As a chill, gray autumn begins in Istanbul, I am warmed by recollections of the late-day glow of sunlight on the Black Sea coast at summer’s and of the fish that began to run last month and now run in even greater abundance; fish that pack local market stalls; glistening and oily, strong-tasting fish, their names shouted to passersby by fishmongers — diminutive, mackeral-like istavrit and far tinier anchovy-like hamsi; small,delicately-colored, bluefish-like çinekop, and meaty, sleek-skinned and red-gilled palamut (bonito). I’ll leave it to speakers of Turkish, Bulgarian, and Greek to argue over which languages the etymologies of these names belong to and — of far greater importance — which fish taste better grilled and which fried, which baked and which salted or cured.
The woman in the photograph above arrived at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast during the Second World War during a forced exchange of populations between Bulgaria and Romania. Together with fellow uprooted “ethnic Bulgarians,” she spent weeks on the road, traveling southward from Romania by cart and on foot from the surroundings of Baba Dag — a provincial town named after high nearby ridge, the site of one of five revered cenotaph graves of Sarı Saltık, legendary Balkan spearhead of the Bektaşi order of dervishes.
On arrival in Bulgaria newly “repatriated” expellees from Baba Dag were arbitrarily divided amongst several villages on the Bulgarian side of the border, often without the provision of shelter. In the village of Kamen Bryag, the new arrivals eventually built a new quarter of their own off-grid from the original settlement. In it, they constructed low-slung L-shaped houses, in the fashion of the region, starting with one room and, as needs arose and materials became available, adding additional rooms one by one, “railroad flat style” as it were. Like most villagers, they worked worked the fields by day and, after hours, tended vegetable plots, pigpens, and chicken runs in their courtyards, yielding peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, fresh eggs, and meat for curing.
The courtyard in the photo no longer exists; it and and the vegetable garden next to have been were uprooted several years ago. in their place: a summer-time restaurant surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds and a tall antenna tower of a mobile telephony company resting on a broad concrete footing. The grandmother still lives on the plot, however, and tends the little that remains of her garden. She is in her late-eighties now and, at day’s end, often sits on the raised curb of the newly paved road next to her former farmyard in expectation of passersby — roadside benches of the sort shown in a previous post have been removed or left to crumble.
Photographic footnote … and, following it, a story
The photo above was shot in 6x6cm format on C41 process black/white film, a film sort that yielded magenta-tinted black/white negatives when processed in “drugstore” color film developing machines. The film was fine grained and had a broad exposure latitude, enabling individual shots on a single roll to be taken at different ASA settings, usually within one stop of the rated ASA of 400. I took the photo at a relatively slow shutter-speed, fast enough to enabled to shot to be taken handheld but not fast enough to take into account the sudden turn of the subject’s head. Thus, while the neck and dress of the subject are well in focus, her face is slightly blurred. As a result, I originally rejected the photo but, on examination years later, I felt that the combination of facial expression and setting outweighed any lack of sharpness.
From Ovid to Grandmother
For a long-ago somber treatment of the region of Kamen Bryag, Baba Dag, and surroundings one can flip through the pages of Ovid’s writings during his exile from Rome, Tristia and Ex Ponto (both available in a single file on Archive.Org). For a somewhat humorous view, one can read a story I wrote a decade ago linking the great Roman poet with the grandmother portrayed above — the full text of the story can be found by clicking here or on “Read More,” immediately below:
A road left unpaved in a village in the process of gentrification …
The photo above is one of a several I took last month to supplement a series I shot a decade or so ago in 6x9cm format on black/white negative film using a tripod-mounted technical camera. The subject of the original series: Village roads receding into the horizon on a seaside plateau. The series was shot using small aperture settings so as to achieve maximum depth of focus. The supplemental photos taken this summer were taken with my Fuji X100 fitted with the recently released +1.4x “50mm equivalent” tele-adapter. I took them at an aperture of f5.6, thereby throwing roads sufficiently out of focus to achieve abstraction but maintaining sufficient focus to keep road, vegetation, and farm houses recognizable. I was pleased with the combination of sharpness and soft-focus the X100 plus adapter was able to achieve. Over the next months I hope to scan, post, and print several of the original black/white images.
Decades ago, when the village of Kamen Bryag was still an agricultural settlement, homes looked outwards and, in the hours before twilight, villagers sat on roadside benches to greet and gossip with passersby. Today, as the old agricultural generation dies off and the vacation villas of urbanites take their place, homes look inward and their inhabitants relax and socialize in the privacy of backyards and walled compounds.
Fertile soil, a flat plateau, and a shoreline of steep cliffs shaped Kamen Bryag as an agricultural rather than fishing settlement — this despite its setting only few hundred meters from the edge of the Black Sea. Natives of the village rarely ventured down the steep paths to the seaside, in modern times leaving isolated coves to the whims of summer vacationers.
Geology transcends the ephemera of political borders. The great plain of the Ukraine curls southwestwards, across Moldava, Romania, and into the wheat growing region of the Dobruja in northeast Bulgaria, where it crashes into the Black Sea as per the photo above. From Asia into the Balkans, the plain has been a route of migration for Scythians, Sarmatae, Getae, Slavs, Bulgars, Cumans, Tatars, Kipchaks, and Pechenegs. It has also been a path of northeastern migration for Greeks, Romans, and the Seljuk ancestors of the Turkophone Christian people known as Gagaouze.
Hovering over the Black at the final reaches of the plain is the small windswept agricultural village of Kamen Bryag (Stone Beach), known in Ottoman times as Kayabeyköy (Feif of the Lord/Squire of Stone). Once a village of Bulgarian tenant farmers, its population was augmented in the 1930s by an influx of ethnic-Bulgarians from Romania, force-marched southwards during a population exchange between Bulgaria and Romania, a mutually agreed process of ethnic cleansing and national solidification at the expense of dispossessed peasants and villagers.
In the decades spanning the denouement of the communist period, Kamen Bryag became a summer gathering spot for self-styled bohemians and those seeking alternatives to mass tourism along sandy beaches. Today, as the last of its old villagers die off, Kamen Bryag hosts the summer villas of city folk and a number of small guest houses. Free-roaming goats, cows, geese, chickens, and turkeys no longer pack the streets of Kamen Bryag but, nevertheless, the air remains clean, the village remains quiet, and the local tomatoes, cucumbers, eggs, honey, and homemade grappa remain excellent.
Photographic Footnote …
The rich texture of stone and the crisp definition of clouds in the photo above is a function of accurate metering and the appropriate use of an orange filter — not to forget skilled printing.
Ovcha Kupel, a suburb at the very edge of Sofia, Bulgaria. For centuries, natural mineral water springs made Ovcha Kupel an ideal place for the washing of sheep prior to shearing — and thus its name in Bulgarian. It the late-19th and early-20th centuries, as Bulgarian’s self-consciously attempted to adopt a central-European rather than “oriental” identity, Ovcha Kupel became a spa location and later, as until today, a center for rehabilitation medicine. The old spa pavilion at Ovcha Kupel is derelict and crumbling, an irony as Sofia attempts to market itself as a “European Capital of Culture.” But — and please don’t spread the word too far! — one of “my” places in Sofia is a walled-in plazh (“beach”) adjacent to Ovcha Kupel’s rehabilitation hospital. Behind the wall of the plazh: mineral water showers (five plastic spigots actually), a mineral-water-filled pool big enough for a score of people to paddle and wade in, a “beach” of raked sand somewhat admixed with sin-bleached cigarette-butts and paper scraps, and a shaded lunch counter offering quite passable salads and delightfully cold beer. New York’s Hamptons, the French and Turkish rivieras, and the island archipelagos of Greece are fine for those who can afford them. For now, I settle for Ovcha Kupel.
The photo above was taken with a Canon G10, a camera that I’ve relegated to the shelf but still occasionally blow the dust off of and take for a walk. I still like the color palette that RAW files from the G10 renders but the poor dynamic range of the camera’s tiny sensor cameras can be seen in the blown-out sunlit areas at the right of the photo, which I’ve either enhanced or compromised further through a couple of quick attempts at remedial adjustment in Lightroom.