You know those days when no matter how hard you try, it is virtually impossible to come up with any great idea for a photographic project? Well, today was one of those days. Nothing there. So as I have done so many times in the past when I am in desperate need of some photographic therapy, I grabbed my camera and out I went. I figured that a little street photography would do me some good by clearing up the Friday photographic fog. No plans, just random walking for as long as my feet could stand it. I’m glad I went out, thought, because everyone seemed to be in a good mood in this otherwise grumpy city. No doubt the Friday “I’m out of here” thing was beginning to sink in or something, but more likely it was the effect of a perfect spring day before a long holiday weekend. Whatever it was, it was definitely contagious. Over six miles of walking with my camera, a very enjoyable culinary visit to several of the local food trucks, and a quick stop for some liquid therapy at the bar in Jaleo, and everything was well with the universe once more. A great day after all.
If I ever were going to attempt to write romantic novels for a living (don’t worry, I’m not), there is no doubt in my mind that I would do so from a place like Como in Italy. This sleepy, little town by the shores of the lake that takes its name, Lake Como, is everything you can imagine of the romanticism of a bygone era, and then some. What is it with these northern lake regions in Italy and southern Switzerland? To say they are beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe them, because they are so much more than that. In fact, I had once heard a Swiss actress in America say that she returned to her small village in the area every year in order to recharge her spirit. And now that I have had some time to wander in the area from Locarno in Lago Maggiore to Como, I now fully understand what this actress was talking about. Life at a slower pace, natural beauty beyond description, and some of the most wonderful food in the world combine to form the perfect antidote to all that ails us in our busy, chaotic lives. I may not know how many places in the world possess such wonderful potion, but Como definitely has its share of it.
Como the town is not a big place, but three main areas seem to dominate the region. For starters, there’s Lake Como with its postcard-perfect landscape. This southernmost part of the lake is quite a busy place, with ferries taking passengers to other famous towns around the lake and lovers slowly strolling down Lungolago Mafalda di Savoia as if oblivious to the world. The lake and its indescribable scenery are nothing short of visual candy, and sitting by that shore on a perfect spring day will be all the proof you’ll ever need that it is possible to be happy in this life.
The other two main areas in town are the city-center square, Piazza Alessandro Volta, and the imposing Cattedrale di Como at Piazza Duomo. Both extremely impressive and surrounded by small shops and quaint restaurants where you could easily pass the hours away with total disregard to time. In between these two, an old-world paradise for the senses makes sure that you never move at a fast pace while you are in town (which the many cafes in the area would’ve guaranteed anyway). Stopping every few steps to gawk at some window display while stopping yourself from spending your retirement money becomes virtually impossible in Como. This is what Italy does to you, and we love her for it.
On the train back to Milan I couldn’t stop thinking of how beautiful this country is. Sitting in that train longingly looking out the window to the passing countryside before me, I couldn’t help but think that I had just been to one of the most wonderful places on this planet. And as the train got farther and farther away from Como, the famous words of composer Giuseppe Verdi kept replaying in my head: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” My sentiments exactly.
In today’s seemingly impersonal world, you would be forgiven in thinking that people just don’t care much about others, but I’m growingly convinced that this is just not the case. In fact, the more I come in contact with people, the more I see everyone texting, talking on the phone, and exchanging all sorts of information in digital form. Connection, rather than disconnection, appears to be the norm. That is, provided you have a strong enough signal.
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.
How do you know that spring is just around the corner? That is, besides peaking into whether Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow or not. I’m sure everyone has a personal way of presaging the arrival of spring, but for me, it is the appearance of music on city streets that unmistakably lets me know that it’s about time to start putting away those winter jackets. From violins to trashcan drums, I must admit I like it all and that I wait for those street sounds with the same level of fascination as the masses that assemble every year in Pennsylvania wait for that sage of a groundhog. To tell you the truth, I love street musicians, and I’m glad to see that traditions that were popularized in Europe have found their way into the streets of America. These performers give character to street corners and neighborhoods alike, and if you ever take the time to stop and listen (not to mention to drop a few bucks into their instrument box), you’d be surprised at how good they really are. So for now, I plan to enjoy their wonderful, musical contribution to our enjoyment of life, and some months from now, when the street music stops, I’ll know it is time to pull out that dreaded winter jacket again. Not particularly looking forward to it.