The human experience of beauty is at once both universal and personal. The experience of beauty can vary from subtle and rather ordinary to dramatic and intense. When the experience is dramatic and intense, words like “it took my breath away” are called upon to describe the experience but, in reality, mere words are inadequate. Beauty has many forms. There are the rare individuals whose very lives exude a beauty that transcends the physical. Photography, for me, has always been about a quest for the experience of beauty, and, the emotion that it can evoke ... whether subtle or intense.
Along the Danube
When floating along on the Danube, pastoral scenes abound; beautiful hills and fields of vineyards. Many small villages are passed. Each, it seems, have more than one church; each church, it seems, has a picturesque steeple. Medieval ruins of castles abound, along with medieval walls. The ruins surely say something about our shared human condition. At some time in our past; and, there is ample evidence, even today, certain tribes felt the need to have walls between themselves and neighboring tribes. Religious beliefs and shared ethnicity surely offered comfort to many in some ways; but perhaps, also, in other ways, those very religious beliefs and differing ethnicities may have contributed to the motivation to build walls and castles. One's tribe needed protection from another's. Perhaps also, it was just human nature that motivated the building of walls and castles. Religious beliefs and ethnicities aside, different tribes with shared religious beliefs and ethnicities also likely felt the need for protection from one another.
We visited Budapest for one rainy evening, and most of the following day. As during a previous visit, we were once again moved by this special city. From the architecture, to the light rail, to the street lights, to the bronze statuary, to the ironwork, to the market place; the city itself is unique in the world as a visual feast of baroque style and the emotions evoked by the beauty of this style. Once again, we were charmed by the people of the city as well. During a driving rainstorm, on the day we were to leave Budapest, we chanced upon a taxi; we were expecting a ride to the site of our departure from the city. The cabbie indicated the New York Palace Cafe was along the way. He said, "many Europeans think it's the best Cafe in all of Europe"; and, he assured us, we could visit the Cafe and still be on time for our departure from the city. He parked the cab, took us into the Cafe, and proudly gave us a personal tour of the place. When our cab ride finally reached the site of our departure, the fare was for the ride only.
City Streets after Dark
Lately, I've been inclined to wander the streets of cities after dark with a camera. During daylight hours most people are busy earning a living one way or another. After dark, however, people on city streets are more often busy adding meaning to their lives and the scenes unfolding are suggestive of human stories in progress. At these times, it is possible to make monochrome images that have a timeless quality. The resulting stills are capable of conjuring up impressions of scenes from the noir films of another time; and, it has occurred to me, some of the scenes could easily serve stimuli for a Dashiell Hammett like novel.
Travel with a Purpose
The reemergence of long dormant passions of photography and travel occurred nearly simultaneously in my life and, with them, a commitment to seriously pursue a creative purpose as a way to add meaning to my life. Travel and photography provide a purpose for one another, and for me, that purpose is a desire to produce compelling art images that are not just testaments to special places at a point in time, but that are also capable of standing alone as compelling works of art.
Nature Studies: A Journey
The wonders of nature are present in wild places and in cities around the world. Often, natural areas within urban settings are intentionally left as wild parkland to serve a need that people everywhere have for a refuge from the trappings of the modern world. In other places, parklands are carefully landscaped and designed to create vignettes of nature intended almost solely for human appreciation. In landscaped settings, the designers often intend for their creations to attract butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. In Jing'an Park in Shanghai and Jiefang Park in Wuhan, the park's caretakers went so far as to place birdcages in trees that contained birds that sang the most beautiful songs each morning. Such human endeavors offer support for the notion that the natural world is capable of eliciting meaningful emotional responses within individuals that are independent of one's cultural background.
Traditional Chinese Architecture
Pavilions, pagodas, symmetry, feng shui, Taoism, talismans, and flow that wards off evil and encourages good fortune. I don't pretend to understand or comprehend these characteristics and influences of traditional Chinese architecture any more than I understand the Chinese language. Nevertheless, despite my limited comprehension of these traditional structures, I was drawn to photographing them. I would like to think that the Chinese were onto something with talismans on the upward sloping rooflines creating a flow that wards off evil and encourages good fortune. Then again, I'm not really sure the widespread adoption of that style of architecture would be a positive thing for the world of architecture. Would that there are other architectural approaches that could, and in fact, would, create similarly positive flow.
At the dawn of the 20th century the Flatiron Building in New York City had recently been completed. Alfred Stieglitz, an early advocate for photography as an art form, famously made some photographs of the Flatiron Building following the great winter storm of 1903. He was quoted speaking with passion about the building and his prints from that time are present in collections of important museums to this day. The connection between architecture and photography throughout the history of photography is not surprising. Light, space, shapes, lines, and form are concerns shared by both disciplines. So it is that I have found architecture to be a recurring theme in my own search for photographic subjects during my travels.
Li River, China
I first crossed an ocean in 2006. I went west, halfway around the world. At one point during this trip, we were in southern China, in a place called Guilin, on the Li River. Life in Guilin seemed to revolve around the river and the karst mountain landscape of the area. There was much about the culture, the people, and the landscape that were outside of my prior experience. I found myself moved with an emotion that that resembled the emotion I experience every time I top out on Togwotee Pass and see the Teton Range spreading out before me. I knew, by then, that I would do what I could to make travel an important part of my life going forward. While in Guilin, I was able to float the Li River from Guilin to Yang Shuo. It was a dark and dreary day, overcast with low clouds and drizzly rain to go with the seeming ever present smog. The grainy, impressionistic style of these photographs effectively captured the mood of the experience and the day.
Parisian cafes have held a certain mystique down through the ages as a center for cultural life where intellectuals, artists and lovers of every stripe would congregate for espresso, croissants, wine, a smoke, and conversation. The mystique grew in the years after World War I when the likes of Henry Miller, Hemmingway, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, etc. spent time in the Parisian cafes along with the rest of the Lost Generation. With tobacco smoke hanging in the air one can easily imagine the contribution of the conversations in the cafes to the fertile creative lives of the intellectuals and artists congregating in Paris throughout the years. During our visits to Parisian cafes, we were often surrounded by groups of young men, groups of young women, and young couples who were having wine, food, and intense conversations. Perhaps, on such an occasion, we were in the presence of some who will surface over time as a next generation of Parisian inspired intellectual and artistic influencers.
I hadn't really spent much time with egrets. I'd seen them in the distance in prairie lakes and potholes. I would have liked getting closer looks at them; and perhaps a few photographs. They were graceful, long legged shore birds, pure white, with long, pointed beaks; hunting for bugs, guppies, and small fish in the shallows among the reeds and rushes. They were in ponds or undeveloped lakes on private property surrounded by hardwood forests and tall, tick infested weeds with occasional patches of poison ivy. Attempting to get closer did not seem prudent. In recent years, I've come across egret rookeries. Large congregations of egrets nesting along small streams. One of the rookeries had both great egrets and a variety of lesser egret species. This ongoing, egret rookery project, is an example of a smaller, more concise thematic project within the larger theme of nature studies.
The best time to be in Wyoming aspen country is late September, and it is, perhaps, best experienced on foot in the backcountry where the only trails are made by elk, deer and other wild animals. Wyoming is rich in this kind of aspen country. There is a confluence of the aspen color show in Wyoming mountains with the annual ritual of elk rut. With the elk rut comes the sounds of bull elk bugling, cow elk mewing, and antlers clanging against other antlers or young trees. For the full experience of the sights and sounds, begin hiking away from known roads and trails in the early morning darkness while Orion is still looking down from above and shooting stars are crossing the sky above. Listen to the coyotes howl as daylight arrives and spend a long day hiking up and down the hills and drainages. On days like this, one just might sense an experience of the thread that holds the universe together.
We had briefly been to Cabo, Mexico, primarily to be with family and to do some fishing, swimming with whale sharks, and snorkeling. When it came to central Mexico, I had only preconceived notions with little basis in fact. What we found was more European than any preconceived notion I had about Mexico. Beautiful plazas, and churches; splendid statuary and fountains; ironwork benches and fences; street food and markets, restaurants with outdoor seating, and trees meticulously rounded or squared (much like those in Versailles and Paris). And, of course, churches with church bells ringing, and, roosters crowing, mostly in the morning, but also throughout the day. All of this built upon the sides of a mountain valley with colorful buildings. The legacy of this place was centuries of Spanish influence superimposed on indigenous cultures.
I have only visited Venice at the beginning and end of one trip to Italy, and that was a while ago. I recently spent some time with the photographs made during that trip, however, which was something like a return visit. Venice is a changing place; and in recent times, it has often been referred to as an endangered place. Flooding is becoming more frequent and more severe due to rising sea levels and certain wind patterns. Venice is a rather small place where it is relatively easy to walk from one end to the other more than once a day. The overcrowding of visitors is an additional concern. While there were no cruise ships there during our visit, I can't imagine how Venice handles the crowds that come with cruise visits.
Great cities of the world have an energy that emanates from the life that is happening within them. That energy pulsates to the routines, events and patterns of human activity that are peculiar to a particular city. The energy varies by city and time of day. While it is possible to make compelling photographs of special places within cities that do not include people, and some photos attempting to approach that ideal are included here, I tend to look for ways to respectfully include people in photographs. The people provide a means for capturing the energy of the city. While the people included in my photographs are individuals, I'm inclined to think of the people in the photographs as archetypes of various characters in the story of the city. City Life is my attempt to convey these energies, moods and sensibilities of some of the world's great cities.
China Life 2008
In 2008, I visited Wuhan and Ezhou, which are located inland along the Yangtze River. A few weeks later, I returned to visit the cities of Shanghai and Beijing. Inspired by my 2006 visit to China, I intentionally sought out older neighborhoods with the intention of documenting conditions in those neighborhoods. This was a social documentary project. The government was encouraging the residents of the older neighborhoods to move out. While older residents were resisting the changes under way, younger people were eager to leave these older neighborhoods. What would become of them all? I had a, possibly mistaken, sense that the pace of change in China was so rapid that what I was photographing might, sooner rather than later, become an historical record.