It’s been a long while since I last visited Zurich, Switzerland. In fact, it’s been about a decade, to be precise, and if it was wonderful the day I left, it has gotten even better now. Sure, the crowds have increased quite a bit, and this world financial center has not gotten any cheaper. But the Alpine magic that once captivated a younger version of myself is still there, and in great quantities. The blue evening glow generated by the sun’s reflected light from the snow-capped mountains, the chilly morning strolls along the Limmat river, and the joyful holiday spirit that makes the Christmas season so special along the Alpine Region of Europe. Yes, they are all still there, and so is the evoked feeling that you are visiting a very special place in the world, where in the course of one day you can’t avoid but feel that you have heard just about every language under the sun spoken along the old, cobblestone streets in the city. I may not understand most of them, but one thing I do know for sure: that they are as fascinated as I am with this gem of a city. How do I know this? Because a happy face is easy to spot, and happy faces they have. After all, couples don’t hold hands and kiss in public places when they are not happy. But Zurich has that effect on people, and as long as it does, this aging traveler will continue to come back to find its incredible magic.
I’m fascinated by tables. No, it’s not a clinical condition or anything of the sort, but rather that whenever I see a table with some chairs, it is almost impossible for me not to photograph it. Now, mind you, that I’m not talking about just any table out there. My photographic fascination lies with those unoccupied, lonely, waiting-for-someone kind of tables. Yes, yes, a bit awkward, I’ll grant you that, but I just can’t help it. Every time I see one, I am inevitably transported to an imaginary story of a secret rendezvous, a long wait for a person who never shows up, or the melancholic story of a table that remains unoccupied, night after solitary night. Yes, I can see it now: a long wait, nervous anticipation, an uncomfortable smile, a conversation, a tear. Who knows. All I know is that I’m no writer, but if I were, perhaps it would be at one of those empty tables where I would start my next great story, or end it.
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.
To be perfectly candid, I never go out with the intention of photographing chairs, or any other type of furniture for that matter. In fact, when I recently encountered this scene, I had already snapped hundreds of photos of people and architectural landmarks. What’s more, I have walked down this little, hidden street on too many occasions to count, and never had I seen this small table with a red chair before. What made it more interesting was that it was never my intention to photograph the young lady in the photo. In fact, when I started kneeling down to compose the photo, this person was not even in the frame. I never saw her, but suddenly she went past me from behind and there she was in my camera frame like an apparition. You know that feeling when someone you never saw suddenly appears from behind you? Well, that was my immediate feeling when I saw the lady. And the red shoes? Call that a photographic bonus, because I’m not sure this scene would have worked as well without those shoes, so I’ll take luck any day.