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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.
For a small island, Eigg is a place that continually reveals new treasures. The more I wandered the island, the more of these places I found. Though the island is famous — and justifiably so — for its seascapes, I found countless undiscovered and tucked – away spots that stunned me with their beauty. I could understand why Bruce Percy chose the Isle of Eigg for his photography workshops; the natural splendor of the island combined with its mercurial weather was the stuff of a photographer’s dream.
Beyond Eigg’s misty coastlines, I found myself most drawn to the island’s caves. The island’s caves feel like secret, mystical places — the kind of places where legends are born. They feel ancient, as if, upon entering the caves, I stepped out of the present age and into a time far beyond memory. You can sense the stories they contain.
One of the island’s caves — the Cave of Frances — spawned one of Eigg’s most violent tales. A long-ago feud between rival clans ended when one of the families trapped the other inside the cave. They lit thatch at the cave’s entrance then dampened the flames so that the tiny cave filled with smoke. According to the often-told story, hundreds of people were trapped and died inside the cave. Human remains have been discovered there in recent years, suggesting that even if the story isn’t altogether accurate, something ominous happened inside the cave.
But I wasn’t interested in bloody feuds. I found another cave, this one so small that I had to wedge myself inside, my shoulders pressed against the stone walls. It wasn’t an ideal location for a photographer; it was barely big enough for my camera and tripod. But the cave was unexpectedly lovely. A small waterfall, fed by some unknown source, coursed down the cave’s dark, innermost wall. Its waters formed a stream that ran gently over ancient moss and rocks, leading to the cave’s narrow entrance.
I wasn’t prepared for the wet environment, and my shoes soon filled with water, but the scene was so lovely that I didn’t mind. The shot that I got inside the cave was one of my favorites from Eigg. It captures the mystical character of the island that I came to love.
I spent as much time exploring the Isle of Eigg as I could. The island offered me my first view of Scotland and it was enchanting. Much of Eigg was the rugged, green countryside that comes to mind when you think of Scotland. But as I wandered the island, I found more of its hidden-away and secret places, and revealed a different facet of the island’s character.
To give you an idea of the remoteness of Eigg, there is just one road on the island, which is home to fewer than one hundred souls. At the end of the road is a home that once was a place to stay for J.R.R. Tolkein. There has been a long standing local story that Tolkien stayed in it in the 1930s or 1940s and that the views of Rum had inspired him in writing Lord of the Rings. The island — especially its more distant corners — has a mystical, fantastical quality. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a sorcerer emerging from one of the island’s caves. Your imagination tends to venture into ancient worlds in a place like Eigg.
In my exploration of the island I found a place along its pebbled coastline. The morning was heavy with rain and in the distance the Isle of Rhum was already shrouded by clouds and was barely visible. The place seemed far away from the more people — if they can be called that — parts of the island. Here, civilization seemed very far away and the clouds that hung over Rhum seemed to portend something more ominous than a storm.
I wanted to capture the way that moment felt in that place. I wanted to capture — somehow — the mystical, otherworldly atmosphere of the island’s coast. Using a very long exposure, I focused on the receding waves to emphasize that ethereal quality. I included the pebbles on the beach as a contrast to the white mist. The result is a photograph that encapsulates the feeling I had on that day, standing at the edge of Scotland.
One of the things that made Scotland such a special place to photograph was the way that its weather was ever-changing. I’d never experienced a place whose moods could change as rapidly as Scotland’s. A sky that seemed to promise only rain and leaden clouds could crack open and sunlight would stream through.
Occasionally, the two things happened at once, and an ominous gray sky and brilliant sunlight could briefly coexist in a moment of unexpected beauty. In all of my travels, I’d never experienced the unlikely coupling of those two extremes, but in Scotland it seemed to happen daily. The juxtaposition was fascinating and lovely.
My first photographs on Eigg had focused more on the brooding quality of the Hebrides — the foreboding that sometimes creeps along the edges of your consciousness on a stormy day. But as the days progressed, I sometimes caught glimpses of a different Eigg. It was an island of paradoxes, after all; the same craggy landscape that witnessed bloody feuds was also trod by the feet of earnest missionaries who brought their faith to the rugged outpost of a continent.
I wanted to capture in a photograph that paradox — the transitory, ephemeral nature of light on the Isle of Eigg, which, in my mind, suggested something of the island’s contradictory history. The shot that best encapsulates this for me is of puddles I found along the shore on a day that — like many on Eigg — was foggy and overcast. But I was fortunate that day and happened to see them as they were pierced by sunlight, which revealed the undulations in the sand under the surface. Only the slightest bit of sunlight touched the water’s surface, but it was enough, and the sand sparkled like gold.
The result is a very moody shot, but it’s a different kind of mood that in earlier photographs of the island. The light can change quickly on Eigg, and I was lucky to witness that rare moment of contradictions.
One of the things that I love about photography is that there is always the possibility for improvement, that no matter my level of experience, I can always learn new techniques to improve my craft. Recently, I was fortunate to be able to attend a workshop with acclaimed photographer Bruce Percy on the Isle of Eigg, off the coast of Scotland.
There are many people who are skilled in a particular area and many others who are skilled as teachers; it’s rare to find someone who is both. Bruce is something of a rarity: he is both a highly skilled photographer and a fantastic teacher and mentor. The opportunity to learn from someone as talented as Bruce and in an environment as spectacular as the Isle of Eigg was one of the highlights of my career.
Eigg is one of the Inner Hebrides, islands located off the western coast of mainland Scotland. Craggy and sparsely populated, the jagged cluster of islands is dotted with Iron Age sites and traces of the earliest Christians to see this part of the world. The islands have a greater percentage of Gaelic speakers than anywhere else in Scotland, save their neighbors to the west, the Outer Hebrides. In many ways, walking along the rocky coast of Eigg was a bit like stepping out of the twenty-first century and into some distant point in the past.
Although Eigg is largely unknown as a travel destination, it’s a popular and well-documented location among photographers, primarily because of Bruce’s workshops. The challenge I gave myself was to try and capture something new and unique about the island. I was, after all, seeing it with a newcomer’s eyes.
The trip to Scotland — the rough and rugged edge of Europe — was a first for me. I was amazed daily by the rapid changes in the weather: the same sky that was gray and ominous one moment could become illuminated with brilliant sunlight the next. There were days when it seemed we could experience all four seasons in the span of a few hours.
But in my memory, Eigg exists largely in the grays and heavy blues of impending storms. When I photographed the rocky beach along Eigg’s coast, I used long exposure and ND filter to capture those mood and the sense of something imminent on the horizon.
After a day spent walking and climbing the dunes at Sossusvlei, I set up camp with other photographers roughly 70 km away. It’s the nature of being a travel photographer that sleep is often difficult. You exhaust yourself during the daylight hours, but when you try to rest your brain won’t always cooperate. I find myself going over and over the places I’ve seen that day, the shots that I got and the ones I wish could have been better. My mind wanders.
As it turns out, it’s a good thing to be a sleepless photographer in Namibia. As beautiful as the country is during daylight hours, I found it to be even more striking by night. The Namib Desert is one of the best places in the world to see the night sky. There’s little electricity in this part of Namibia, meaning there is virtually no light pollution. When you look up at the night sky in Namibia, you see it the way the ancients saw it.
People don’t look up at the night sky anymore. We go through life continually distracted, and because we’re rarely ever in places that are really, truly dark, most of us simply don’t notice what goes on above us. But in Namibia’s desert, you can’t help but look up. It’s such a vast, calm expanse — and mostly devoid of people — that it’s an ideal place for stargazing. It’s one of the darkest skies in the world.
I keep coming back to the idea of insignificance, but if Namibia in the daytime makes a person feel small, being in the desert at night convinces you very quickly that you are of no consequence in the grand span of time and space. It was humbling, and incredibly beautiful.
I took many photographs in Namibia at night. But can anyone really capture the beauty of one of the last truly dark places left on earth?
Namibia left me awestruck on a daily basis. Each day that I was in the country, I encountered landscapes and scenery unlike anything I’d seen anywhere else in the world.
Kolmanskop gave me an idea of what the world would look like if humanity vanished, and the Quiver Trees made me feel that I’d stepped into a landscape conjured in a child’s imagination.
I thought I’d seen the most otherworldly of Namibia’s landscapes, but I was unprepared for the Deadvlei Trees. A place like this reminds you that we are all powerless against nature. It also gives you some perspective of just how insignificant humans are in the grand passage of time.
Deadvlei was once under water. It’s believed that roughly one thousand years ago, the Tsauchab River flooded, creating shallow pools with a clay pan underneath. In the shallow lake formed by the flooding, acacia trees flourished. But approximately two hundred years later, the climate changed. The area became dry and drought-stricken, and the massive dunes cut the area off from the river.
Looking at the area now, it’s difficult to imagine that there was ever water here. Deadvlei — its name means “Dead Valley” — reveals an earth devoid of water, its clay surface baked white and crackled from centuries of heat. Oddly, the acacia trees that flourished when Deadvlei was awash with water are still here. Believed to be several hundred years old, they remain; scorched black from centuries of sunlight. The air here is too dry for them to decompose; instead, they stand like blackened monuments to the passage of time.
What I had seen so far of Namibia left me eager to see more of this eerily beautiful country.
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.
As I often do, I set up my tripod in the early hours of morning outside Saint Mary Basilica. Located in a busy pedestrianized area, there were almost always people strolling in front of the basilica, and I wanted to capture it with no people. I wanted the focus solely on the building, one of the city’s most beautiful.
I found a place to sit to try to wait out the last of previous night’s bar-goers. As I waited, my mind wandered to the city and its history. Krakow survived World War intact, so it isn’t hard to be distracted by the city’s long history. The Saint Mary Basilica, built nearly a thousand years ago, has stood witness to much of that history.
The basilica was first constructed in the 1200s. Following the destruction of that church, the basilica was constructed under Casimir III, known as Casimir the Great. Under Casimir, the building was completely rebuilt between 1355 and 1365. There were later additions and changes, but the heart of the basilica was constructed under Casimir’s reign.
There are plenty of rulers who earn the appellation “great.” In most cases, the title is earned in warfare; “greatness” is often conferred in direct proportion to a ruler’s prowess on the battlefield. In Casimir’s case, however, the title was bestowed in an acknowledgement of his many peacetime accomplishments. Casimir inherited a badly weakened kingdom and rebuilt it, strengthening the economy and reorganizing the legal system. He built castles throughout the kingdom and founded the University of Krakow, in addition to rebuilding the basilica. Remarkably, for his time, Casimir ensured the rights of Jews and encouraged persecuted Jews throughout Europe to settle in Poland as “people of the king.” As a result of Casimir’s policies, Poland had one of Europe’s largest Jewish populations until World War II.
As the night’s last revelers made their way home and I readied my camera for the shot, I thought of legacies. I thought of the actions of a good man — a great man — and the long reach of history.