Walking And Dreaming In Brugge

One of the many beautiful canals in Brugge. [Click on photos for larger versions]
Beautiful Brugge canal.
Viewed from the top of the Belfort Tower, the city of Brugge is a wonderful sight.
View from Belfort Tower.
One of the most romantic ways of seeing the city is by horse-drawn carriage.
An incredible romantic city.
Just about every street in the old part of town appears to come right out of a movie set.
Scenes right out of a movie set.
Get lost along the city's narrow streets and you will find some incredible restaurants.
Getting lost can be rewarding.
The statute of monks consoling each other is one of the most emotionally moving in the city.
A most powerful work of art.
At night, the city of Brugge is as wonderful as in the daylight.
The simple elegance of Brugge.

Talk about a place surpassing all of your expectations. For a long time now I’ve known about this wonderful small town that lies deep in the heart of Flanders, Belgium, but my feet have always taken me somewhere else in Europe. So why not? Off to Brugge then. Six incredible days later, I now realize that I should have visited this postcard-perfect city a long time ago. Yes, Brugge, a city that without even trying has moved near the top of my dream list of places that I would love to relocate to. Friendly, approachable, and real, it is the kind of place where people just don’t seem to have the kind of attitude that keeps people “on edge” in other parts of the world.

With time, I’ve come to realize that there are places you travel to because of the attractions that every tourist must see, and places you travel to because of the feelings they evoke. Brugge is definitely in the latter category, and while there are plenty of local attractions to occupy you during your visit, it is the city’s attitude (or vibe, for that matter) that totally grabs you the moment you set eyes on its wonderful architecture. Venture in any direction from the central Grote Markt square and you will find an idyllic world of quiet canals, small cafes, and quaint, little restaurants that look like places out of a Hollywood romantic movie. Very few places that I’ve ever seen will compare with the serene landscape along the canal bordering Groenerei Street on a rainy day, where arched, brick bridges covered in dark, green mildew, blend seamlessly with the surrounding houses bordering the canal. Wander north to Spinodarei Street to enjoy viewing groups of swans that seem to fly along the watery clouds of the canal. Then head on west along Gruuthusestraat to the 12th Century Oud Sint-Jan hospital site and its incredible courtyard where the statute of two monks consoling each other will almost move you to tears. And what better place to get lost at night, when the soft, yellow lights of barely lit restaurants cast a dimmed glow on the narrow cobblestone streets of an ancient city. It is often said that Paris is prettier when it rains, and undoubtedly there’s a lot of truth to that. But so is Brugge, and in the cool, dark nights of mid-November, it is the stuff of dreams.

 

Is It Ever Good Enough?

When it comes to deciding what makes a good photograph, the audience will always make that decision.
When it comes to deciding what makes a good photograph, the audience will always make that decision.

Ever wonder about what it takes to make a great photograph? Well, join the club. There is no question that photographers, at their core, are shameless dreamers. They constantly dream of that photograph, the one that will set them apart from others, the one that will surely bring recognition for hours of tireless devotion to their craft. Countless times a day the topic so expertly depicted by Émile Zola in his 1886 novel “The Masterpiece,” is played in the minds of photographers all over the world. In his work, Zola presented us with an artist who, in his own mind, found it impossible to live up to his own imagined potential. Nothing he did was good enough to be called great, or lead to the immortality he so desperately envisioned. That the artist drove a few people crazy in the process (not to mention himself) was a given, and no matter how good his work was in the eyes of critics and observers, the artist always found it lacking. Something, something impossible to ascertain with any degree of certainty, was missing. Frustration reigned, and professional emptiness was right there by its side.

But Zola, in his genius, also provided us with the other side of the coin. That is, with the life of an artist who very early in his career created his greatest work and who went to live a long, unhappy life trying to unsuccessfully reproduce his early achievement. Critical greatness visited him before he felt he had achieved the pinnacle of his art; his sudden, and early acclaim condemning him to a life of denied recognition past his initial masterpiece. Nothing he did was to be as good, or memorable, as that earlier work, and the voices in his head never ceased to remind him of his lifelong descent from that early, momentary glory. It speaks to Zola’s greatness that he was able to represent so vividly the many, and often conflicting emotions that live inside an artist’s mind.

And so it seems to be the case today with photographers and their work. The Internet is full of tales of photographers stating that they went out on a project and took thousands of photographs, but at best, they only liked a handful of them. The rest? Just not good enough, or memorable enough. Ask any photographer to pick a photo that they would consider to be their masterpiece (apart from Steve McCurry and his Afghan Girl), and you will witness human contortions that would put Cirque du Soleil to shame. No, we’re not a happy lot, or to put it better, we’re not a very satisfied lot. That great photo is out there, and if it takes a lifetime to find it, that’s OK with us. And what about that magnificent photo you took that everyone seems to like so much? Sure, it was good, but not the best. The best is still out there, hidden in plain sight, and there’s no time to waste in our never-ending chase. In the 1964 words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when describing how he could tell something had crossed the threshold into the seedy, we tell ourselves that “I’ll know it when I see it.” And even when our eyes have seen so much over the years, the idea that we will recognize our masterpiece when we see it continues to dominate our photographic minds. Like Zola’s protagonists, we convince ourselves that this is a decision for us to make, when all along, and in keeping with the nature of any art, it is always a decision for the audience to make. Like Justice Stewart, they will know it when they see it, and there’s not much an artist can do aside from trying to create the best work possible everyday of his or her life.  I guess Zola figured this out almost 130 years ago.

 

Enchanting Stockholm In July

View of the city of Stockholm, Sweden from the  Fjällgatan hills in Södermalm.
View of the city of Stockholm, Sweden from the Fjällgatan hills in Södermalm.
A beautiful day in Stockholm to enjoy incredible harbor views from outside the Fotografiska Museum in Södermalm.
A beautiful day in Stockholm to enjoy incredible harbor views from outside the Fotografiska Museum in Södermalm.
While Stockholm is a very modern city, historical sections in town have been beautifully preserved with all their charm and character.
While Stockholm is a very modern city, historical sections in town have been beautifully preserved with all their charm and character.
Musicians are generally found along the hard-to-find, 231 meter Brunkebergstunneln in Norrmalm.
Musicians are generally found along the hard-to-find, 231 meter Brunkebergstunneln in Norrmalm.
Cobblestone streets are everywhere in Stockholm along side streets away from the city center.
Cobblestone streets are everywhere in Stockholm along side streets away from the city center.
Stockholm cafes are among the best in the world and premium people-watching spots must be secured early.
Stockholm cafes are among the best in the world and premium people-watching spots must be secured early.
Just like in Germany, the wonderful bakeries in Stockholm elevate bread baking to an art form.
Just like in Germany, the wonderful bakeries in Stockholm elevate bread baking to an art form.
If there is ever a need to study how societies achieve the proper work-life balance, Stockholm would be the place to conduct such study.
If there is ever a need to study how societies achieve the proper work-life balance, Stockholm would be the place to conduct such study.
It is hard to decide on a favorite spot in Gamla Stan, the Old Town, but this particular corner of the world did it for me.
It is hard to decide on a favorite spot in Gamla Stan, the Old Town, but this particular corner of the world did it for me.
Watching a Stockholm sunset from the top of the Observatorienlunden is one of the most romantic experiences in this incredible city.
Watching a Stockholm sunset from the top of the Observatorienlunden is one of the most romantic experiences in this incredible city.

It has definitely taken me a long time to visit this jewel of the north, but the long wait has only made me enjoy this glorious city that much more.  Stockholm, Sweden is one of those places that is much more than a city.   Yes, it is absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful architecture and incredible views that seem to pop right out of a postcard.  But more than that, Stockholm seems to be a state of mind, a place that for those of us coming out of the über busy, constant stress western part of the world, seems to have almost a zen quality to it.  Don’t get me wrong, the place is quite busy on its own, but you can’t spend more than a few days in the city without feeling that there is a certain rhythm to life here that is somehow lacking in our personal worlds.  When visiting the residential area of Hornstull in the southern island of Södermalm, I actually met couples of professionals around 10:00 AM at a café who were actually enjoying a cup of coffee and a croissant together before going off to work.  That’s right, 10:00 AM, couples, moving as in concert with the slow, yellow light of a morning sun.  Who are these people?

No doubt the city itself has a lot to do with people’s attitudes towards everything from work to family life.  A conglomeration of islands, Stockholm is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty that is best appreciated during the warmer summer months.  The busy city center of Norrmalm rapidly gives way to the incredible middle island of Gamla Stan, or Old Town, anchored around the imposing Royal Palace and Parliament building.  And then, there’s easy-going Södermalm, with views of the city of Stockholm that will take your breath away.  Perhaps more than any other area in the city, Södermalm personifies the quintessential Scandinavian lifestyle, at least as the rest of the world imagines it.  Beautifully old architecture around the cobblestone streets of Bastugatan and Pryssgränd, eclectic and trendy in the SoFo (south of  Folkungagatan street) district, and idyllically laid back around its western Hornstull waterside neighborhood, Södermalm appeared to me to be the perfect place to live and raise a family.  The incredible city views along the Monteliusvägen trail and the hilltop hangout at Mosebacke Terassen only add to the area’s incredible charm.

But there’s a lot more to Stockholm than Södermalm that I will be addressing over the coming days, even when fully aware that nothing I say here can truly capture the full scope and wonders of this great city.  Even now when my feet are firmly planted back home where the skies are not as blue in a 24/7 world of take-out coffee and fast food restaurants, I’m finding it hard to release my mental grip from around that Stockholm state of mind.  Don’t know how long I’ll be able to hang on to that feeling, but I’m going to try as hard as I can not to loose it.

Is 75 The New 50?

While 50mm lenses are still considered the standard in photography, people's perception of space and growing mistrust of photographers may be heralding a new era for the mid-size telephoto lens.
While 50mm lenses are still considered the standard in photography, people’s perception of space and growing mistrust of photographers may be heralding a new era for the mid-sized telephoto lens.

If you read a lot of the popular photography literature out there, you would think that when it came to focal lengths, not much has changed for lenses over the past 100 years or so.  To this day, lots of print is devoted to Robert Capa’s dictum that, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.”  Now, I’m not sure whether Mr. Capa was referring to optical or physical distance, but my guess is that he was perhaps referring to the proportion of the subject in the photograph to the overall frame of the photo.  I can only surmise this because Mr. Capa was more interesting on the drama of a photograph than where the photographer happened to have his or her feet planted.  A great image, after all, is never hostage to a particular focal length.

But something has changed a bit since Mr. Capa’s days.  Call it the loss of innocence, societal mistrust, or whatever, but people are no longer as relaxed when having their picture taken by a stranger as they used to be.  Governments have also jumped into the focal length controversy by creating all sorts of conditions under which a photographer can be labeled an intruder of some sort.  Under modern privacy rights considerations, that invisible privacy zone around people has become a virtual minefield for photographers.  Enter at your own peril, and successful navigation through it will require a great deal of luck, not to mention personal charm.  This zone, which used to be easily traversed with a 50mm focal length, has become a lot harder to deal with.  Awareness, perception, and distrust have to a large extent forced the average photographer on the street to move back a bit.  Photographers may perceive themselves as creatives capturing a moment in history, but their subjects are growingly seeing them as trespassers, perverts, and untrustworthy social media trolls.  But that is precisely where a 75mm or 85mm lens comes into play.  These lenses allow you to move back a bit, be less conspicuous, less intrusive, and more discreet.  Not that you always want to be that detached from the people you are photographing, but if you don’t have the time to invest in building those relationships (like a photographer in the middle of a festival, procession, or market), then distance could easily prove to be your best friend, and a mid-sized telephoto lens will easily subtract the added distance from your subject.  That is why these days, my trusted Leica 75mm f/2 Summicron-M, as well as my Nikon 85mm f/1.4G workhorse, are getting a lot more saddle time on my camera.  Ah, and then there’s that glorious bokeh, but that is a subject for another day.