Frederic Chopin said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is the simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” In photography, I have been going backwards lately. Having developed my passion for photography over the past six or seven years, I “grew up” in the digital age. But, the more I move from the technical to the artistic, the more drawn I feel to things of the past.
The photograph above was taken with a $65 East German camera made in the 1950’s. I picked it up at a used camera shop in Prague last week. While the benefits of the digital age are numerous and well documented, there still exists an indescribable allure to film photographs. This pull has led me to ask many questions lately and examine much about life. What is it about the light, the grain, the simplicity of a photograph taken with a film camera that appeals to me and others? The same can be asked of music. While digitally mastered music is undeniably more “flawless” than vinyl, why are young people today discovering the simple pleasure of 33 rpm disks and turntables?
I believe it has something to do with how complicated all our lives have become with smartphones, TVs that make decisions and recommendations, and other technology that practically feels and thinks for us. It brings us back to Chopin’s observation that simplicity is the final achievement. When we look at a photograph or listen to a song, we don’t want someone or something else to feel for us. We want that simple pleasure for ourselves. The more complicated and complex life becomes, the more we humans crave and need simplicity. For me, loading a roll of film into a simple, 65 year old camera and wandering the busy city filled with the most advanced technology on earth is incredibly relaxing and fulfilling. Hearing the shutter fire on the old camera feels almost elegant in its simplicity. Leonardo da Vinci may have been onto something when he said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
As I waited for my taxi at the main train station in Bratislava, Slovakia, I looked over and noticed this gentleman reading the paper. My immediate urge was to photograph him, but with my camera packed away in my luggage, I walked past and continued on my way. I glanced back again and felt an inexplicable desire to talk to him, to connect. Despite the need to find my driver, I walked over and introduced myself. He put his paper down and started a conversation that lasted until I finally had to leave.
Despite the fact I regularly photograph people on the street, I usually assume the person I’m approaching will be bothered or have no desire to talk to a stranger. I am almost always wrong. People want to talk. They want to connect. They want to learn about and share with others, even strangers. For me, it’s one of the pleasant surprises of life. I think in today’s world of social media and impersonal communication, this reality is even more pervasive. As I looked at the portrait above I recalled something photographer Sebastiao Salgado once said: “I tell a little bit of my life to them, and they tell a little of theirs to me. The picture itself is just the tip of the iceberg.”
What is it about a photograph, a sound, a smell, or great literature that makes us feel and compels us to connect? I began re-reading Beach Music by Pat Conroy this week for at least the third time. Regardless of how many times I’ve read the same words, they connect me to my home state of South Carolina in ways nothing else does. He tells the stories of other boys’ youth, but they connect me to mine. To accurately explain why his books fill that need in me I could only re-type his words here. A description is impossible. Have words ever effectively described a great sculpture or famous painting? Art would not be art if words could explain it.
My experiences in Central Europe remind me real, meaningful connections happen when we are open to them more often than when we seek them. Conroy’s words let me feel, smell, and taste home because I let them, not because I try. It’s the same with the people I approach on the street. I simply walk up and allow the connection to happen. It almost always does. I believe it’s something inside us we all share, and why Desmond Tutu’s quote appears on my website and above – “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
People often ask me why I love Central Europe more than any other part of the world. I will explain at the outset, if you’ve never been here it will be hard to understand. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland each exist in their own world of contradictions. They are a crashing point where East meets West in an explosion of pleasures and challenges. At once, they are wild and calm, civilized and primitive, unrefined and cultured, indifferent and passionate, extreme and mild.
Exploring the great cities of Central Europe is one of the rich adventures of a life lived fully. One can shop in the finest stores on earth, and within a block buy cheap vodka from an un-airconditioned neighborhood store. Tourists’ cameras are constantly aimed at some of the most beautiful and historic architecture in the world, often standing meters from endless Stalin-era apartment buildings, laundry drying on every balcony, which often house the same families to which the Communist gave the apartment 60 years ago. You can hear virtually every language spoken as you wander but don’t have to search far for a pensioner who has never left Budapest or Bratislava.
For anyone who loves adventure, there are few places on earth that compare. The memories one can accrue, if willing, are ones that will last for generations. As I stood near Budapest’s majestic Chain Bridge last Saturday night, the most modern and expensive sports cars zooming by en route to chic clubs and restaurants, I couldn’t help but feel the east slamming into the west in a feast for my senses. Another memory for life.