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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.”
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.