Tag Archives: Africa
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.”