were more vulnerable than they would have otherwise been and when invaded by the mainland Greeks, the once vibrant civilization collapsed.
The devastation caused by Thera and the demise of Minoan civilization may have left a lasting imprint on Greek mythology. When Plato wrote about the lost civilization of Atlantis, an advanced, peaceful society lost beneath the sea, he was perhaps describing the destruction of Crete. There are enough common elements in the actual story of Thera’s eruption and the myth of Atlantis that scientists believe the two may actually be one and the same.
As the sun fades over Oia and its windmills, I try to imagine such an event. But in the early evening sunlight in Santorini, the tragedy is too distant and the present is sublime. I think instead of the blue of the Aegean and watch evening begin to settle in over the island.
One of the problems with Athens is that there are almost too many historic and archaeological sites — the city is full of fascinating landmarks, and many of them are in guarded areas that are closed during the best hours of sunrise and sunsets.
For ordinary tourists, this is no issue, since they simply want to explore the site. For photographers, who may want the backdrop provided by early morning or late afternoon sunlight, it’s a problem.
I had this problem with the Tower of the Winds. The site — which is one of the best-preserved in Athens — is closed at the times I would most like to shoot, and like many other archaeological sites, tripods are not allowed. But the site was too beautiful and too intriguing to be discouraged by these setbacks.
There is little that we know with certainty about the Tower of the Winds. It was built in the 1-st century BC by the Syrian astronomer Andronicus, and was meant to serve as a kind of timepiece. Designed in an octagonal shape, each side of the tower faces a point of the compass and each side is topped with a frieze depicting the Anemoi, or the eight winds of Greek mythology.
Sundials were placed beneath each frieze and inside the tower was a unique device known as a clepsydra, or water clock, which was powered by a stream of water flowing down from the Acropolis. Though it is lost now, the tower was originally topped with a weather vane, which may have also been used to predict the future as well as tell the direction of the wind.
Over the centuries, the tower had other purposes. Early Christians used it as a bell tower for a cathedral and later, when the area was under Ottoman rule, the tower was used by dervishes as a place of contemplation.
Nowadays, the restored tower is a tourist attraction, but it is the structure’s original purpose that intrigues me. In this city that gave so much to the world — from philosophy to democracy — I stand awestruck in front of what is essentially a two thousand-year-old weather station. I was determined to capture the significance of the site, using long exposure to emphasize the moving clouds behind the tower. It seemed appropriate to me to do this, given the tower’s importance to the Greeks as a timepiece and predictor of the future.
After exploring and photographing the Parthenon, I wandered around the Acropolis. It was easy to become lost in thought there, imagining Athens in the time of the philosophers. Eventually I made my way to the Areopagus, a large outcropping of rock to the west of the Acropolis. It was a rock with a dark history, as it was once the site of trials for those accused of homicide.
That wasn’t the only significance of the Areopagus. It is believed to be the site of a famous meeting between Alexander the Great and the philosopher Diogenes. Alexander, whose personal tutor was Aristotle, was as much a student of philosophy as a general. The brash young commander, who had already met and won the praise of many of Greece’s most influential philosophers, was dismayed that Diogenes had not yet come to meet him and chose to go to the philosopher himself. He found Diogenes on the Areopagus, reclining in the sun. Eager to win the philosopher’s respect, Alexander asked Diogenes if he wanted anything; the philosopher’s simple reply was “Stand out of my light.” Rather than feel insulted by the philosopher’s indifference, Alexander was impressed by his haughtiness.
I think of this meeting as I wander the Areopagus and set up my tripod to photograph the Acropolis from the other side. Looking over this grand city from this vantage point, I can imagine Diogenes with the sun on his face, speaking imperviously to Alexander. Athens can do that; it’s a city that inspires a feeling of grandeur. Lounging atop the Areopagus in the sun, I can imagine it must have been easy for the philosopher to speak indifferently to the man who conquered most of the known world by the time he was in his mid-twenties. I take my shots, and with a setting sun in my face, I feel a bit like a philosopher myself.
Visiting Greece was a dream — what traveler hasn’t imagined walking along ancient streets in the shadows of Olympian Gods? When I planned the trip to Greece, Athens was the first stop on my itinerary; I could hardly wait to see one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the birthplace of democracy and philosophy.
The first to visit and shoot in this grand city was the Acropolis and Parthenon. Athens is a city of stark contrasts, where the distant past seems to live alongside a very modern metropolis. I wanted to see Athens the way the ancient Greeks would have seen it; I wanted to approach the Parthenon, that beautiful temple to their patron, Athena, with the same sense of wonder and pride they must have felt.
I found what I think must be the best view of the Acropolis at the top of Philopappos Hill. The hill is in the center of Athens, but from here, the modern city of cars and busloads of tourists somehow manages to disappear. I walked among olive trees in the footsteps of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and at the top of the hill, I was rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Acropolis at dawn. Seeing the Acropolis from this vantage point, with modernity temporarily suspended, I think I felt something of what the ancients must have felt here…