Photographers After Dark

When photographing at night without a tripod, any surface could be a cheap substitute.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
When photographing at night without a tripod, any surface could be a cheap substitute. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.

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.

Memento Park, Budapest, Hungary

The communists were quite fond of large-scale sculptures.  Ricoh GR.
The communists were quite fond of large-scale sculptures, now relegated to the non-descript Memento Park. Ricoh GR.
At the entrance of Memento Park, Lenin still keeps his eyes over the masses that are no longer there.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.
At the entrance of Memento Park, Lenin still keeps his eyes over the masses that are no longer there. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.
Very few figures glorifying the communist struggle remain, but those still standing are not exactly high art.  Ricoh GR.
Very few figures glorifying the communist struggle remain, but those still standing are not exactly the epitome of high art. Ricoh GR.
Just in case you didn't know where you were, the communist Red Star is planted at the center of Memento Park.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.
Just in case you didn’t know where you were, the communist Red Star is planted at the center of Memento Park. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.

This is a post that I was not planning on writing, but someone asked me to post a few photographs from my trip to that great relic of the communist era in Hungary, the infamous Memento Park, so here it goes.  For starters, getting to Memento Park is quite an adventure.  You’ll hear that it is in Budapest, but it will take you a few bus transfers before you actually get to its remote location next to a dusty concrete factory of sorts.  Your first reaction after being unceremoniously dumped at the small bus stop is confusion as to where exactly you have landed in Hungary.  That’s because the bus stop is a few hundred yards from the park, and the somewhat industrial feeling of the place (even though there are houses around) is kind of disorienting.  Only after spotting what seems like the top of a brick wall over some concrete-dusted trees behind you and across the street, do you realize that you’ve found the place.

The Hungarian people could not have done a better job in hiding all these relics, and the world could not have done a better job at ignoring them.  While a mere 45 minutes away Budapest is a beehive of activity and excitement, the dusty Memento Park sits alone, desolate, and forgotten.  Sure, a few curious souls do manage to trek there out of curiosity, but this communist resting place doesn’t appear to rank very high on most visitors’ to-do lists (on the day four of us visited, there was only one couple there taking pictures).  When you think about it, though, Memento Park with its sun-drenched, sterile landscape and grotesque statues, is perhaps the right memorial for a failed ideology that enslaved millions of people a short generation ago.  It is a graveyard of sorts–the last resting place of the symbols of coercion and subjugation by a political system long relegated to the ashes of history.  That the people of Hungary endured and survived such historical catastrophe with such a positive attitude towards the future, is nothing short of remarkable.  What surprises me is that Memento Park exists at all.  Maybe the Hungarian people need a point of reference by which to measure how far they have come since those dreaded communist days.  Whatever the case, this park is part of a Hungary that no longer exists.  Today’s Hungary is enjoying itself by the Danube with its eyes firmly gazing at an Europe that not too long ago seemed like a far-away mirage.  It is remarkable how times change.

The Tranquil Buda Castle Hill

The view of Pest from the famous Fishermen Bastion in Buda is always magnificent.  Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
The view of Pest from the famous Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda is always magnificent. Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
The Fisherman's Bastion is one of the most visited attractions in Budapest.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the most visited attractions in Budapest. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Fisherman's Bastion Cafe has arguably the best locations in town.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Fisherman’s Bastion Cafe has arguably the best locations in town. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Buda Castle Hill area has been recognized as a World Heritage Site and remains the gem of Budapest.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Buda Castle Hill area has been recognized as a World Heritage Site and remains the gem of Budapest. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The narrow, residential road on the west side of Buda Castle Hill is a study in beauty and tranquility.  Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
The narrow, residential road on the west side of Buda Castle Hill is a study in beauty and tranquility. Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.

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.

Chilling In Budapest

Like in many cities in Europe, in Budapest you can linger at your table without interruption.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
Like in many cities in Europe, in Budapest you can linger at your table without interruption. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.

 

The Danube River shores on the Pest side of the river are lined with large restaurant and hotel boats.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
The Danube River shores on the Pest side of the river are lined with large restaurant and hotel boats. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
The party scene at Erzsébet tér never ends, as hundreds of young people make good use of the parks numerous bars.  Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
The party scene at Erzsébet tér never ends, as hundreds of young people make good use of the parks numerous bars. Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
Right behind the imposing Hero's Square you will find the beautiful Vajdahunyad Castle with its incredible moat.  Ricoh GR.
Right behind the imposing Hero’s Square you will find the beautiful Vajdahunyad Castle with its incredible moat. Ricoh GR.

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.

Soft Landing In Budapest

A lively night life lights up the Danube shores across from Castle Hill on the Buda side.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
A lively night life lights up the Danube shores across from Castle Hill on the Buda side. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
Very few places in the world could match the sheer elegance and sophistication of the New York Cafe at the Boscolo, Budapest.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
Very few places in the world could match the sheer elegance and sophistication of the New York Cafe at the Boscolo, Budapest. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.

Ah, Budapest.  If first impressions are the only impressions that matter, then this magnificent city overlapping the great Danube has charmed its way into one more heart.  It is hard to believe that less than 25 years ago this city was the capital of a communist country.  In fact, and quite different from places like Prague, it is virtually impossible to find any remnants of the old “communist mentality” in the city.  Budapest is a very sophisticated city with an easy-going vibe and a young, mobile population.  Similar to Berlin, there is unmistakable energy in the air everywhere, and it is highly contagious.

I will have much more to say about Budapest in the next few days, but for now there’s one place that has made an indelible impression on me.  This is the world-famous New York Cafe at the Boscolo hotel at Erzsebet korut 9-11.  From the castle-like opulence to the sophisticated waiters rhythmically moving about to the soft melodies of a concert piano, this monument to coffee lovers everywhere is nothing less than jaw-dropping beautiful.  Add one of the most delicate and exquisite raspberry-filled dark chocolate mousse together with their famous Budapest Melange coffees, and you would be excused in thinking that you had died and gone to heaven.  As I lingered in that great hall enjoying the soft melodies from that grand piano, I began to realize that this great, coquettish city was beginning to work it’s magic on me.  And like so many other travelers before me, I became very well aware of the fact that I would not be able to resist it.