During most of the year, one of the most famous lake regions in the world lies quietly and ignored by the masses of travelers around the world. No doubt, accessibility plays a part on this, even if the place is quite accessible. But perhaps it is something else. Perhaps it is the fact that the country is not particularly associated with grandiose structures like the Eiffel Tower, or the Vatican, or the works of Michael Angelo. No, its incredible beauty is the result of nature itself, of mountains and crystal-clear waters, of ever-changing weather patters, and of course, of a small, but incredibly beautiful church that happens to be sitting on a tiny islet in the middle of a lake. Welcome to Lake Bled in Slovenia.
The most visited place in Slovenia is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places this tired traveler has ever seen. Its inherent beauty is not just the result of what you see, but also of what you feel when you are there. It is as if the majestic Alpine chain forms a frame around the lake to share with us one of the most incredible windows in the world. On a late April day, when hardly anyone was around, the silence alone, softly punctuated by the cool breeze of an early spring day, was the stuff of dreams. A person here and there, then solitude. The rhythmic sound of ores slowly moving the Pletna boats carrying travelers to the only island in Slovenia and the Assumption of Mary Church sitting 99 steps above the water level, was nothing short of Alpine music to my ears. Legend has it that if you pull the massive rope to ring the church bell three times while looking at the Virgin Mary, your wishes will someday come true. So, with eyes that seemed overwhelmed by all the beauty that lay before them, I firmly wrapped my hands around the rope and pulled as hard as I could. The deep sound of that bell spreading in all directions over the green, transparent waters of Lake Bled were as sweet to my ear as the sound of a Mozart sonata filling a concert hall in Vienna. Staring out of the window during the 35-minute drive back to Ljubljana along valleys dotted with small villages and green pastures, I couldn’t help but think that I had just seen one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. What’s more, the deep, endless sound of that bell traveling beyond the mountains that surrounded it, still rang gloriously inside my head. I knew there and then, that the legend was true. My wish had already come true.
The city of Chicago never ceases to surprise you. It seems that every time I visit (which, granted, is not too often), the place has significantly changed in one way or another. Unfortunately, these days, when we hear about Chicago in the news, the headlines have more to do with the escalating crime rate than with all the wonderful things that are happening in the city. That’s a pity, because without a doubt, this city has one of the most vibrant urban environments I’ve seen anywhere. Like in New York City, people are about at all hours of the day and night. Incredible restaurants dot just about every block downtown, and if you take the time to walk down the beautiful riverwalk promenade, you’ll be able to do some wine tasting while watching the never-ending boat procession sailing down the Chicago River. The negative headlines are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind in the beautiful downtown area, as the city simply takes your mind away from those concerns.
There’s also a lot more to the city than the famous Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile, even if that mile alone is worth a special trip to Chicago. After all, right smack in the middle of that mile you’ll find the out-of-this-world Dylan’s Candy Bar store, which is sure to induce a Pavlovian response from even the strongest mortal. But venture a few blocks west of this famous mile, and you’ll come face-to-face with such places as the incredible Italian import that is the Eataly food emporium. You could spend an entire week inside the place indulging in a joyous adventure of pure, unadulterated gluttony.
But with only a day-and-a-half to spare during this trip, I chose to spent most of my available photography time in a couple of areas: walking under the overhead Metro lines that shoot down N. Wabash Street and visiting the adjacent Theater District in the N. State Street area. These areas south of the Chicago River are perfect for street photography, and while not as busy as the famous mile north of the river, they provide ample elbow room for photographers to do their thing. Venture a few blocks east and you’ll bump right into the plush Grant Park, which also affords a whole slew of photographic opportunities. It is neighborhoods like these that make Chicago such a well-kept photographic secret. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if urban photography is your thing, then during the summer months Chicago has to be up there on your list of great cities to visit for great urban photography. The beautiful architecture alone merits its ranking on that list. Come winter, though, the Windy City will live up to its Arctic reputation, and perhaps you’ll be better off taking your precious self to a place where no one has ever suffered from frostbite. Fair-weather photography advice? Maybe, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Talk about happenstance. This past week I had a chance to photograph inside a building that I’ve been eyeing with my camera for a long time, but one that is not generally open to the public like other places in Alexandria, Virginia. I’m referring to the Seaport Center, a floating structure that is the area’s only boat-building facility along this part of the Potomac River. Endless times I’ve walked along this building, at times seeing people inside hunching over small tools while chiseling away at curved pieces of wood. But the doors have always been closed, obviously to prevent the inevitable procession of visitors from interrupting the detailed work going on inside. But to my surprise, his past week those same doors were open, and a gracious member of the staff who saw me with my camera even asked me if I would like to come inside and take a tour of the place.
Finally, after so many misses, a chance to step inside this photogenic gem, and with all the time in the world to spare. One problem, though. Not imagining this would ever happen, I had only taken a 50mm lens with me for what was to be a short walkabout, leaving my best-suited-for-the-job wide-angled lenses safely inside a bag at home. This being a relatively small facility, those wide-angle lenses would have been perfect for the occasion, but at the time all that I could think of was the old saying that “now is all I’ve got,” so in I went into the boat house with a grin on my face.
This particular day just happened to be an “open house” day for the Seaport Foundation project. I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of this particular initiative prior to my visit, but after hearing what these folks were doing to help the young people in the area, I had my faith in humanity restored quite a bit. Under a “Building boats, building lives” slogan, the Boatbuilding Apprentice Program run by the Seaport Foundation is not only a one-of-a-kind craftsmanship program, but one that directly impacts the lives of young people by introducing a much-needed environment of belonging and purpose into their lives. These folks are doing tremendous work, one life at a time. As a photographer, I walked through those doors thinking that my day was about to be made amazing by the opportunity to photograph something I’ve been wanting to capture for a long time. Unbeknownst to me, what was about to make my day truly amazing was meeting such a wonderful group of people engaged in one of the noblest causes you could ever imagine. They possess something that I could never capture with a camera, but which served as a reminder that in small places like these all over our country, people are working diligently (and more-often-than-not, anonymously) to make a better world for others. It is humbling and inspiring at the same time, and they deserve all the credit in the world for what they do.
I have long been fascinated by the notion of capturing urban serenity in my photos. Not that I’ve always been successful in doing so, but rather that I enjoy looking for these types of scenes as if with the devotion of an astronomer looking for a new star. I know these scenes are out there, but my eyes don’t always see them. This is not for lack of trying,mind you, but rather that in the visually oversaturated environments of our modern cities, it is not easy to avoid visual distractions. Sort of like trying to write the next, great American novel in a room full of people who insist on constantly talking to you. Not easy, to say the least.
The challenge of capturing an image depicting urban serenity is compounded by the fact that most of these scenes can only be found in a portion of our natural field of view. That is, they hide in parts of what we see, not in all we see. Sometimes they may not amount to more than 10-20 percent of what’s in front of us, off to a corner and easily overshadowed by the more visually-demanding center of the scene. From the photographer (or the creative), these hidden gems demand a certain level of visual cropping–the ability to segment a scene into smaller micro-scenes that could stand visually on their own. It is the proverbial needle in the haystack challenge, and it’s never an easy one.
There is also a certain calm in those scenes. Like the quiet person in a busy room, they can’t help but attract your attention in spite of their best effort to be ignored. They attract us because they engage us, they make us think, or at the very least, imagine. And even if for a brief, but precious moment, what better place to live than in our imaginations.
Out of nowhere, magic. That is perhaps the best description of my recent trip to a place I barely knew existed less than a week ago. But all that changed thanks to a phone call from my photographer friend Mark, who during the course of our recent conversation, casually asked whether I would be interested in joining a group of local photographers during a Bald Eagle photography outing. Now, I am not a nature photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but the thought of observing Bald Eagles at their James River winter habitat while cruising down the river on an old pontoon boat before the sun even came out, was simply too much for me to resist. So, away I went at 4:00 AM to meet the group of photographers at the Deep Bottom Park boat ramp, which appropriately enough lies at the end of the Deep Bottom Road to the south-east of Richmond, Virginia.
Little did I know that by the end of this otherwise normal morning I was to experience one of the most magical spectacles nature has to offer anywhere in the world. It is far too easy for those of us who live in an urban environment where concrete and shopping malls rule the day, to forget that day after day, moment after moment, and in spite of mankind’s ingratitude towards it, nature continues to remind us of the simple beauty of our planet and the irreplaceable feeling of being alive. The pale, orange light of a morning sun, the gentle flow of a mighty river, and the first, hesitant sounds of nature’s first hours on a new day. And all under the watchful eye of ospreys and eagles sitting majestically above the tree tops waiting their turn to glide as in a choreographed dance in search of prey near the surface of the mighty river down below. Life begins and ends in rivers like the James. In between these two realities, a great spectacle always takes place. Battles are won and lost, the sun rises and the sun sets, there is silence and there is sound, and above all, there is life. I may never become a nature photographer, but this short trip down the James River surely made me understand why these photographers would not have it any other way. It is indeed food for the soul.
You know those days when nothing much seems to be going on? Well, yesterday was one of those days. The whole city seemed to have entered the New Year’s hangover stage and everywhere you went there seemed to be an eerily quiet atmosphere with only a few, slow-moving folks trickling about. This is actually pretty normal during these first days of the year, as people psychologically gear themselves for the inevitable return to the daily grind. After all, all those postponed projects and tasks from last year didn’t quite disappear with the champagne on New Year’s eve.
However, the absence of crowds is also a great opportunity for some unique photography. Empty space can be accentuated, serenity can dominate a scene, and the proverbial “photo bomb” can be eliminated from the frame. Hoping to capture a little of that that empty, serene space, I headed down to the Alexandria waterside to take a long walk along its quiet, rocky shore. Bereft of crowds and the never-ending sound of human activity, the place was like a scene right out of some small European village along the French Mediterranean shore. The mighty Potomac river was so calm that it appeared to be sleeping after a night of celebration. Couples moved at glacier speeds before coming to a halt in order to linger and take in the beauty of an empty landscape. Young girls danced with seaguls as if in a choreographed performance on a vast, outdoor stage. In the quiet humm of a morning breeze, nature and the human spirit appeared to still be dancing the night away. A new year, hesitantly taking its first steps while shining its soft, morning light on us to remind us of the beauty that life can be. What a day. What a life.
As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind. I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday. I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history. It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward. Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future. This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness. Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future. Not sure. But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage. The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.
But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact. Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways. This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen. Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry. And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay. Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world. As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past. As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past. Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts. If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.
Remember the fun days of summers from your youth? Well, they’re still there, even if these days we are mainly occupied with work, achievement, and all sorts of other important things. However, after watching this summer youth program along the Potomac River yesterday, I started to think about a conversation I once had with my college professor brother. Having asked him why he had chosen to remain a college professor for life in the place he did instead of entering the corporate world to make the big bucks, his reply kind of took me by surprise. He pointed out that while he recognized the earning potential of those who toil at their work all year round, he had made the conscious decision to choose a career where he “had not worked a single summer since his high school graduation.” Summers were his to engage in all sorts of personal projects and activities, and that long-term freedom must certainly have a value that cannot be measured by dollars alone. Fun? Summers off? Freedom? You can only imagine what was going through the head of yours truly, a never-summer-off dedicated public servant who spent most of his professional life in the United States Marine Corps. So here I was with my camera at the Washington Sailing Marina recording how much fun summers can be, thinking about how few of them we will have in our lifetimes, and realizing that my brother was a genius for the choices he made. It took a bunch of laughing, giggling, sun-drenched youth fumbling over sails and choppy waters to remind me of that.
Funny how sometimes we convince ourselves that traveling always involve getting into a jet and flying to some exotic, faraway place. Sure, that’s a lot of fun, but the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to realize that distance may not have as much to do with the “travel experience” as I once thought it did. Sometimes the experience can be a lot closer to home. You know, the places we usually see from a few thousand feet above ground when taking off from the local airport to our great, once-a-year adventure. Those places do look quite fascinating from the air, but like so many of them we see in aerial photographs, they tend to remain abstractions in our lives. They are things we momentarily glance at on our way to destinations.
Well, yesterday I decided to change all that. On what turned out to be a rare, beautiful mid-December day in northern Virginia, I ventured out to cross the Potomac River by water taxi. Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? But I can guarantee you that it was, and the reason may have had as much to do with the absence of crowds as with the incredible views that are only possible from a river boat. Bald eagles, bridges, historic shorelines, and the soothing sound of a river boat gently slicing the river waters. It was a surreal experience magnified by the fact that it was so out of character (in a good way) with the crazy, busy world that exist in the area a mere mile inside the river shores. The ride, which connects Old Town Alexandria on the Virginia side with the National Harbor complex on the Maryland side, lasts less than half an hour each way and will set you back $16 for a roundtrip ticket. Would it be cheaper and faster to just zoom down by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in your private automobile? Sure, provided the destination is all that matters to you on any given day. But if it’s the journey you are after, then that slow, undulating ride across the river will definitely do the trick. And the view of the cluttered, busy highway above the bridge is quite nice too.
The more I see of Budapest, the more I like this majestic city. It keeps reminding me of Vienna with its royal castles and beautifully winding streets. even if unlike Vienna, most of the city could use a fresh coat of paint. They are getting there, but I’m also beginning to wonder whether the somewhat worn-down look is what gives the city its unquestionable charm. You could spend a lifetime staring at the building facades, even if more-often-than-not you’ll have to look up beyond the first floor, which was generally reserved for commercial ventures.
But what makes this city great on my book is that the lively energy manifested by its people seems to live side-by-side with an obvious desire to enjoy life along the way. In Budapest, people are up and about at all hours of the day and night. Granted that many of them are tourists, but at the restaurants and bars within the city, the eclectic Hungarian language reins supreme. How different this is to the center of Washington, DC at night, where you can hear a pin drop at 9:00 PM. In Budapest, all along the famous Andrássy Avenue leading to Hero’s Square (with its two art galleries on opposite sides of the Square) the city is a constant beehive of activity. Along the picturesque Danube promenade on the Pest side, restaurant boats and a slew of land-based restaurants with violin music constantly adorning the nights appear to be major hangout for tourists and all sorts of (how should I say this?) evening activities. A few blocks from the promenade, Budapest’s busiest commercial/pedestrian boulevard (Váci ut.) is even more crowded with tourists trying use up all their forints before heading back home. No question that with its excellent mass transportation system and many pedestrian-only streets, this city almost begs you to get up and get moving. In fact, after a few days in the city I have yet to see a single obese person anywhere. Looking at what people eat around here, though, I can only attribute this to a miracle. I can only hope that I am similarly blessed with “thinness” during my stay.