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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?
I learned something more about insignificance when my travels took me to Sossusvlei. In Namibia I’d seen stark, desolate landscapes and ancient plant life that was blackened and bare from centuries in the sun. I expected that I’d seen the most remarkable landscapes the country had to offer, but even after exploring the alien landscape of Deadvlei, I was amazed by Sossusvlei.
By now, my eyes were beginning to adjust to the starkly contrasting colors of Namibia — the rich terra cotta earth against a brilliant blue sky. I had even, to a degree, become accustomed to the strange, weathered trees that I seemed to encounter at every destination. My eyes were used to these things. At Sossusvlei, what I found most breathtaking was the sheer enormity of the place.
Sossusvlei is famous for its massive sand dunes, which are believed to be the tallest in the world. The biggest of them, known as Big Daddy, is roughly 325 meters high. Their striking red color is a result of the iron in the sand, and the contrasting colors, combined with the dunes curving, feminine lines make it one of the most photogenic destinations in Namibia. Like myself, photographers are drawn to the place because of its incredible beauty, but then — also like me — they find themselves feeling tiny and inconsequential in the face of its majesty.
Climbing the dunes — which is what most people come to Sossusvlei for — reveals a landscape that words and photographs can’t adequately describe. There’s more life here than you would imagine, and it says something of the resilience of living things that so many plants and insects have adapted in order to survive here.
But I found plenty to amaze me from the ground. I set up my tripod, framed the shot, and tried my best to capture some of the incredible beauty of Sossusvlei.
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.
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.
Visitors to Rovinj are often struck by its resemblance to Venice, its neighbor almost directly across the Adriatic Sea. The only thing that seems to distinguish “Little Venice” from its namesake is the absence of canals and busloads of tourists.
The similarity is not a coincidence. Rovinj, once controlled by both the Byzantines and the Franks, was regular victim of pirate attacks. Across the Adriatic, Venice eyed the city, which was then an island, as a possible outpost for their maritime empire. In 1283, Rovinj swore its allegiance to Venice in return for protection.
This arrangement between Rovinj and Venice was never an altogether happy one. Though Rovinj was part of the Venetian republic from 1283 to 1797, its citizens were never fully accepted by the Venetians, who viewed them as inferior. In time, residents of Rovinj came to resent Venetian rule, even as they prospered courtesy of Venice’s protection.
Nowadays, however, Rovinj is a Croatian city and the tensions with Venice are long-forgotten. Twenty-first century visitors to the city are the real beneficiaries of that long-ago relationship. Walking the streets of Rovinj, one sees the winged lion — the symbol of Venice — virtually everywhere. And the city’s most recognizable structure — the Church of St. Euphemia — is built in the Venetian Baroque style and was constructed as a twin to Venice’s own Campanile of St. Mark.
As I position my camera to capture the city, I don’t think of faded empires or animosities between cities. I only marvel at the beautiful hybrid created by the fusion of cultures in Rovinj.
Artists often have complicated relationships with their birthplaces. James Joyce was conflicted in his feelings about Dublin and left the city, although he could never entirely cut the chords that bound him to it. William Faulkner was a keen-eyed critic of life in Mississippi, but seemed unable to write about any other place. Following their deaths, both men were embraced by the birthplaces that they could never quite reconcile themselves to.
And then there is Salzburg. It’s a lovely city, nestled between hills, tailor-made for a photographer’s work. It is also the birthplace of Mozart, an artist intimately associated with the place of his birth. If you ask most people what they know of Salzburg, most will tell you it was the home of the composer. Walking through the city’s ancient streets today, I almost expect to see Mozart when I round a corner. The city is permeated with his presence.
Tourists come to Salzburg by the busload to see the small apartment where Mozart was born and the larger residence—both now museums—that the family moved into when Mozart was a teenager. Salzburg, understandably, has commercialized its connection to the composer. But Mozart, especially in his youth, couldn’t wait to leave the city and felt stifled within its confines. He chafed in his role as court musician to the Archbishop and even as young man knew that he was meant for bigger things.
Walking through the streets of Salzburg on a cloudy early evening, I think of the weight of history and place. I think of the ambitions of a young man who wanted to escape the city of his birth but who has been embraced as a cherished native son. As I frame my shot of his birthplace, I wonder what the composer would think of the museums that occupy his former homes and the tourists arriving there daily. Perhaps he’s made his peace with Salzburg, I think as I photograph the city in the blue slivers of early evening.
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.
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.