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As a photographer, I am almost always working. Even when I’m “officially” on vacation with my family, I can’t help but be drawn to beautiful, interesting places. I always have a camera with me, so even my down time usually results in at least a few photographs.
My family and I made a trip to St Moritz for the holidays. Skiing is one of my favorite pastimes to share with my family, and St Moritz lives up to its reputation as a beautiful winter retreat.
But St Moritz is, as we quickly learned, much more than a winter ski destination. In St Moritz, it’s possible to experience any number of weather extremes — snow, storms, mist, and even sun — over the space of a day. Every day seemed to bring totally different weather than we’d had the day before. And there were more brilliantly sunny days than most people would ever expect.
In fact, the large number of bright, sunny days in St Moritz is one of the things that made the resort. For centuries, it was a popular spot for religious pilgrims who made the trek to drink from the area’s mineral springs. Pilgrims who made the journey to the springs were granted absolution from their sins. It was only in the mid-1800s that a pioneering entrepreneur, Caspar Badrutt, realized the unique appeal of a place that offered snow-covered natural beauty with 300 days of sunlight each year. Badrutt invited a handful of English friends to St Moritz during the winter, promising that if they loved the place as he expected, they could stay at his expense. If they didn’t like it, he would reimburse their travel expenses. The English tourists came, and as Badrutt expected, they loved the place, and a major tourist destination was born.
Like Badrutt’s English guests, I find the juxtaposition of snow and sun strikingly beautiful. But the most beautiful days in St Moritz were the ones when we had a snow storm followed by brilliant sunlight. The light that fell over St Moritz on those days — when sunlight broke through an atmosphere still heavy with snow — was enchanting and bathed the town in a fairy tale glow.
A view like this one, taken over St Moritz as the sun broke through the snow, is the reason that my family vacation became a semi-working holiday.
Copenhagen isn’t just a city with an appreciation for the arts. It’s a city where design is a national obsession and architects are celebrities. One of the city’s most acclaimed — and controversial — structures is the Copenhagen Opera House. Located just across the canal from the Royal Danish Playhouse, the Opera House is built on a former navy pier and is part of the city’s forty-year-long redevelopment of its waterfront.
Once a gritty naval and industrial space, the waterfront is now the centerpiece of Copenhagen’s cultural life. The city’s success in transforming its waterfront has become a model for urban planning around the world. And the focal point of that development is the Opera House, which was designed by Denmark’s most well-known architect, Henning Larsen.
It’s a striking and very modern — even futuristic — building. It was controversial from its inception, because of its design as well as its cost. The building, which is estimated to have cost $500 million, sits directly across from the royal residence, an audacious decision that did not go over well with everyone in Copenhagen. Larsen, as it turned out, was himself troubled by the building; he and Arnold Maersk McKinney Moller, the building’s sole financier, disagreed over virtually every detail of the building’s design.
I can see how the Opera House would have both its admirers and its detractors. It’s strikingly modernist facade is quite a contrast from the more Old World appearance of the royal residence. Still, on a pleasant early evening in Copenhagen, in the blue hour before night falls, I found the Opera House and the light it cast over the canal captivating. It was — to me — emblematic of Danish creativity and ingenuity.
I believe that you can tell a lot about a society by the importance that they place on the arts. I’ve sometimes been amazed and disheartened to find that in some cities, it was all but impossible to find a museum, a gallery, or a performance venue. Those places always seem somehow empty to me, as if something essential were missing, some critical part of the city’s soul.
In other cities, the arts are given a prominent place, signaling to anyone who enters that the artistic life of the city is just as essential to the well-being of its people as the world of business and commerce. I find that I feel more at home in those places, I feel that I am among kindred spirits.
Copenhagen is one of those places. The arts aren’t tucked away in Copenhagen; they’re a vital part of the life of the city. The city is full of museums, galleries, and theaters. It occurs to me, thinking of the well-known happiness of the Danes, that perhaps the two are related.
One of the newest and most significant developments in Copenhagen’s arts scene is the Royal Playhouse, a strikingly modern building that almost seems to levitate just over the waterfront. The building, which was just completed in 2008, is already considered an architectural masterpiece and is a designated City Landmark. It’s no wonder that the building is so highly regarded; the city began planning a building to replace the original playhouse in the late nineteenth century.
Perched at the water’s edge, the playhouse’s blue-green glass shimmers with reflected water. I see it as a monument of sorts, but not only to the arts — to the Danes themselves, a people who would spend more than a century designing a theater.
I’m fortunate in my travels to see some of the most beautiful destinations in the world, and I often find myself lost in my own thoughts at these places, mesmerized by their beauty. But sometimes, especially when I visit manmade structures, I can find myself transfixed not only by their beauty, but by their stories. I think of the human spirit that went into their construction and how stone and mortar often contain untold histories.
Copenhagen’s Round Tower is one of those places. It’s not an easy structure to miss; it’s one of the most distinctive buildings in the city and is located in the city center. The tower is popular with tourists, and a climb to the top reveals some of the best views of the city, making it a staple of guidebooks.
But as I prepared to photograph the tower, I found myself thinking more about its history than its striking facade or the views from the observatory.
There was a time when Copenhagen was one of the world’s leading centers for the study of astronomy. Astronomy was a newly popular field of study, and countries across Europe established national observatories to further study the new field. Denmark’s preeminence in the field was due largely to the work of Tycho Brahe, a nobleman, astronomer, and writer.
In the late 1500s, Frederick II, who had an interest in astronomy and an appreciation for Brahe’s contributions to the field, ruled Denmark. During his reign, Brahe was something of a darling of the Court; Frederick even funded two observatories for Brahe on the island of Hven. The observatories, Uraniborg and Stjerneborg, were the most advanced of their day.
Following the death of Frederick, his son became king. The new king — Christian IV — did not share his father’s interest in science and Brahe, whose political beliefs put him at odds with the monarchy, soon ran afoul of the new king. The famed astronomer was exiled from Copenhagen and the grand observatories, Uraniborg and Stjerneborg, were demolished.
Years later, perhaps realizing the mistake he’d made, Christian authorized the construction of a new observatory, the Round Tower. It was completed in 1642, nearly a half century after Brahe’s death in exile. Brahe eventually resigned himself to his new life in Prague, but still wrote with sadness of the experience of exile: “Denmark what is my offense? How have I offended you my fatherland?”
I think of this as I photograph the tower. I think of how the tower was born of a petty dispute, that the shame and sadness of Brahe are etched into the tower’s facade. I imagine the old astronomer, if he were alive today, looking out over the city from the top of the tower, amazed at its changes but grieving for what was lost.
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.
Sometimes, as a photographer, you set out to photograph one thing, and along the way, you find something unexpectedly beautiful that changes all of your plans. When I set out to go to the Isle of Eigg, a place I’d long wanted to see, I planned for a short stay in Edinburgh along the way.
I’d seen photographs of the city and read bits about here and there, but none of it had left a particular impression with me. I planned the stop in Edinburgh mostly as a lark.
But in the way that things often happen, Edinburgh surprised me — the city is a wonder. I wandered through the Old Town, down its narrow streets and hidden alleys, each one seeming to hold untold stories. The twenty-first century doesn’t intrude much in Edinburgh’s Old Town; walking along the brick streets in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle is a bit like stepping into a Harry Potter novel, and I say that admiringly.
I made my way to the top of Calton Hill, one of the main hills overlooking the city. Calton Hill was planned to be a monument to soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, but money ran out and it was never completed. It’s difficult to imagine now, but for years, the hill was seen as an embarrassment to the city, known as “Edinburgh’s Shame.”
Nowadays, no one views the hill as an embarrassment. Attempts to turn it into a commercialised tourist attraction mercifully failed. It’s ruggedly beautiful and from the top of Calton Hill, I had views of the entire city. It was my first trip to Edinburgh, intended only as a quick stop along the way to another destination, and I felt lucky to have gotten to explore the city and its Old World charm. Looking out over the city as the sun set, I understood Queen Victoria’s remark that Edinburgh is “fairy-like and what you would imagine as a thing to dream of.”
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.