Afraid of walking up to a stranger and asking if you can take their picture? Can’t blame you if you are, as it could be a nerve-wracking experience for the non-extroverts amongst us. What people with cameras don’t realize is that the worst that could happen is for you to get a dismissive “no” in the process. Rarely will people show any fangs as part of their answer. My experience has been that while half the people will say no and keep on walking, the other half will gladly say “yes,” if you ask nicely. In fact, for many folks out there minding their own business, your asking is kind of an ego-booster of some sort. People take time to make themselves up as best as possible before going out, and it is not to be visually ignored by the rest of us. As a photographer, you can’t help but notice these fashionistas when you go out. They are different in some visual way: better looking, more colorful, strange, exotic, or simply unique. Whatever the reason, they catch the photographer’s eye, and the often-repeated advice that being nice and showing a sincere interest in them (or what they are doing) will always go a long way in you getting them to agree to have their picture taken. So best to avoid photographic ambushes that give so many photographers a bad reputation and instead give your subjects a little time from your busy photo day. You’ll be amazed at how nice people can be in return, as I discovered with the young woman in the photo.
Where is a tripod when you really need one? Like so many of you, I don’t particularly enjoy hauling a tripod with me when I go out with my camera. Not that there’s anything wrong with a tripod (I actually own three of them and use them quite regularly), but rather that no matter how light and compact they are, they are just one more thing to carry when you are trying to reduce your load in the first place. Of course, no sooner after you leave your tripod back at home or at your hotel, that you find yourself in desperate need of one. That was the case with the shot above. Finding myself walking through beautiful European cities at night, I couldn’t help but constantly regret leaving behind that tripod I had on my hands when the airport taxi showed up. Yes, in order to “save some weight,” I put it down and walked out the door.
So what to do when you come to a scene like this one at night and your tripod is 3,000 miles away? Answer: you desperately look for any surface you can find to support your camera. In order to avoid blaming myself for being lazy, I have chosen to hide my shortcomings by referring to all sorts of support structures out there as photographic structural support compensation items. OK, maybe not, but I guess my point is that there’s always a Plan B, even if it is not as pretty as Plan A. What I have discovered about shooting at night without a tripod is that there are two elements that are absolutely crucial: patience and any type of support structure. I say patience because speed and motion do seem to go together when night photography is concerned. You have to look around checking for smooth surfaces, for people to get out of the way, for people to get in the way, for checking your breathing, and for slowly pressing that shutter release. Not that patience can totally compensate for a good tripod, but if you take the time to adjust your position and angle based on whatever surface you have available to you, you’ll be able to get a fairly stable shot at a low ISO number. But routinely counting on good luck and providence when shooting photographs at night without a tripod will always be a high-wire act. Without a doubt, it will lead to a lot more rejects than keepers; and when you are out there for hours looking for that magical shot, having wasted most of your time is not the feeling you want to be left with at the end of the day. That’s why that contraption is going with me next time I’m headed out with a camera after dark, whether it’s a mile or 3,000 miles from home.
Thought I’d share with you some street scenes from Krakow, Poland. For a street photographer, Krakow’s Old Town is about as close to heaven as you can get. During the summer months its streets are filled with people at all hours of the day. And while a great number of them are no doubt tourists, locals are also up-and-about in great numbers. No doubt the extensive pedestrian-only zones have something to do with this, as well as the feeling of relief from the long Polish winters. But they are out there, and to see thousands of people at sidewalk cafes and restaurants past 10:00 PM at night, is quite impressive. The crowds are also quite photo-friendly, or put another way, they don’t scold you for taking a photo as they do in other parts of the world, which is kind of nice. And yes, I did try to give these photographs a somewhat older-looking feeling by applying a few filters during post-processing, but I hope that didn’t detract too much from the scenes.
An ordinary day this past week became one of the most moving experiences in my life. I knew already when I set out to the vicinity of the small Polish town of Oświęcim (better known by its German-given name Auschwitz) that this would not be an ordinary day. How could it be, when I was about to walk the ground that had witnessed a level of suffering and brutality that seems incomprehensible by any decent human standard. But what I was not ready for was the multitude of melancholy emotions that would engulf me during this brief visit nearly 70 years after the Nazi crematoriums worked around the clock in a futile attempt to do away with the dignity and humanity of millions of innocent people. Even as I write this few words, my hands sometimes tremble at the thought of the suffering endured by those who had to live and die at the hands of the Nazis at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. Gas chambers, crematoriums, hanging poles, suffocating starvation chambers, piles and piles of human hair, electric fences, and more. Industrialized brutality agains fellow human beings by those who had ceased to be human.
The individual stories of the victims would fill volumes, but perhaps one particularly moving story bears repeating here. I am certainly no expert on the subject, but to understand and feel how in the deepest point of human desperation and brutality you can also find the most incredible and moving expression of selfless love for your fellow men, you must know about the martyr priest by the name of Maximilian Maria Kolbe. This Polish Franciscan priest, who was later canonized by John Paul II in 1982, willingly volunteered to take a condemned man’s place in Auschwitz so that the man could be afforded the opportunity of seeing his family one day. Aware that ten men from his barracks had been condemned to die by starvation inside minuscule cells in Block 13 as payment for one man being missing from the barracks, Father Kolbe broke ranks from the prisoner formation to volunteer to take the place of a man by the name of Franciszek Gajowniczek. This emaciated man, upon being selected to die started to cry about never seeing his wife and kids ever again. The Nazi guards willingly accepted the offer and proceeded to keep Father Kolbe in a four-man, standing-only concrete enclosure without food, water, or the door being opened until his decimated body was injected with a lethal substance two weeks after the punishment (the Nazis grew impatient that he had not yet died after two weeks under those conditions). As I walked the very steps Saint Kolbe must have walked on the day he became a martyr, a whole range of emotions overwhelmed me. Anger, compassion, and sadness appeared to compete for my attention. But it was a general sense of melancholy that stuck with me as I step away from such a dreadful place. Giuliana Tedeschi, a Holocaust survivor, once said that, “There is a place on earth that is a vast desolate wilderness, a place populated by shadows of the dead in their multitudes, a place where the living are dead, where only death, hate and pain exist.” Now I know what she meant. That place is Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After spending nearly three weeks touring Europe, I can honestly say that Krakow, Poland has been the most captivating place I have visited in this journey. This gorgeous city, with its many churches and regal Wawel Castle Hill, is without a doubt one of the best kept secrets in Europe. It may be Poland’s second largest city, but it is the country’s unquestionable spiritual center. From the imposing Wawel Cathedral atop Wawel Hill to the Basilica of the Virgin Mary at the Grand Square, the city’s (and the country’s) devotion to the Catholic faith could not be any stronger. Coming from a country where seeing a nun walking down the street is as rare as seeing a comet in the sky, you can’t help but marvel at the collective devotion of the Polish people for its church and for its prodigal son, John Paul II.
But Krakow is not just about religion. Friendly locals, great architecture, and a lively social atmosphere add to the city’s charm. During my four-day visit to the city I saw nothing but packed city streets leading to the Grand Square and the lively energy of a city bent on putting its mark on the world. The energy level was so high, that I found it very hard to rationalize the country’s troubled history during the last century. The Polish people, with their hard-working, yet friendly disposition, are obviously more concerned with building a future than with lingering in the past. And while reminders of that past can still be found around the city (like the cross in honor of the fallen during the Katyn Forest massacre by Russian troops), for the casual visitor they remain virtually invisible. As I get ready to leave this beautiful city, my only regret is that it took me so long to get here. This city, with its wonderful people and bright future, have been the highlight of my nearly ten thousand mile journey. So dziękuję Krakow, and I hope we meet again.
Every time I visit Vienna, Austria, I am simply taken by its sheer beauty and imposing majesty. It is a magnificent city, even when a heatwave is blanketing the city and everyone seemed to be wilting from the heat. But while the constant 90+ degree heat made parts of the day unbearable, the morning and evenings when the light is best, still saved the photographic day.
This time around in Vienna I stayed away from the museums and palaces and concentrated on trying to find the true Viennese. Granted that I’m not quite sure what that is, but I was committed to finding it nonetheless. This proved harder than I thought, as it became readily apparent that in this world of globalized culture and products, that uniqueness that was Europe is becoming harder to find in the great European cities. People dress the same as those we left behind back home, and with the exception of some food items, we all eat pretty much the same things too (although I must admit that no one in the whole world can make croissants like the Viennese, not even the French).
But having said that, I still can’t help but be charmed by this great city. From the Belvedere Palace with its panoramic views of the city to the museum sector downtown, Vienna is about palatial scale. Drivers politely wave you across the street while they wait and locals patiently watch the street crossing signals before making their move. For a city with millions of visitors each year, the city center is incredible clean and a feeling of orderliness seems to prevail in everything locals do (or at least that’s how it feels for those of us coming from other parts of the world). And while I will have a little more to say about Vienna in the coming days, my initial feeling on this fourth visit to the city is the same as when I first laid eyes on it many years ago: simple fascination.
You just can’t miss it. The Buda Castle Hill sits majestically over the city of Budapest as if protecting it like it did a few centuries ago. Before arriving to Budapest I had read a few travel articles that downplayed this particular part of the city as being too “touristy.” And yes, the tourists (to include your’s truly) were there, but frankly, I don’t think that some of these travel writers were doing much justice to this wonderful place. The 360-degree views alone make this part of the city a “must visit” destination. And if you get there around 7:00 AM like I did, you will have the hill practically all for yourself for a few hours. And while public transportation can get you there in no time at all, it is a lot more fun to walk across the famous Chain Bridge and then up the hill through the various winding trails and sets of stairs leading to the castle.
But as great as the views were from the eastern, Pest-facing side of Castle Hill, my favorite part of this journey was walking along the promenade that borders the western part of the hill. This quiet residential area with its tree-lined pedestrian road and incredible views of the Buda Hills at the distance reminded me of the quiet serenity one feels when visiting some of those old European cathedrals. Walking that empty promenade during the early morning hours accompanied only by the soft light of a morning sun has to be the greatest highlight of my visit to this great city. And while I may never see this city again, this wonderful morning stroll, lit only by the melancholy light of morning eastern sun, will remain with me forever.
Do you idle? That is, do you ever have those moments in your daily life when your time is not filled with activity? In an attempt to see if folks out there were into this idling thing, I went out with my camera recently to find out. My goal was to find something akin to the contemplative lifestyle out there, if at all possible. Now, I do realize that “idling” as an adjective kind of implies an activity in of itself, but the kind of scene I had in mind had more to do with exactly the opposite: the absence of activity. So armed with the “not spent or filled with activity” dictionary definition, out I went at the end of the day when people were supposed to be done with work for the day.
The result? I couldn’t find anyone really idling, as per the dictionary’s definition. The folks in the photographs were the closest I could find, and as you can see, cell phone technology pretty much did away with all that idling witchcraft. In fact, this technology has redefined this whole idea of “relaxing.” Ever heard anyone say, “I find this whole idea of relaxing too stressful?” I have, and the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to convince myself that there’s something to that statement. Otherwise, how could I explain that after a whole day of work I was out “relaxing” with my camera. Are we doomed? I hope not. After all, one’s got to have something to look forward to.
Is it possible to have a favorite street corner in the whole world? I never gave this much thought until a few days ago when I happened to find myself in a very familiar spot in Washington, DC. You see, I have a kind of strange fascination with the Penn Quarters section of the city, and in previous occasions this neighborhood has been the subject of this blog. What makes this occasion different is that I just realized how much I really enjoy walking around this particular spot on earth with my camera. No matter how many times I go out to photograph everyday life, I seem to always find way to this corner of 7th Street NW & F Street NW, and with good reason.
The place is a beehive of human activity, from panhandlers selling tickets to sports events, to elegantly-attired folks headed half a block up E Street to the imposing Shakespeare Theater Company. It is like the point where various rivers converge, resulting in waters that become both turbulent and majestic at once. For photographers and admirers of the human condition, this is definitely the place to be. And no matter where other roads may take me from time to time, there’s one thing I know for sure: I will be back to this raucous corner many times in the future. Not that everyone there is happy to see you with your camera, but rather that there’s so much going on all the time, that most people don’t notice you much amongst the constant flow of people that cross that intersection every day. It is the perfect place to feel alive, and that puts it right up there on my book.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if this is the case, then my vague attempt to capture the street photography magic of Vivian Maier in a single photograph must be considered my private tribute to her work. After watching the great BBC documentary about her life and work (brought to my attention by Eric Kim’s street photography blog), I headed out on this non-descript day to see how easy it would be to imitate here style. Well, to save you some time if you do not want to read any longer, the short answer is that it is not easy at all. I think it all has to do with the times we live in and the simple fact that Ms. Maier looked down when taking her masterful photos. We’re talking pre-Internet and social media times here, when photography was not a globalized commodity to be feared and state-of-the-art Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras (like the one used by Ms. Maier) forced you to look down into the glass instead of across to the subject.
These elements must have played a role in her photographic life, but there is no denying that her incredible talent to capture the proverbial “moment” of a scene more than justify her posthumous photographic fame. Her eye for composition and light was nothing short of brilliant—a study of balance and symmetry that should be required study for any photographer. As depicted in the BBC video, many of her shots required her to be about three to four feet from her subjects, which in today’s über-paranoid world would not be an easy thing to do. I’m certain that sixty years ago Ms. Maier had an easier time answering the “what do you plan to do with those pictures” question, as the state of technology back then did not allow for instantaneous global distribution of your photos. But whatever the case, there is no denying that Ms. Maier got her shot when she was there with her camera, and in the end, that is all that matters. Too bad she never got to see the much-deserved outpouring of admiration from a thankful world.
Nothing like getting your hands on a new Leica M camera to get your photographic blood pumping a little. But not just any M, mind you, but rather the new (and still very hard to get) Leica M 240 from the folks at Solms, Germany. How good is this camera? Very, very good, in my humble opinion. I’m no gear analyst by any stretch of the imagination, but I would be remiss if I didn’t stop for a second and describe what it feels like to go out shooting with this remarkable work of art. At the risk of being labeled a bleeding Leica fanboy, I have to tell you that this camera is about as close as anyone will get to enjoying the feeling of photographic poetry. The best camera in the world? Of course not. No sports shooter here my friend. The only camera you would take to document the swamp people in the Amazon River? Nope. This camera is definitely not about the extremes, even if some incredible daring photographers out there would just go for it. But if you are thinking street, documentary, fine art, or studio work, then the Leica M would be a powerful photographic tool in your hand.
I have read many blogs where the Leica M has been described as a totally new camera when compared with its predecessor, the Leica M9. And you know what? The blogs were right (see Steve Huff’s wonderful review here). This is an amazing camera. Richer colors, nearly silent operation, great contrast, extensive customization, live view, focus peaking, fantastic battery, and retention of the famous “Leica look.” I could go on and on about the specs, but others a lot more qualified have already provided this information (see Ming Thein’s article and Sam Hurd’s take on this camera). But why the excitement about all these functions that have already made their appearance in other camera brands, and at a lot less money? The answer to this question lies precisely on the fact that we are talking about Leica here. Ever heard of tradition? Well, Leica takes this concept significantly beyond the point to which the patriarch Tevye did in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, and by a long shot. In fact, it is precisely this “remain in touch with the past” attitude that brings so many photographers into the Leica camp. Change, any change, is big news in the Leica community, with equal amounts of proponents and detractors taking their positions at opposite sides of the trenches. In the end, what I know is this: that recording the world around you with a Leica M is a very special thing–a feeling that is only intensified by the new Leica M 240. Simplicity at its very best. And at a price.