Blinded

I recently heard someone say “art is not what it is, it’s what it does to you.”  What a fascinating and insightful description.  It’s not the symphony itself that is art, but the emotion it evokes when you hear it, the feeling you can’t avoid when it’s played.  It is not the notes written on a page, but the unavoidable sadness or inspiration or pride you feel when they’re played together.  The same can be said for a great novel or painting.  It’s only really art if it does something to you personally.

I thought about this description recently as I climbed to the top of the Old Town Hall located in Prague’s Old Town Square.  Yes, I admit I went there to photograph, but I also went there to see, to experience, to absorb.  When I got to the top viewing area, it was packed with tourists, and every single one of them had a camera – either an iPhone or a professional tripod and camera.  What interested me most was how most people were jockeying for position, setting up tripods, framing their shots, all while seemingly missing the entire point.  Many of them probably got great photographs, but few, if any, seemed to even see the scene before them.  They were so pre-occupied with the photograph they wanted to view from their computer back home, or on social media, or even in print, they seemed not to have allowed the art before them “do something.”  It reminded me of the great part in Good Will Hunting when Sean McGuire tells Will he could probably tell him all about Michelangelo, his political aspirations, his relationship with the pope, etc. then says, “But, I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.  You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

Perhaps this insight hits me more because I do love to take photographs.  I have been the guy who focused so much on framing the image that I missed the art itself.  This post is most likely a reminder and lesson to myself.  I don’t want to miss what the art surrounding me in Prague will “do to me.”  So, I will wait next time.  I will smell next time.  I will feel next time.  I will live.

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Midnight Vision

Jonathan Swift said, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  I began to understand this idea Friday night as I explored Prague without plan or intent.  I picked up my camera, and started walking.  I didn’t know where I was going, and carried no “to do” list.  I simply wandered.  See, I realized a long time ago that “hunting” for a great photograph or simply an inspiring view usually proves quite futile, at least for me.  How do you look for what you don’t know exists?  Sure, I know the Charles Bridge is majestic, the Prague Castle is grand, the streets of Prague can be beautiful.  But I don’t know when or if they will reveal themselves in a way that could make a great photograph or the most beautiful view.  So, I wander, patiently, observantly, and it’s amazing what appears.

If you have never slowed down and wandered a great city without a list of attractions, shops or sites, I urge you to try it.  It may take a little effort for many of us because it just feels inefficient or a waste of “valuable” time.  I promise you it’s not.  You will see things others don’t.  You will smell and hear things others will never even know existed.

After simply meandering through Prague the other night, I looked at my watch and realized it was midnight – I had been looking, listening, smelling, and most of all, living Prague for over six hours.  It had been everything except a waste of time.  As I wandered toward the tram that would take me home, I turned around to look behind me.  St. Nicholas Church was lit up in a way I’d never seen.  At most other times of the day, the streets would have been clogged with cars and tourists.  But for now, the view was mine, and mine alone.

Aristotle said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”  As I looked back at the church, I began to understand why men toiled for 51 years to build St. Nicholas Church in Mala Strana, pictured above.  For them, I am confident, the structure was not a building, but art.  While I pass the church every day, it was only at midnight, standing alone on the street, that I began to really see.

Healthy Addiction

Will I ever tire of this view?  While I’ve already been to and seen numerous amazing and beautiful places in Prague, it seems I can’t resist this one.  Monday night after work, I noticed the sky filling with clouds, and an irresistible pull drew me to the tram.  I stood there on the bank of the river, staring at this scene.  I’ve already stood there, both with and without camera, numerous times and haven’t begun to feel the slightest twinge of boredom.  What amazes me is that every moment of every single day is different here – cloudy, clear, day, night.  It doesn’t matter – the view is overwhelming.

As I stared at the Prague Castle and Charles Bridge last night, an interesting thought struck me.  The castle, the oldest in the world, was begun over 1,000 years ago.  Charles Bridge’s construction started in 1357.  So for over 600 years, people have been able to stand in the same spot where I stood and look at this.  Maybe the roads were different.  Maybe there were no paved sidewalks.  But the view – it hasn’t changed.  It amazes me to realize people stood in that same spot hundreds of years ago, and undoubtedly were just as overwhelmed.  I don’t think I will ever tire of it.  Something tells me my last day in Prague, years from now, I will stand in this spot and be just as amazed.  Definitely a healthy addiction.

Saintly Reflections

I’ve often thought one of the ways to judge a city is by how it looks in the rain.  Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris talks about how he loves Paris in the rain, and it often makes me look at other cities with the same judging lens, so to speak.  Arriving here in April reminded me of the old saying “April showers bring May flowers.”  We got a lot of rain in April, and I didn’t mind a bit.  Prague is possibly her most photogenic in the rain.

There are a lot of things to love about Prague:  tram lines running down quaint streets, cobble stone sidewalks and boulevards, and architecture that rivals any in the world.  I love wandering after the rain, staring down at the puddles.  I’m quite certain I look funny to others, based on they way they try to figure out what I’m searching for.  But the search sometimes pays off.  The reflection above is of one of my favorite buildings in Prague.  St. Nicholas Church is located in the Mala Strana section of Prague.  Its construction was started in 1704.  The church is a Baroque Basilica, and was built where the previous Gothic St. Nicholas Church stood since the 13th Century.

I’ve tried to photograph St. Nicholas so many different ways.  I walk past it almost everyday, and it almost feels familiar to me now.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to photograph it in a way that makes viewers feel what it’s like to actually look at her.  I’ve tried from many angles, at virtually every time of day, and I’ve yet to capture the essence of its true beauty.  Maybe I never will.  Maybe it’s one of those buildings that refuses to let others enjoy her fullness without standing there.  I kind of like that idea.  I’ll keep trying, but I’ll respect if she’s going to guard herself that way.  For the time being, I’ll settle for sneaking a glimpse in a reflection.

Castle Stroll

One of the  many things I love about Europe, and especially Prague, is how its inhabitants flock to the parks as soon as spring arrives.  I wandered today around Petrin Hill, which sits near Prague Castle.  I’ve learned today the park was featured in Franz Kakfa’s short story “Description of Struggle,” as well as some other famous literature.  It’s a beautiful park, scattered with trails and paths.  The Petrin tower sits atop, and is a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower.  A funicular train, first built in 1891, takes visitors from the streets of Prague to the top, but it’s much more rewarding to walk.

The most incredible aspect of the park is its inhabitants.  Today, there were people everywhere in the park, but not the crowded touristy “everywhere.”  These were obviously residents of the great city.  They were in the grass, having picnics, reading peacefully.  There was an amazing solitude and quietness to it, despite the number of people who were actually there.  It seems impossible to describe in words or even photographs what it feels like to lie out on a grassy hill and look out at the incredible architecture of this city.

I loved the scene in the photograph above.  As I stared down the winding path which seems to meander eventually to Prague Castle, I wondered what it must have been like when King Charles IV built the Hunger Wall in the park in 1360.  The park itself was once his vineyard.  As I daydreamed, the couple walked down the hill onto the trail.  I wondered if couples did the same in the 1300s.  My guess is they did.  Anyone who ever visited this beautiful park would be hard-pressed not to explore it.

Residential

I had another great morning exploring my new hometown yesterday.  I hit the streets at 4:30 a.m. so I could have the most beautiful sites to myself – or at least me and a few other photographers.  Particularly at this time of year, early morning is the only chance to have the city to oneself.  I took photos of every beautiful bridge, alley, building, and tram I came across.  But, as always, I end up drawn to the people.

As I walked through Old Town Square for the last time of the morning, I noticed this gentleman sitting not far from the astronomical clock which was already drawing the day’s tourists, cameras in hand waiting for the show.  No one else seemed to notice him, or at least didn’t acknowledge if they did.  I walked over and we exchanged smiles.  He is originally from Ostrava, in the far eastern part of the Czech Republic.  We did our best to communicate through various languages.  I told him he had a beard for photography, and he laughed.  I asked if he minded if I took his photograph.  He then stared at the lens with the look you see here.  It always amazes me how the people I stop and talk to seem to have a way of expressing their life through their eyes.  While he didn’t tell me his life’s story, I feel like I know it partially, just through seeing him through the lens.

I’m surrounded by some of the most beautiful attractions in the entire world.  And, they are amazing.  But I am always drawn to the people who inhabit it, and, usually the less fortunate.  There were hundreds, and soon to be thousands of tourists around this same spot, all of whom obviously have the resources for a Prague holiday.  I doubt they would look into my lens the same way this man did.  I find that interesting.  It’s a part of life that seems rich to me.