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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.
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.