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To tourists at least, the city of Amsterdam is best known for its historic urban core of 17th- and 18th-century townhouses set along a grid of concentric and radial, tree-lined canals, and for its supposed openness and tolerance, its red-light district and easy availability of drugs.

Stereotypic legends of the population of Amsterdam’s inner city are no less the stuff of guidebook hyperbole: free-spirited hippies and revolutionaries, rough-and-tumble but lovable Dutch proletarians, sardonic barflies, and Jewish market workers, cigar makers, and diamond-cutters.  In reality, however, 90% of Amsterdam’s Jews were murdered during the Second World War; the inner city’s Dutch proletariat out-migrated to suburban new towns during the post-war decades; sardonic barflies yielded way to “cool” cafe-goers; and counter-cultural “Provos” of the 1960s were replaced by heroin addicts, urban “pioneers,” and, ultimately, by well-off gentrifiers.

My own favorite neighborhoods of Amsterdam were far from the historic center and closer to the urban edge.  Late in the 19th century, the municipality of Amsterdam began a process of urban renewal and clearance of overcrowded slums.  First, new tenement neighborhoods were constructed, modern in terms of the time, and parks and green-spaces were laid out.  Then, during the early decades of the twentieth century, housing estates and apartment buildings were built farther afield, many financed and constructed by cooperative movements formed on the basis of political affiliation, labor union membership, and/or religious confession.  The signature architectural style of the such cooperative housing was Dutch Expressionism, aka the Amsterdam School, a style that featured rounded corners and curved lines, garden-gnome-like sculptural ornamentation, hints of Jugendstil and Bauhaus, cream-colored brick facades rather than the traditional Dutch dark-red, and windows that were tiny in comparison with those of older townhouses.

The center of Amsterdam embodies nostalgia for a mythologized Dutch “Golden Age” but the apartment buildings and cooperative housing complexes of early-twentieth-century neighborhoods such as Amsterdam-South represent a forward-looking vision and a socio-political dream: a commitment to social and economic equality and the development and perfection of the individual, this animated by a spirit of cooperation, and shaped and nurtured by a built environment designed with that very purpose in mind.  I wonder from afar whether today, a century after the development of Amsterdam-South and in the wake of waves of demographic change, decades of post-war prosperity, and the transformation of housing from social infrastructure to commercial commodity, anything of this ethos survives or is even remembered in the streets in which it once flourished.

The Photographs

At the top of the page: the dedicatory inscription at a corner of an apartment block in the early-1920s socialist cooperative housing complex De Dageraad (The Dawn). (For excellent architectural photos of the complex, see the entry for De Dageraad in the Dutch-language Wikipedia.) Below: An early-20th-century municipal sculpture alongside the Amstel river.  Both photos taken during the early-1980s on color positive film using a Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar twin-lens reflex.

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Further to my previous post on the Dutch seat of government, the city of The Hague, a visual footnote:

In the 1970s and 1980s, the old downtown core of The Hague was in limbo. 17th- and 18th-century townhouses were neglected and underutilized, providing low-cost space for marginal and low-overhead businesses that had not yet fled to more modern, automobile-friendly quarters in newer high-rise neighborhoods and industrial terrains; fledgling restaurants geared to the cuisine and tastes of new immigrants, Turkish and Chinese mostly; “red-light”-related enterprises; drug “culture;” and dwellings up for squatting.  Still, the characteristic tone of the The Hague prevailed.  In the photo above: a stark window display embodied The Hague’s no-nonsense approach to commerce, its contents stacked precariously and its sans-serif letter-press signage true to the spareness of the city’s aesthetics. In the photo below: the wryness of the city’s understated sense of humor comes to the fore in a cartoonish, delightfully innocent-looking, street mural portrait of — of all people — American LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary, with random defacement and senseless graffiti further augmenting its whimsicality.

Both photos were taken on 120-size diapositive (slide) roll-film using a Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar medium-format twin-lens reflex camera.

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S’Gravenhage, Den Haag, The Hague: Three names for a single Dutch city, the seat of government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, set behind the sand dunes of the North Sea coast.  I lived and worked in The Hague more decades ago than I care to admit to, and for long enough to have observed the city over the course of a generation.

The Hague stood out from its better know neighbors, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, in its seeming ordinariness.  Unlike Rotterdam, The Hague did not possess a busy deep water harbor nor exaggerated memories of hard-working stevedores, and was left relatively unscathed by bombing during World War II.  Unlike Amsterdam, The Hague was neither a commercial nor  manufacturing center, nor a center of learning, nor a wellspring of labor activism and progressiveness, and it also lacked Amsterdam’s contrived, self-promoted cachet for openness and the avant-garde.

In the years I knew it, The Hague was a city of government ministers and bureaucrats, high and low, of the military and of aged ex-colonials.  The Hague was the base of Royal Dutch Shell and its far-flung petroleum and petrochemical empire, and of the myriad engineering firms that catered to it.  It was home to a middle-class that managed its service sector and to a working class, Dutch and immigrant, that did the heavy lifting and filled repetitive entry-level jobs.

On the surface at least, The Hague was outwardly conservative, staid and quiet, its streets deserted after nightfall.  Socially and economically, The Hague was near-Byzantine in its stratification, its residents segmented and corralled according to finely-drawn class distinctions that defined one’s place and prerogatives: the neighborhood in which one lived, the accent with which one spoke, the way one dressed and combed one’s hair, and the education and work paths and prospects that were open to one or barred.

Still, The Hague had a poetry of its own.  It was a city of greenery and of parks in which the salted scent of the nearby North Sea was ever-present.  In  summer sunlight and the grayness of winter, the sky over The Hague seemed to hover low enough to touch.  The city’s eerie near-silence in off-hours revealed subtle sounds:  the occasional rhythmic slaps of shoe soles on sidewalks, the soft whoosh and rattle of bicycle  tires on rain-soaked brick-paved streets, the distant metallic grind of street-car wheels against  tracks, and the calls of ever-present seagulls.

Calvinist city to the core, The Hague was uniform in outward appearance and minimal in its decoration. Its fashions embodied a preference for a subdued, intentionally near-dowdy, elegance.  Architecturally, The Hague was a city of red brick, repetitive patterns, ornamental restraint, and subtle emblems of class — a sparseness that I’ve come to appreciate in hindsight.

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The photos above were taken in the late-1970s or early-80s on medium-format color transparency film, using a Yashica Mat 124G or a Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5 (I forget which) both of which were equipped with  fixed 75mm lenses that gave a tad more of a wide-angle view than the 80mm focal length usually considered visually “normal” in perspective for 6x6cm photographs. (Photographing architecture in 6×6 format has always been a delightful challenge, as was the requirement for absolute precision in measuring and setting exposures when using transparency film.)

The image at the very top shows how even the defining flamboyance of turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau was toned down and tamed to fit the conservatism of The Hague, and rendered subordinate to the city’s traditional red brick exteriors and Neo-Baroque  gabled facades.

The second image portrays a row of late-nineteenth-century town houses built for the upper-middle-class wealth, a study in uniformity and announcement of status.  At the time the photo was taken, many of these buildings had been subdivided into single-story apartments or rooming houses.  I assume they have been gentrified and reinstated as single-family dwellings in the decades since.

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One summer, a little over twenty years ago, I took to wandering the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria late in the evenings, with a medium-format camera and a light-meter slung over one shoulder and a heavy tripod balanced on the other. At the time, I was entranced by the interplay between strong artificial streetlight and the textures of well-worn building facades and the way it registered on high-contrast black/white film pushed a stop or two beyond its rated sensitivity.

Among my favorite subjects, then as in recent years: balconies.  As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, Sofia was and still is a city of balconies: wrought iron, wooden, concrete, and plaster.  Two decades ago, however, just as today, most of Sofia’s balconies appeared empty, even on springtime and summer evenings.  Life had turned inward, so it seemed, and had yet to reemerge.  The social function of balconies as an interstice between the private and  public realms had ceased, with nobody observing public life from balconies nor conducting  their private lives in view of  neighbors or passersby.  Instead, a sharp, albeit invisible, dichotomy arose between public and private and indoors and out.

The source of this dichotomy is by no means a mystery. Factors include a rise of urban anomie in general, a search for privacy and an over-reaction against the pressures and intrusions of the public realm during the communist period, and the absence of social cohesion and trust in the time since.  The replacement of physical interaction and neighborhood connections by internet-based social networks also plays a part, as does the out-dated confusion of gated isolation with status.  For an in-depth examination, both of the history of Sofia and matters of public vs. private space in general, I recommend urbanist Sonia Hirt’s excellent book, Iron Curtains: Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space in the Post-socialist City, which I have been savoring chapter-by-chapter over the past year.

Spolia, Seljuk Mausoleum, environs of Eskişehir, Turkey, 1997. Scan of print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex T Tessar f3.5. Click to enlarge.

Spolia embedded in the facade of a Seljuk-era mausoleum, environs of Eskişehir, Turkey, 1997. Scan of print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex T Tessar f3.5. Click to enlarge.

Two examples of spolia, the re-use of architectural building and decorative elements outside of their original contexts.  At its most basic, appropriation and utilization of spolia provided ready sources of materials and a seeming dedication to recycling.  At a deeper level, however, use of spolia usurped and appropriated the might and worth of  rulers, donors, and civilizations who originally built the monuments from which spolia elements were taken, and imbued new structures with added significance.

Hellenistic builders appropriated spolia from ancient monuments in Egypt and the near-east, Romans did the same, Byzantium appropriated spolia from Romans, Greeks, and their predecessors. The Ottoman empire, in turn, harvested spolia from Byzantium and its predecessors.  In Istanbul, for example, free-standing obelisks and columns columns supporting the porticoes of great Sultanic mosques were taken from ancient temples and public buildings throughout the span of lands absorbed by the Ottomans.

Spolia at its most prosaic

The photos above and below portray the appropriation and application of spolia at the smallest of scales and at its most random and utilitarian.  In the image above a pastiche of non-monumental classical elements adds a bit of decorative “pizazz” to the entrance way of an otherwise sparse Seljuk-era mausoleum. ( Whether the spolia elements were emplaced during the original construction of the mausoleum or after-the-fact is beyond my competence to assess.)  In the image below, an inverted Byzantine capital is re-purposed to serve as the base for a garden-variety, hand-powered water-pump, itself re-purposed as a spout — an unintentional symbol of the triumph of the needs of small-scale basic craft over Byzantine grandeur (nb. the pump/capital ensemble is set in the courtyard of a Han designed nearly half a millennium ago by the great Ottoman architect Sinan, but occupied over the past century by the no-frills ateliers of independent metal workers).  In both cases, the utility of spolia, and maybe even a drop of pride at its display, trumps any pretense of design.

Liberation from the terror of design

Subjectively, the (non-)aesthetic of such utility and pride in the display of the the recycled resonates deeply for me.  Decades ago, I spent years living and working in the Netherlands, a country in which strict, linear, minimalist design ruled and constrained life in the public and private realms.  Building facades, both legacy and new, were characterized by uniformity of height and materials and by an absolute minimum of decoration.  In the field of graphic design, tiny type-faces and eschewal of serifs ensured that the covers and pages of Dutch publications were geometrically beautiful … but highly unreadable.  For the Dutch, so it seemed, form trumped content and, as often as not, utility as well. During my years in the Netherlands, one of the leading design practices was an Amsterdam firm, Total Design, a name tastelessly similar to “total war,” Germany’s slogan in the final years of World War II for complete commitment of resources to the ruthless and murderous pursuit of victory — an apt, albeit tasteless, metaphor for the compulsory imposition of uniform aesthetic dictates on all aspects of life.

I find the seemingly arbitrary aesthetic of spolia far more compelling.  The combination of random elements taken out of their original contexts transcends uniformity, negates original aesthetic and pragmatic dictates, generates spontaneity, and creates profound (and even humorous!) mergers, not only of materials, surfaces, and patterns, but also of times, spaces, cultures, and intents.  In short, it enables continuous rearrangement and represents a triumph of accretion and serendipity of the imposition of design.

Spolia, inner courtyard, Rüstem Paşa Hanı (aka Kurşunlu Han), Perşembe Pazarı, Istanbul. Print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 2002. Click to enlarge.

Spolia, inner courtyard, Rüstem Paşa Hanı (aka Kurşunlu Han), Perşembe Pazarı, Istanbul. Scan of b/w negative, Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 2002. Click to enlarge.

Paint store workers, Perşembe Pazarı, Galata, Istanbul, 2013; B/W negative; Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8.

Paint stall workers, Perşembe Pazarı (the Thursday Market), Galata, Istanbul, 2013; B/W negative; Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8. Click on image to enlarge.

I have not posted to this site since mid-year 2015.  Conceptually, long-form reading (for research and for its own sake) led me to push short-form writing to the side. On the visual side, malfunctioning of my supposedly trustworthy digital camera, the increasingly complex logistics of purchasing and processing film, and a search for new photographic approaches and subject matter caused me to reconsider the worth of my backlog of images and of the platforms I’ve used for sharing them.  But now, for the moment at least, I’ve decided to pick up the thread …

The connection

The photo above provides continuity to my last post to this site.  The photo was taken in the Perşembe Pazarı (Thursday Market) — the centuries-old (millennia-old, actually!) ships’ chandlers and metal-working market at the mouth of the Golden Horn, on the waterfront of the old Galata neighborhood of Istanbul — in one of the narrow streets just behind the buildings fronting the water at the left of the panaromic photo of the waterfront featured in my last post.  The street in question contains the stalls and enclosed shops of paint merchants, competitors grouped one after the next as per the guild-like arrangements of traditional markets.  The paint merchants test and display custom-mixed colors by dabbing pointillist brush strokes and Jackson-Pollack-like spray bursts onto exposed retaining walls in the increasing number of vacant lots that scar the neighborhood as  developers race to position themselves for the windfalls of inevitable gentrification.  (For a waterfront street-scape taken elsewhere in Perşembe Pazarı click here.)

Eyes to eyes, squints to squints

For years, I have shied away from candid photography, especially (per my lifelong contrived contrariness to fashions of the moment) the recent rage for “street photography.” To me, hidden cameras and surreptitious photographers can too easily cross the line into cowardliness, trickery, and exploitation.  My take is (or maybe was) that achievement of direct eye-contact shows recognition and attentiveness on the part of the photographer towards the person-hood of the subject.  Eye contact enables the subject to manifest him- or herself in a manner either inherent to themselves or to themselves as they wish to be at the moment.  In short, it leads to willful collaboration of subject and photographer.

Objectivity or self-deception?

Recently, I’ve begun to question my stance.  I ask myself how much the achievement of eye-contact and the seduction involved therein are true techniques of environmental portraiture versus how much they might engender projection, surrogate self-portraiture, and/or transcendence of loneliness on the part of the photographer.  More abstractly, I wonder whether whether eye-contact is a means for capturing projection rather than subject?  Or, more banal, how much the search for eye contact is a but a hangover from, and a nostalgia for, the family snapshots of my childhood?

As to what spurred my questioning … several things:

1. The suggestion of Austrian sociologist Marietta Mayrhofer-Deak, a collaborator on a proposed project, that I reread Photography and Sociology, a 1970s essay by Howard Becker, the octogenarian sociologist, one-time jazz musician, and innovator in participant research into “deviant” behaviors, beginning with one of the first detailed participant studies of marijuana-smokers!

2. A second suggestion from Marietta that I re-examine the detached and clinical, but nonetheless telling and powerfully moving, portraiture of August Sander (the full collection of which can seen on the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and

3. My recent perusal of photos of a series of analogue photos of architectural details — balconies, doors, windows, caryatids, stairways — that I took in Sofia, Bulgaria during a winter of political upheaval and economic collapse nineteen years ago.  How much, I now ask myself, did the Sofia series actually portray its inanimate subject matter? How much did my choice of subject matter, viewpoint, and framing actually represent the grim pessimism and insecurity of the society at the time? Or, how much were the photos expressions of my own inner state and preoccupations, independent of subject matter and context?  Did the photos tell larger tales of the objects portrayed, their contexts, and the times, or merely express the narcissism or autism of me, the photographer?

More on this — and a sampling of photographs from the series referred to — in subsequent posts.

(Disclaimer: I have not worked or resided in Istanbul since January, 2015. Since then, I have only returned to Istanbul for a two-week stay during which I did not visit Perşembe Pazarı. Thus, I do not know how much of the market area has been razed since nor have I attended to my usual practice of trying to return to provide the subjects of photos with prints of their own, regardless of intervening time. Anyone more up-to-date on the present state of Perşembe Pazarı is welcome to comment)

Village of Kamen Bryag, 2005. Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 400 ASA C41 process b/w film, scan of print.

Village of Kamen Bryag, 2005. Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 400 ASA C41 process b/w film, scan of print.

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 it were uprooted several years ago.  In their place: a large enclosed restaurant, open in tourist season only, surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds on one side and a towering antenna of a local mobile telephony on another.  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 having 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:

Read More

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.