Tag Archives: 16-35 f/4
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.
The first day in the Quiver Forest was about getting my bearings in a strange, new place and letting my vision adjust to the strangely beautiful landscape there. And like the first day in any overseas trip, it was also spent largely in a foggy mental state, the result of travel fatigue and jet lag. Most of the photos from that first day were disappointing and didn’t see the light of day.
By the second day, Namibia started to feel as comfortable as an old friend. The Quiver Forest was still ethereal and otherworldly, like something conjured from a child’s imagination, but it was welcoming; I no longer felt like a visitor there. Among the forest’s chimerical inhabitants, I already had favorites; trees whose unique profile against the horizon captured my attention. I found myself returning to the same trees and compositions again and again, mesmerized by their lines and colors.
It wasn’t only the trees that made the place special; it was a sensory experience, and I took in all of the sounds and smells. I reminded myself often that I was walking in a field of volcanic boulders among trees that in some cases, were two or three hundred years old. The stories they could tell. The world does this here and there — spreads an ancient landscape out before us, simply to remind us of our small place in the order of things.
As I walked among the quiver trees I gradually became aware that we photographers were not alone there. I didn’t notice them on the first day, but on the second day in the forest, just at sunrise, small animals — hamster-like and no bigger than kittens — emerged from underneath the rocks and began to scurry about. I’d never seen them before and I didn’t know what they were, but somehow, they seemed the perfect inhabitants of this place, as if the same child who imagined the quiver trees into existence filled her fanciful landscape with playful creatures who come to life with the sunrise.
Like all travel photographers, I’ve always been captivated by the world. It’s a wonder, this orb we call home, and I never tire of its mysteries. The man-made structures are frequently beautiful and capable of leaving me slack-jawed with amazement; I defy anyone to spend some time wandering through the Hagia Sofia or Westminster Abbey and not feel humbled by those structures and the human spirit that went into strike of a hammer or chisel.
But it’s the natural world that continually intrigues and beguiles me. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to far-flung destinations around the world, and I don’t think the world’s natural beauty will ever lose its hold over me.
So I was thrilled for the opportunity to visit Namibia — a first for me. Like anyone with a case of wanderlust and a passport constantly in need of new stamps, I had seen enough photographs of Namibia to know the country is unlike any other place in the world, its landscape one that defies words.
My first day in Namibia did not disappoint. I traveled with a group of photographers to the Quiver Forest, a place for which the photographs had not prepared me.
The Quiver Forest is actually privately-owned land — the Guriganus Farm — and the “trees” which make up this otherworldly forest are not actually trees at all, but plants. It’s a minor distinction because once inside this alien landscape, details such as that simply don’t matter. Their fibrous trunks are easy to hollow out and were once widely used as quivers for arrows, but again, that’s a detail that doesn’t really matter.
The trees are only naturally found in this one relatively small part of Africa, and typically grow alone, like curiously-formed sentinels guarding the landscape. That’s why the Quiver Forest is special — it’s the only place where the trees have clustered together to form a forest, and the result left me speechless. Seeing the forest at dawn with a pale pink sunrise breaking over the horizon was a moment of unspeakable majesty and wonder for me. It was only my first full day in Namibia, and already I was entranced by the country. And I thought of the words of the English artist and explorer Thomas Baines, who sketched the Quiver Trees and wrote afterward, “I confess I can never quite get over the feeling that the wonderful products of nature are objects to be admired, rather than destroyed.”
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 photographing the Two Towers, I was tempted to make the climb up Asinelli, the taller of the two. It’s a long, vertiginous climb, but I knew the views of Bologna would be magnificent, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Getting to the top of Asinelli wasn’t the easiest of tasks — it’s a steep, narrow staircase that wasn’t designed with modern photographers and their equipment in mind. But once I finally reached the top and set up my small tripod (specially purchased for such occasions), I looked out from the tower and was rewarded with a breathtaking view of Bologna’s tiled roofs.
Just to my right I could see the Piazza Maggiore, the orderly little square square surrounded by much of the city’s history. Take steps in any direction in the Piazza Maggiore and the medieval city comes to life — the Basilica of San Petronio, the Palazzo dei Banchi, and the Palazzo d’Accursio all occupy exalted spots on this historic square.
But what most interested me was the spot in the distance — the Bolognese Hill, which is home to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca. Technically, the hill sits on the outskirts of the city, on top of Karaulhaya Mountain. Inside the sanctuary rests the Madonna of San Luca, an icon of the Virgin Mary that is believed to have been painted by the apostle Luke. The icon was brought to Bologna from Constantinople in 1194 and placed on the hill, known as La Guardia.
As a framed the photograph, I found myself awestruck by the history of this place — before me, the tiled city and its towers, once a hub of medieval commerce, and beyond, the towering Bolognese Hill and its apostle-painted treasure.
Beyond the city’s towers, I entered Bologna’s winding medieval streets. Following one of these winding streets, I came to the Piazza Santo Stefano, an unusual little piazza that isn’t a piazza at all, merely a gradual widening of the street.
It’s an unusual and picturesque part of Bologna. The piazza is not, properly speaking, a square: the Via Santo Stefano gradually widens into an odd bit of geometry that is the piazza. The area has been known for centuries as ‘le Sette Chiese,’ or the Seven Churches, in honor of the imposing structures surrounding the piazza.
Nowadays, there aren’t seven churches; there are four: the Church of the Crucifix, the Holy Sepulchre, San Vitale and Agricola. The churches were built and remodeled at different times, and over the years, they came to be connected, almost as if they are growing out of one another. The result is a labyrinth that begins with the entrance to the Church of the Crucifix, the largest of the four. The faithful — or the merely curious — could spend hours wandering from one ecclesiastical wonder to the next.
I wanted to photograph the piazza, but because of its place as one of the most historic (and popular) places in the city, it was almost always full of visitors. I waited until evening, when I hoped to have it mostly to myself. As I set up my tripod on the piazza’s ancient cobblestones, my mind wandered to the generations of faithful who have walked those stones. I captured the historic piazza in the low light of evening, thinking of faith and its mysteries.
A short walk from the Two Towers is the Palazzo della Mercanzia, a striking building noteworthy for its two Gothic arches. Built in the fourteenth century when Bologna was a wealthy commercial center, the Palazzo was constructed to be a base for those governing trade in the city. The building still houses the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
It’s a building with an interesting history. The sides of the building are watched over by statues of four saints — the city’s protectors, as well as statues of St. Peter and St. Anthony of Padua. But under the watchful eyes of saints, the city’s business disputes were settled, and businessmen found to be unscrupulous were tied to a center pillar and publicly shamed.
In keeping with Bologna’s image as a city of epicurean delights, the Palazzo is now home to perhaps the most valuable of the city’s treasures: Bologna’s prized “official” recipes for Bolognese ragu, tortellini, and mortadella.
I made the short walk over from the Two Towers as early morning sunlight was breaking over the piazza. I had the area to myself and focused on the Palazzo, guarded by saints and repository of sacred recipes.
I made my way toward the Dolomites but decided to stop for a couple of days in the medieval city of Bologna. It’s a difficult city to get a feel for — it’s at once the rarefied city of scribes and scholars and a thoroughly modern, technologically advanced metropolis. What drew me in, however, was the city’s medieval center, the winding, terra cotta heart of the city.
Much of Bologna was destroyed during World War II, but the historic part of the city survived. This part of the city, built when Bologna was at the peak of its power and wealth, was once dotted with towers. In fact, one of Bologna’s many affectionate nicknames is “la turrita,” or the “city of many towers.” There were once hundreds of towers in the city; some were built for defensive purposes and many others built by powerful families, continually attempting to one-up each other.
Most of the towers long ago crumbled into history. But among the ones that still stand, perhaps the most well-known are Asinelli and Garisenda, the city’s “Two Towers.” They’re not as famous as their counterpart in Pisa, but perhaps more interesting: Asinelli is taller and Garisenda has more of a lean. Echoing their long history — they’re also older than the Leaning Tower of Pisa — is an inscription on one of Garisenda’s slopes from Dante’s Divine Comedy that mentions that exact tower.
The Two Towers are so tall and so intimately positioned with one another that it was difficult to capture them together in a shot. I used a panoramic technique to get them both in the frame as the sun rose over Bologna. They seem to me to be two old, time-tested friends: the sturdy and solid Asinelli and the whimsical, free-spirited Garisenda, eternally looking askance at the old city.
Though I had already spent some time in Zaragoza and had photographed the Basilica of our Lady of the Pillar, when I found myself in the area again, on the return trip from San Sebastian to Barcelona, I couldn’t resist stopping. Zaragoza is a beautiful, historic city, and the basilica never failed to enchant.
So once again, I set up my tripod on the banks of the Ebro River. It was early evening, and clouds were beginning to settle over the city; a storm was coming and I could smell rain in the air. I hoped that I’d be able to get a good shot before it started to rain.
As it happened, I was lucky. The weather began to change more quickly than I anticipated, with deep purple and indigo clouds settling in low over the basilica. As I rushed to get the shot, lightning began to illuminate the sky over Zaragoza, providing a dramatic backdrop for the basilica. It seemed that lightning flashed every few seconds, and it was hard to catch it in a shot — it’s more elusive than I would have imagined. I managed to catch a brilliant flash of lightning in just a couple of shots, but they were beautiful — a bit of nature’s drama in a violet sky over Zaragoza.