Moved

The Oxford dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination. . .producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” If it is in fact measured by its beauty or emotional power, I had the opportunity to “live” art to its extreme earlier this week.

On Monday evening, I sat in the Church of Mother of God before Tyn in the Old Town Square of Prague and listened to a live performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Construction of the church, which is one of the most visited and photographed of Prague’s many architectural masterpieces, was begun in the 14th Century. Hundreds of years later in 1791, Mozart wrote his famous Requiem. To witness both forms of art together was a magical experience of beauty and emotional power words cannot describe. I can only share the thought which circulated in my mind and soul as I listened and looked.

As I sat allowing the music, late Gothic architecture and gilded sculptures to pierce every part of my soul, I marveled that humans created them. My mind imagined what Mozart had been thinking while composing the beautiful mass. I wondered what had inspired the architects and sculptors as they built the monument to God in the 1300s. I could not escape the thought, the undeniable reality, that something much bigger and greater than themselves had produced such artistic ability and mastery.

For those who believe man does not exist for any great reason, or who think we evolved from a single cell, I challenge you to witness art at its most intense extremes, as I did this week. If you do, I believe you’ll agree only a Divine Power can produce such music, such art, or a human, such as myself, who can be so moved by them.

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Simply . . .

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.”

Morning News

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.”

 

 

 

 

Unchained

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.

Limitless

My heart is warm with the friends I make,

And better friends I’ll not be knowing,

Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,

No matter where it’s going.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

What is it about trains?  When an author, poet or screenwriter wants to make us feel an  indescribable yet tangible emotion, they need simply pen the word “train.”   Just typing it floods my mind with memories of my youth and dreams of adventures yet to come.  The mere utterance of the word or sound of one passing evokes both a childish excitement and a melancholy longing for the past which coexist in a way only those who love trains can understand.

Trains have always held a romantic place in my memory, starting in my youth as our dad would put my brother, our mom, and me on the Southern Crescent to visit our grandmother in Mississippi.  I can still see the conductor leaning out the door in his formal Southern uniform and cap yelling “all aboard for Tuscaloosa!” The smell of the diesel engine mixed with the fresh air of the South that attacked our senses as we ventured from car to car is etched in my memory.  The vastness and uniqueness of the land I will always love first appeared to me through the rectangular windows of the Crescent as strangers around me became friends.

I’ve traveled millions of miles on airplanes.  I’ve undoubtedly logged hundreds of thousands of miles in cars, many while trying to get lost on country roads where I may stumble across a subject to photograph.  Why am I not moved by those events the same way I am traveling on trains?  I find it fascinating the mode of transportation that cannot turn left or right, is bound by steel, and must deliver us from A to B along the same route each time, is the one that leads our minds to dream most?  I have no answer.  The late photographer Diane Arbus said, “A picture is a secret about a secret; the more it tells you, the less you know.”  Perhaps our fascination with trains are like photographs.

If anyone needs me this week, I’ll be in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Budapest, Hungary.  I’m taking the train.

 

Hidden Treasure

The late photographer, Dorathea Lange once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.”  As I wander the streets of Prague with or without mine, I try to see.  I think my camera has taught me to do it better, particularly when it’s not with me.  It’s easy to miss some of the treasures that hide throughout a city filled with so many landmarks, historic buildings, and beautiful landscapes.  I have made it my goal to find them all.

One of the things I love most about living here is that travel around the city can be slower and more deliberate.  I ride the tram.  And I look.  I walk a lot.  And I see.  It always amazes me how slowing down opens my eyes to things I’d have otherwise missed.  So often in the world these days we tend to rush from one thing to the next, with the “one” or “next”- work, school, theater, the game – defining our existence.  Life in Prague reminds me that it is often the things between “one” and “next” that make it special and valuable – conversations, discoveries, smells, sounds.  I frequently forget the “one” and “next,” but the little secretes and hidden treasures stay with me forever.

The statue above sits inside a small courtyard, just meters from Charles Bridge.  Tens of thousands of tourists walk by it every day on their way to see the bridge or from another tourist attraction.  Few, if any, have ever stopped to notice it.  The day I noticed and photographed her, I wasn’t on my way to anything.  I hadn’t come from anywhere.  I was just there, slowing looking, deliberately living.  What a nice secret to discover.

Life of a City

What defines a city?  Is it the architecture, landscape or history?  Or is it the people who live there; the descendants of prior residents and others who immigrated there for some reason or another?  As those who have seen my previous posts know, I’ve spent a significant amount of my time in Prague looking for her beautiful landscapes, buildings, and sites to reveal themselves to me in special ways.  While I love doing that, it is getting to know, even if just for a moment, her residents that truly enriches my life.   There is something revealing in talking to someone who has not only lived in, but actually “lived” a city.  I find that only through connecting with them can I really start to understand a place.

When I travel to new cities, I frequently visit flea markets.  I don’t go there for the trinkets or treasures, but for the people who want or need to sell pieces of their history.  I’ve found there is almost always a story to be told in their faces.  Last weekend, I wandered around the Kolbenova Flea Market in Prague.  It was the last day the market would ever open in that location, so it felt somewhat special.  At over 50,000 square meters, it was one of the largest such markets in Europe.  In my endeavor to find interesting subjects to photograph, it did not disappoint.

Someone once said, “There is an eternal humanity that crosses through all people, and it’s often more interesting when it’s about struggle – not about people with champagne glasses.”  I believe this to be true.  My life is always enriched when I take the time to meet and talk to people, and particularly when they are among the “lesser” class.  For me, they are the greater and higher class, because they exude humanity.  So many people today follow and are fascinated by those with “champagne glasses.”  For me, real humanity is found within those who have less.  As I wandered, I talked to numerous sellers in the market.  Because many were from an older generation, most still spoke or understood Russian.  The ones who didn’t and I still managed to communicate through hand signals and a special language that seems to exist between seller and buyer in the remote markets of the world.  In each instance, after getting to know each other, my new friends agreed to be photographed.  Most even posed for me.  The great photographer Sebastiao Salgado said that a subject must give you a portrait, you cannot take it.  I was honored when these interesting men gave me theirs.

Each time I stop to meet someone new, especially those who others ignore, I find that my life becomes infinitely more meaningful, if only for a moment.  I always walk away asking what life lessons are being imparted through these brief encounters.  If I’ve learned anything, it is that often the simplest are the greatest, the poorest are the wealthiest, and the least count most.