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Cliffs and Sea, western coast of the Black Sea near the village of Kamen Bryag, northeast Bulgaria, late-1990s.  Rolleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5, scan of print.

Cliffs and Sea, western coast of the Black Sea near the village of Kamen Bryag, northeast Bulgaria, late-1990s. Rolleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5, scan of print.

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.

Detail of outbuilding, village of Kamen Bryag, northeast Bulgaria, late-1990s. Rolleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5, scan of print.

Detail of agricultural outbuilding, its walls built of local stone and its dwarfed height and pitched roof a homage to strong winds and harsh winters. Village of Kamen Bryag, northeast Bulgaria, late-1990s; Rolleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5, scan of print.

 

 

 

Gravestone, Vinohrady Cemetary, Prague, 1999. Roleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5. Cick on image to enlarge.

Gravestone, Vinohrady Cemetary, Prague, Autumn, 1998. Roleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5. Digital scan of black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

In the late 1990s, work on a series of projects for Dutch and Czech national telephone companies took me regularly to Prague. My workdays were long and pressured but, evenings and weekends, while many of my expatriate colleagues drank beer, I took to the streets of Prague with camera, light-meter, film, and tripod.

The Emotions of the Living; the Passivity of the Dead

The photo above, taken in the immense cemetery in the late-19th/early-20th century residential quarter of Vinohrady, portrays a gravestone tableau of life-s emotionized figures that reveals the ways that those in the comfort and safety of the home-front consciously or unconsciously sanitized, rationalized, and ennobled the senseless carnage of World War I.  At the upper left of the tableau, a stylized two-dimensional Jugendstil angel leads a fallen officer away to another realm.  At the right, the officer’s pleading, grieving mother is restrained and comforted by no less a person than Kaiser Franz Josef I himself.  The focus is more on the emotions of the living than on the sad fate of dead.  The soldier, who no doubt died in agony, is portrayed as physically intact and unmarked by his miserable end.  The Kaiser is is portrayed as fatherly and gentle.  The only emotion to be seen is in the griefcontorted face of the mother.  The entire ensemble portrays a social structure and value system that would collapse by war’s end, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell victim to military defeat from without and economic collapse and nationalist demands for ethnic geopolitical autonomy from within.

Guns of August/Books of August

This month is the one hundredth anniversary of the tense and, in retrospect, gruesomely euphoric weeks of mobilization prior to the outbreak of World War I, the weeks that Barbara Tuchman documented in her now-classic book, The Guns of August.  This month been a stiflingly hot one in southeast Europe, and the high temperatures led me to restrict my movement, limit my work, and increase my reading.  By seeming chance, I turned to books portraying life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or by writers marked by the sensibilities of the Empire or by its implosion and aftermath.

I began with Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity and Post Office Girl and continued with Joseph Roth’s proud and moving portrayal of the westward migration of Eastern European Jews, The Wandering Jews, followed by his epic novels Radetzky March and The Emporer’s Tomb and his Kafkaesque Hotel Savoy.  I then turned to The Burning of the World, the newly published early-World War I memoir by the minor Hungarian artist Bela Zambary-Moldovan.  I am now in the middle of Martin Pollack’s German-language Kaiser von Amerika: Die große Flucht aus Galizien, a book that strips away sentimental idealizations of the lives of Jews and Christians in the the poorest and eastern-most province of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and shines that light on the economic manipulation that empoverished Galizia and on the deliberate exploitation that characterized the emigration “industry” of the time.

The Wandering Jews, The Emperor’s Tomb, The Burning of the World, and Kaiser von Amerika touched me particularly close to home.  Three of my four  grandparents were Galizian Jews who arrived in New York in the decades prior to World War I.  The Emporer’s Tomb gives ample attention to the wartime lives and travails of Galizian Jews and Christians.  The battles and wartime devastation described by Zambary-Moldovan took place in and between Rawa Ruska, Hroniec Zdroy, and Lubaczow (towns straddling the present-day border of Poland and Ukraine) the very area from which my maternal grandfather hailed and where his parents, brothers, and sisters somehow survived the carnage of World War I only to be murdered by Germans and their local helpers a quarter century later.

Afterthought: For more on the theme of wartime devastation of civilian life, see another title in my August reading list,  The Gallery, by John Horne Burns, a thinly fictionalized eye-witness indictment of the callousness of the American occupation of Naples during the final years of World War II, an antidote to sentimental tear-jerking pap about America’s World War II soldiers being “the greatest generation” and to  exultation of the volunteer soldiers of “The War on Terror” as “warriors” and “heroes.”

Congregants, Congregationalist Church, Meriçleri, Bulgaria, 2004.  Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, scan of 400ASA black/white negative.

The Last Generation of Congregants, Congregationalist Church, Meriçleri, Bulgarian Thrace, 2004. Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, digital scan of a 400ASA black/white negative.

In all likelihood, I’ll never stage nor capture a photographic moment as important or memorable as Art Kane’s  “Great Day in Harlem.”  On an afternoon in 1958, Kane assembled several score of the founding and emerging masters of jazz, plus a dozen or so young passersby, on the stoop and sidewalk fronting a tenement on East 126th Street in New York’s Harlem.  The photo was published in Esquire Magazine and became a legend in its own right.

A “Great Day” of My Own

The closest I’ve ever come to a “great day” shot was one cold winter afternoon in the small town of Meriçleri alongside the eponymous Meriç River (Maritsa in Bulgarian) in Bulgarian Thrace.  The subjects in my photo: The aging parishioners of the local Congregationalist Church.  The occasion: A misunderstanding.

A decade ago, I was working part-time, on behalf of an obscure commission of the US Congress, implementing a survey of religious and secular monuments associated with the histories of several minority groups within the boundaries of what is now Bulgaria, amongst them Protestant Christians.  As part thereof, I tracked down and visited every single Protestant church in Bulgaria built between the 1860’s and the late 1940’s — the church in Meriçleri included.

A Congregationalist pastor in Sofia had called in advance to Meriçleri to arrange to have the church open for me to inspect.  Due to a bad phone connection the request came through garbled. Instead, the local contact called fellow church members to announce that a visiting pastor from America was coming to deliver a sermon.  Elderly congregants took put down their work, donned their provincial Sunday best, and turned out in force to greet me, a quite secular non-Christian.  Amongst the outcomes was the group photo above, taken on the steps of the church building.

“Reading” the Photo

The church  and congregants portrayed in the photo point to a complex tale of nation-, identity-, and community-building during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and the first years of its successor states, Bulgaria and modern Turkey included. They also point to a more obscure but no less interesting story: the symbiosis of aims and actions between American Protestant missionaries and the schemings of US foreign policy more than a century ago. But I’ll save both of these tales for another time and another context.

For now, I’ll end with a cautionary photographic confession …

Step Forward First; Focus Second!

I took the photo above late in the afternoon on a dark, rainy day.  To maintain a sufficiently fast shutter speed, I set the aperture of the camera’s taking lens in the near-open range, thus compromising depth-of-field — a poor choice considering the multi-layered subject matter.  After focusing on the row of people closest to the camera, for some now forgotten reason I took a step or two forward to recompose but forgot to re-focus.  As a result, the plane of focus shifted rear-wards, leaving the front-most subjects slightly fuzzy.

Regardless, a decade after its taking, the photo still touches me and still seems to manifest the solid presence and stance of the final generation of guardians of a once-vibrant, now-forgotten Balkan community.  Perhaps, thus, there is more to photography than sharpness alone.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

In a late-day moment of exuberance — or might it have been desperation? — a teen-aged street vendor of shmattes (forgive me the Yiddish-ism) suddenly punctuates his sales shpiel by tossing part of his stock of clothing into the air.  I caught the moment while working with a manually focusing twin-lens Rolleiflex and a handheld light meter — no mean feat if I might say so myself.

I took the photo almost 15 years ago.  Where is the the street vendor today?  I have no idea, although another generation of vendors still line the narrow street running behind the Misr Çarş (Egyptian Spice Market) in Eminönü, Istanbul.  I do know, however, where his photo can be seen: Large  prints thereof hang on the walls of (my only two!) “collectors” (close friends, actually) in Istanbul, one, in Çukurcuma,  a talented emerging cinematographer, and the other, in Kuzguncuk, a corporate executive with an uncanny eye for photographic composition and emotionality.  Both of these friends also share a visceral feeling for the pressures, uncertainties, and seeming absurdities of commerce at the street level.  Both also know that — in our age of urban gentrification, rising income disparities, and hegemony of “big-box” retailing — the roles and presences of urban street vendors and the people they serve are being made increasingly marginal and becoming fated to near or full extinction.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge over the Golden Horn, Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge spanning the waters of the Golden Horn; Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film. Click on image to enlarge.

The development of a metro line connecting Taksim Square and the northern reaches of Istanbul with the new rail terminus at Yenikapı along the Sea of Marmara changes the perception of distance and proximity and the flows, and and promises to shift the inner maps and trajectories of millions of commuters and visitors to Istanbul.  The juxtaposition of the new metro line and the neighborhood perched atop it in the photo above reveals another aspect of urban dynamics: the presence of neighborhoods and structures in decline is as essential to the social and economic lives of cities as is the infrastructure that facilitates agglomeration and mobility — in my view, two defining aspects of urban settlements.

The photo above was taken on expired film stock and was poorly developed and not very well scanned.  Nonetheless, it seems to have caught a moment of quiet and unhurried movement in the midst of the rush and activity endemic to Istanbul.  (Note: the spots in the sky at the top of the photo are not dust marks accrued during development and scanning, but the “signature” seagulls that crowd the skies and contribute to the urban cacophony of Istanbul.)

The Mosque of Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa, Istanbul (view towards minber). +/-2000.  The figure at prayer at the lower left and the figure seated at center provide scale. (Rolleiflex Tessar 3.5, 400ASA B/W negative, scan of print). Click on image to enlarge.

The Mosque of Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa, Istanbul (view towards minber). +/-2000. The figure at prayer at the lower left and the figure seated at center provide scale. (Rolleiflex Tessar 3.5, 400ASA B/W negative, scan of print). Click on image to enlarge.

Sometimes, I try to picture the growth of cities and the evolution of architectural styles as short stop-motion films or animations that capture at high-speed centuries of morphological change as unbroken flows rather than as fixed “chapters.”  Envisioning in this manner helps me extrapolate and better understand processes and trends.

Creation of Space

In terms of Islamic architecture (or, more precisely,  three-quarters of a millennium of Ottoman tradition and its immediate predecessors, the facets of Islamic architecture with which I am most familiar) my animated imaginings reveal a striving for larger, more open and unobstructed interior space and, finally, for the transcendence of enclosure itself.  As to how to visual this in terms of design and technique, imagine a transition from flat-roofed or multi-domed structures supported by rows and rows of interior columns and/or piers to dome-on-cube structures made larger and larger in footprint, height, and volume by the addition of cornices, intermediate drums, and half- and quarter-domes to support central domes of greater and greater diameter, and to distribute their weight further and further outwards and downwards.  At the same time, imagine interiors becoming more and more open, with supporting columns and piers banished first to the sides of structures and later integrated into interior and exterior walls.  Finally, imagine walls themselves being perforated and made gossamer by rows upon rows of windows.  The total effect: an illusion of the elimination of enclosure — of architecture itself, thus — and a metaphorical return to the original Muslim place of prayer, the open-air courtyard in the home of the prophet and founder of Islam.

A Floor-Level View

The photo above shows a late example of an open and soaring interior and walls made lace-like by fenestration: the Mosque of Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa (1734) in the Haseki quarter of Istanbul.

The photo was taken with a Rolleiflex Tessar 75mm f3.5 mounted on a small pocket tripod with ball-head.  At the time, I was experimenting with the use of normal focal-length rather that ultra-wide angle lenses to capture interior space.  The challenge thereof was to select and portray a “slice” of interior that would conjure up the entire space; the benefit was the preservation of natural perspective.  The use of a pocket tripod not only made me less obtrusive but also enabled portrayal of the mosque from near-floor level, the height from which the mosque is viewed at during prayer.  Many years ago, a well-known European scholar of Ottoman history and architecture (Machiel Kiel) taught me the value of viewing mosque interiors as they were meant to be viewed, i.e. leisurely and contemplatively while sitting cross-legged on carpeted floors.

The late Dimo Kolarov playing accordion for the last time, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1996. Reflected in the mirror, Georgi "Johnny" Penkov. Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, 400ASA b/w negative film pushed to 800ASA, scan of print. Click to enlarge

The late Dimo Kolarov playing accordion for the last time, Sofia, Bulgaria, Winter,1996-7. Reflected in the mirror, Georgi “Johnny” Penkov. Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, 400ASA b/w negative film pushed to 800ASA, scan of print. Click to enlarge

Seventeen years ago, I joined Georgi “Johnny” Penkov (Bulgarian acoustical scientist, filmmaker, and locally renowned pundit and humorist) in a project that we abandoned on its second day.  Our goal was to photograph people who worked, lived, and felt at home in the midst of seeming chaos.  I write “seeming,” because some environments that at first glance appear chaotic are actually elegantly and systematically mapped and navigated by those who create and live their lives therein.   Indeed, that which is random and illogical to one person to another might be ready-to-hand and brightly illuminated, whether by intent or the personal logic of individual psychopathology.

Johnny and I were well qualified for the project.  Johnny has a life-long propensity for balancing his innate engineer-like precision by including in his surroundings a continuously refreshed assortment of chaotic acquaintances.  As to me: although I am skilled at generating crystal-clear work output, I am equally adept at generating chaos in my wake.  (On a less whimsical note, I am also a long-time student of the intentionality of thought and behavior as forces in shaping urban agglomerations, infrastructural systems, and the amassing and application of personal and collective knowledge).

Samples of the output of Johnny’s and my barely-begun project are posted herein: A single snapshot of a disordered worktable at a Bulgarian acoustical engineering institute (see below) and a portrait (above) of the late Bulgarian cinema cameraman Dimo Kolarov at home playing his beloved accordion.  Dimo’s apartment was as neat as a pin but some of its walls were ever-changing collages of newspaper clippings, photographs, and reproductions of art works torn from magazines and books, each pasted next to and atop one another in no immediately perceivable order.  Sadly, the day after we visited him, Dimo fell victim to a stroke and slipped into a coma from which he never emerged. He died several days later.  Out of respect for Dimo, Johnny and I stopped the project.

Work bench, acoustical institute, Sofia, Bulgaria, winter, 1996-7. (Nikon F3, Nokkor 35mm f2.0, 400ASA B/W neg film pushed to 800ASA, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Work bench, acoustical institute, Sofia, Bulgaria, winter, 1996-7. (Nikon F3, Nokkor 35mm f2.0, 400ASA B/W neg film pushed to 800ASA, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Biproduct: The symmetry of friendship

Some weeks ago, Bulgarian documentary filmmaker Svetoslav Draganov asked me for copy of my portrait of Dimo.  Braving my way through my own chaos, I located a small print amidst my disordered stacks of photos, negatives, and transparencies.  Together with the photo, I found others that I’d taken the same day but had forgot about in the intervening years.  In the photos (below), Johnny and Dimo, colleagues and friends for decades, are talking intently, each slipping into poses and gestures mirroring those of the other.  A physical manifestation of friendship, shared experience, and mutual regard; or simply an elegant, symmetrical embodiment of coincidence?

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Photographic footnotes:  Chaotic lighting …

How did I light the scenes portrays?  Simple: Soft ambient daylight shining through translucent window curtains augmented by a motley assortment of borrowed non-photographic lamps and spotlights, each arbitrarily placed but purposefully aimed ceiling-wards.

And a worthwhile upcoming exhibition

For two weeks beginning January 16th, the Goethe Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria will host an exhibition by photographer Simon “Moni” Varsano, a brilliant and charismatic photographer with the ability to draw out his subjects and capture the movement of theater and dance.  After the collapse of communism in Bulgaria, some of photographers, like others, attempted to make capital out of promoting themselves to western embassies and foundations using spurious, self-spun tales of past suppression and dissidence.  Moni, however, never flaunted his own truly courageous deeds but simply continued photographing, producing memorable work and conjuring delicate, medium-format quality out of a beat-up 35mm Pentax, whatever film stock was to be had, and his mastery of ambient light and exposure.  Later, when many photographers in Sofia competed in a stereotypically Balkan fashion to promote themselves as “the best,” Moni confidently and openly shared his knowledge and encouraged others, this writer included, in improving their work and fulfilling their potentials.  I have much to thank him for, thus, and wish him success with the upcoming exhibition.  Visitors to Sofia are also advised to visit the Gradska Galleriya to see the current retrospective of beautifully printed bold photographic portraits by the technically masterful Bulgarian duo Bogdanov and Misirkov.

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