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Mineral bath structure, village of Zhelyaznitsa, vicinity of Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 with +1.4x tele-converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Further to “Past Glory,” a weblog entry from 2014, the photos above and below show the present states of two mineral bath structures in the vicinity of Sofia, Bulgaria.

Above:

A rough-hewn stone structure set at a hillside mineral water source a few kilometers outside of the village of Zhelyaznitsa at the foot of Mt. Vitosha, not far from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The structure contains two bath chambers, one derelict and the second functioning. In an unabashedly Balkan manner, the functioning chamber remains the province of men; the derelict chamber, in principle, is reserved for women.

Below:

The ornate former entranceway to the abandoned bathing pavilion at Gorna Banya, a one-time spa resort just outside of Sofia.  Today, Gorna Banya is a quiet residential village but in the first decades of the 20th-century, it was sufficiently popular as a resort and suburban residential locale to merit being the terminus of one of Sofia’s first electric trolley-bus routes.  In the early years of the last century, Gorna Banya had the added panache of being the site of Bulgaria’s military cavalry school and later, less romantically, of an armored tank battalion.

As to the style of the entranceway, if the decision was left to me, I’d label it “Balkan-Neo-Secessionist-Neo-Ottoman” — a combination of the characteristic styles of two vanished empires but built of a  Balkan provincial mix of brick, plaster, and ceramic roof tiles.  Any other suggestions as to stylistic labels, or any information about the history and prospects of the bath pavilion and its surroundings, are most welcome.

While the bath pavilion molders, a couple of hundred meters away from it, on the other side of the village green, a nondescript commercial structure is being converted into an impromptu gambling casino, a usage, it seems, still  in accord with the developmental ethos and preferences of Sofia’s private sector and decision-makers .

Abandoned mineral bath pavillion, village of Gorna Banya, outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria. 2016. Canon G10. Click on image to enlarge.

Former entranceway, abandoned mineral bath pavilion, village of Gorna Banya, outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria. 2016. Canon G10. Click on image to enlarge.

Garden of the Seminary of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Lozenets quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late April, 2015. Fuji X100 with -1.4 wide angle converter. Click to Enlarge.

Garden of the Seminary of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Lozenets quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late-April, 2015. Fuji X100 with -1.4 wide angle converter. Click to Enlarge.

In a recent series of posts about Sofia, Bulgaria, I focused on the present-day appearances of the exteriors of Soviet-era, brutalist-style, prefabricated concrete-panel apartments block complexes built in the 1970s and 1980s, and on implications thereof re: issues of public and private space and of the nature of infrastructure.  However, Sofia is more than mere concrete.

Urban paradoxes

Sofia is a paradoxical city. Over the last century-and-a-quarter its population has grown by a factor of 100, from less that 20,000 to almost two million.  It is one of Europe’s most compact and densely populated cities — a potential advantage in terms of energy efficiency and non-automotive mobility, if and when properly capitalized upon.  Not least, Sofia is also one of Europe’s greenest cities — in terms of its tree-lined streets and unusually high ration of green-space to built-space.  Expansive parks, heavily-wooded and well-manicured, anchor the north, south, east, and west cardinal points of the city. Smaller parks dot the its and a greenbelt circumscribes its periphery.

Sofia’s parks were cornerstone features of a city plan drawn-up off-site in Berlin by the Nazi German architect Adolf Müssmann during the years of Bulgaria’s venal 1930s/1940s alliance with Hitler’s Germany.  The plan, by the way, was so foreign to the nature of Sofia and so imbued with Hitler’s visions for Berlin that it alienated Sofia’s otherwise quite pro-German municipal authorities and was in large part ignored.  After World War II, dedication to park space were the only elements of Müssmann’s concept that the newly-installed Communist regime retained in Sofia’s first post-war city plan drawn up in 1948. In the decades since the fall of Communism in 1989, shady property and real estate development deals have eaten away at the edges of Sofia’s once-ample green-space.  More recently, however, the green-space that remains appears, year by year, to be better and better maintained and more fully utilized.

Cultic gardens

Pictured above and below are two of Sofia’s smaller parks.  Both are the creations of religious traditions that emerged from the late-nineteenth scramble to create, shape, and give legitimacy to a Bulgarian national identity and to create new, vernacular-language, and supposedly indigenous spiritual spaces as alternatives to the once-ubiquitous power of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in what is now Bulgaria.

Seminary …

In the photo above: The garden of the Theological Seminary of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The autocephalic Bulgarian church was reconstituted in 1870 by a firman (writ) of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in part as a concession to Bulgarian aspirations for political, cultural, religious, and linguistic autonomy.

The clerical buildings in the background of the photo tell a story of their own.  They were designed is what is retrospectively called the “Bulgarian National Style” — actually an  eclectic amalgam of Moorish Revival, Secessionist, neo-Baroque ,Jugendstil, and supposedly neo-Byzantine elements characteristic of the work of Friedrich Grünanger, an Austrian-Hungarian architect who spent the bulk of his career in Sofia and who designed a number of the city’s iconic structures including, in addition to the Seminary, the city’s central bath house and what is now Sofia’s one remaining synagogue.

The supposedly neo-Byzantine elements that gave  facades of Grünanger’s edifices their ostensible “Bulgarian National” character are horizontal courses of glazed-tile-work meant to simulate horizontal courses of brick interspersed between and cushioning courses of stone, a structural and decorative feature that was actually a signature, not of Byzantine architecture. but of the architecture of the Ottoman Turks, the non-Christian, “foreign” tradition that the Bulgarian National Style was meant to supplant and to obliterate from memory.

Grave of a mystic …

In the photo below: The carefully tended garden surrounding the grave of the late-19th/early-20th-century Bulgarian religious syncretist and mystic visionary, Peter Deunov.  Deunov, a son of one of the first clerics of the reconstituted Bulgarian Orthodox Church, studied at a Methodist seminary in the United States but, following his return to Bulgaria did not enter the ministry.  Instead, he founded a nature-oriented spiritual movement of his own, one that remains active and vibrant to the present day.  Deunov’s journey from belief to belief was not atypical of the experimental searching for new religious and political identities characteristic of urban Bulgarians of his generation. Izgrev (tr. “The Dawn”), the suburban neighborhood surrounding the garden, was founded as a colony by Deunov and his disciples in the early decades of the twentieth century.  The Deunov garden is one of the lushest, well kept, and peaceful green spots in Sofia — this the result of the voluntarism and sense of community of those who maintain it. May it remain that way.

Garden of the followers of Deunov, Izgrev quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late April, 2015. Fuji X100 with -1.4 wide angle converter. Click to Enlarge.

Garden of the followers of syncretic mystic Peter Deunov, Izgrev quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late-April, 2015.  At the center, Deunov’s grave. Fuji X100 with -1.4 wide angle converter. Click to Enlarge.

Kurtuluş, Istanbul, 2013. Fuji X100. Click to enlarge.

Kurtuluş, Istanbul, 2013. Fuji X100. Click to enlarge.

In the midst of unseasonably cold and gray weather, an image from a springtime past: greenery bursting forth from concrete, and laundry emerging from houses, along a backstreet and stairway on the rise from the valley of Dolapdere to the ridge-top neighborhood of Kurtuluş — long ago known by its Greek name, Tatavla, and once the realm people of modest means from Istanbul’s traditional “minorities:” Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. (The Greeks were forced out a half-century ago; many Armenians and some Jews remain.) The bay-windowed house in the center appears to be a surviving traditional-style Ottoman-era family residence subdivided into apartments and with its original wooden facade covered by layers of plaster.  The children standing in the foreground and seated mid-distance are quite likely Kurds, recent arrivals to the backstreets of Kurtuluş from the east of Anatolia.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Mondrian meets Dorian Gray: Patterns of neo-liberal disregard

The photos above and below not only capture the accidental Mondrian-like effect of relegation of the maintenance of building envelopes to individual tenants, they also reveal a Dorian-Gray’s-like picture of the inefficiencies of neo-liberalism and the cumulative effects of decades of rising economic inequality and shirking of collective investment in an important component of the infrastructure that enables and sustains us.

Thoughts on infrastructure in general and building exteriors in particularly:

Infrastructure has been a recurring theme throughout the twists and turns of my eclectic work-life: Subway transportation,* the third city water tunnel, and green infrastructure in my native New York; airports, harbors, and inter-modal transportation nodes in the Netherlands; telecommunications and “smart” workplaces in Western and Central Europe; monitoring of infrastructure projects in the broader European context; and the history of infrastructure in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire.

A broad view …

My view of infrastructure is a broad, social-democratic one; a take that does not limit infrastructure to the usual narrow scope of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. but that zooms out to include educational processes and facilities, health care delivery systems, the urban natural environment, and public housing — in other words, all that is critical to human activity and survival and implementation of which is beyond the reach of individual users and the efficacy of for-profit “entrepreneurial” activity (i.e. the so-called “market”) and outside of simple models of enterprise-based accountancy.

Envelope as infrastructure …

Building exteriors are infrastructure. The upgrading and maintenance of the legacy built environment are not just matters of patch-work attempts to achieve  individual comfort and moderately lower energy bills.  Attention to building envelopes is crucial to effective energy conservation society-wide, the slowing of climate change, and the reducing of dependencies on profit- and politically-motivated energy producers.  As a side effect, it removes the visible stigmata of who can and cannot afford to insulate their dwellings.

Societal glue …

Across-the-board attention to building exteriors provides societal glue.  The inefficient patchwork of apartment by apartment insulation is a sign of societal failure and ideologically-motivated narrowing of the responsibilities of governments, communities, and even tenants’ councils. In Eastern Europe, it is a visible sign of the abandonment of “we” in accordance with the cynical dictum of Margaret Thatcher and her like that “… there is no society.”  Worldwide, we now foot the bill for such idiocy.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Success …

The mass construction of panel-block housing in the former Soviet bloc was a strategy for creating low-cost housing during the post-war period of massive migration to cities, constraints in housing stock, and minimal availability of resources.  The aesthetic merits of such housing might remain open to debate but among the the practical result in Sofia, for example, was that by the final years of the communist period more than 80% of the population was housed in dwellings to which they had clear title of ownership, a major achievement by any account.

And failure …

The design and implementation of panel-block buildings was achieved according to a short-sighted logic that has been unsustainable for decades.  On the positive side, the panel bloc approach cut costs through standardization and modular prefabrication.  On the negative side, however, it gave no attention to insulation, heat retention, or cooling through shading.  The period of mass construction of panel block housing in Sofia was congruent with a period of nuclear power and nominal charges for electricity consumption.  Thus, if rooms were cold, one simply plugged in a few electric convection heaters.  And, if enough heat was not retained, one simply turned up the heaters up another notch and run them longer.  As to improving insulation: One could always cover one’s single-glazed windows with sheets of newspaper.

A remedy unlikely to effect a cure …

I do not follow news from Bulgaria closely  but in a conversation last week I heard that one-by-one private insulation of individual apartments recently has been made illegal.  Also, it seems, there are now European-financed programs for the insulation and renovation of apartment building exteriors.  But, as always, there’s is a rub, things turn out not to be so simple.  To qualify for European-financing, buildings must first be organized as legal entities, this requiring the assent of each and every apartment title-holder.  Also, residents must contribute a portion of total costs. Not least, the organization of such requires good-will towards one’s neighbors and familiarity with the law, as well as a degree of experience with navigating official channels.  A single hold-out or contrarian can block the process.  Thus, available funds flow more readily to smaller buildings with fewer and more prosperous and educated residents, rather than to  higher-need towering apartment blocks with scores upon scores of apartments in the lower-income neighborhoods of the city.  For the moment, thus, it is uncertain whether the remedy is likely to effect a cure.

________

Note:

* Specifically, subsidized, affordable subway fares as a means for ensuring work-forces and customers to the private sector, for maintaining well-trafficked streets, and drawing the city’s ethnically and economically diverse population out of their homes and into cultural institutions.  Coincidentally, a similar argument was recently advanced by infrastructure advocate and scholar Alex Marshall.  Marshall’s excellent book The Surprising Design of Market Economies contains a passage about the social nature of infrastructure that may (or may not) have had its origin in an approach to the definition infrastructure that I shared with him during a conversation at the Regional Plan Association in New York in 2010.

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Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Photographic footnote: The wrong tools for the job

On the basis of the photos above, absolutely nobody — me included! — would ever confuse me with the likes of, say, Andreas Gursky!  Indeed, the photos above were taken with the wrong tools in the wrong way and then processed in a manner no less inappropriate.  I’ll explain …

First, each of the photos was taken hand-held rather that tripod-mounted, a self-deceiving arrogance when working with strong verticals and horizontals and when confronted with a large two-dimensional object to be positioned parallel to the film- (or sensor-) plane.  Second, the photos were taken from ground-level with the camera pointed upwards rather than from a neighboring building at a height roughly to half the height of the subject.

The result? An amalgam of vertical and horizontal distortions (keystoning, pitch, yaw, etc.) beyond the reach of the correctional powers of image processing software, especially when working within the small confines of a laptop screen. In Lightroom, for example, one can easily correct for vertical distortion and rotate an image, but add horizontal adjustments plus some compensation for barrel or pincushion distortion to the mix and the shapes within an image begin to contort and vertical and horizontal lines to squiggle — and this atop the irregularities and lack of true verticals and horizontals in the subject itself, in the case of panel block buildings the results of attention to speed rather than precision during construction combined with the effects of gravity and the elements as the years pass.

So, for now, I’ll view the images above as “studies” and next time will head out with my tripod, my old folding field camera fitted with a lens and film back, or with my ever older combination of a legacy Nikon analogue body and perspective-correcting shift lens. In the meanwhile, my excuses.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

 

More Accidental Aesthetics of Insulation

Above and below: Further to my last post, three more images of the accidental aesthetics of the downward relegation of building-envelope maintenance and insulation of legacy structures — one of the major pressure points for achieving heat and energy conservation in the built environment worldwide — from national  governments to regional authorities, to municipalities, to tenants’ councils and cooperatives, and, in the end, to (“the-buck-stops-here!”) those individual residents with the cash or credit to insulate the external walls of their apartments on their own.  The serendipity of the visual outcomes belies the inefficiency and absurdity of apartment-by-apartment solutions to what is a serious energy conservation, environmental, and quality-of-life issue worldwide.

Murals: For Whom and Why?

In my last post, I asked any and all who happened to stumble onto this site to share with me whatever they might know about about who were responsible for the giant murals that have appeared on, among other large surfaces in Sofia, the formerly-bare lateral walls of Soviet-era concrete panel block apartment buildings in several neighborhoods.  I received two responses:

The first was an email from Sofia green-architect, urban activist, and restorer of traditional wood-fired baking ovens, Martin Mikush. Martin pointed me to this 20-minute video on the work of one group of muralists. The video is beautifully shot and carefully tracks the entire mural-painting process — from initial sketches, to scaffold building, to the masterful painting itself —  but all this becomes overwhelmed by repetitive interspersed vignettes interspersed portraying the self-styled “hipness” and narcissistic “campy” antics of the artists themselves.  Only in a couple of cases of lovely murals portraying themes from nature, do the artists share and explain their intents and  searches for subject matter.  For the rest, the video seems a self-congratulatory celebration of the artists’ cultivated hipness.  The film says nothing about the residents of the buildings and neighborhoods that provide them with their canvases — neither about residents’ approval of, participation in, nor reactions to the artists’ seemingly well-funded efforts.  Indeed, much of the video appears to have been shot in off-hours when the streets are uncharacteristically empty and void of the usual streams of passersby.  The only public reaction to the murals included in the video are a few enthusiastic words from a parked taxi driver. In the end, the video is more self-promotional than documentary.

Apparently the video, the website on which it appears, and the mural project itself were funded by an “NGO” (a so-called “non-governmental organization”) in this case one funded by Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, of all places.  One of the ironies in Eastern Europe in the more than quarter-century the collapse of the old Soviet Union and its client governments is that many functions and responsibilities have devolved from governments to non-governmental organizations that are in no ways grass-roots but, rather, are funded by foreign governments with their own values and agendas, and conceived and run by locals having a sufficient strong witch’s-brew of competence, nerve, connections, personal agendas, and knack for self-promotion to apply for and win such grants.

Each time I walk past the murals that I’ve posted photos of on this site, I wonder whether provisions were made to insulate walls before murals were applied. I also try to imagine what the walls on which the murals are painted will look like next year or after five years or ten.  Will the visual fields of neighborhood residents be confronted with expanses of sadly-peeling paint and the faded remains of images that were once novel but that long since have become tiresome? Have the donors and artists made provisions for maintaining the murals or periodically painting them, either with a fresh coat of paint to allow eyes to rest or with the works of other artists?  Or, after all the fun, publicity, and  self-congratulatory back-patting, will the artists have moved on to new opportunities for self-expression and career-building and the donors to larger budgets and new disbursements, thus leaving residents of buildings and neighborhoods involved with the tattered legacies of the no-longer-timely visions of others?  I’ll write more about this if/when answers emerge.  Again, any and all hints, links, and contrary opinions are welcome.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Internets Celebrities to the Rescue

It shouldn’t have surprised me that another part of the (to me) puzzle of the provenance of the Sofia murals was cleared-up in a flash by a comment posted from New York by Rafi Kam.  Rafi pointed out three apartment block murals indeed had been vetted and approved by local authorities. He also sent links to sites that reveal the provenance of murals portrayed in each of the three photos I’ve posted.  The girl holding the mystery gift is by the internationally active Polish street-art duo Etam Cru. The smoker and the urban creature are by a Bulgarian artist, Bozko.

At the moment, in a bit of longer-form writing plus photographic documentation I am trying to place such murals in the context of evolving concepts of public space and divisions of public and private realms in Sofia and elsewhere. I wonder if the towering projections of the subjective visions of Etam Cru and Bozko divorce residents from their surroundings or unite them in a sense of shared ownership. Another, power-related, issue lurks in the background: the neighborhood in which the murals are painted was for long one of Sofia’s lower income and poorly maintained quarters.  Do the building murals add value to the lives of the residents or do they represent a sort of artistic colonialism and appropriation of space by the culturally empowered?  I’m not yet sure which.

Rafi Kam, by the way, together with Dallas Penn, is the on-camera side of the urban culture gadfly team Internets Celebrities (slogan: “kicking truth to the online youth”). By the way, that’s indeed internets in the plural, this out of homage to a celebrated malapropism by a master of malapropism, George Bush.  Among the Internets Celebrities’ many  works is the short video Bronx Bodega, a hilarious but very much to the point tour of the once emblematic  Puerto Rican and Domican bodega corner grocery stores of New York City’s poorer neighborhoods, neighborhoods under-served by food retailers and by everything else for that matter.  I always recommend Bronx Bodega as an essential part of the canon of urbanism, and as a slyly humorous work of comic improvisation as well.

A Virtual Plate of Chicharron

The Internets Celebrities now ride through cyberspace and the NYC subways in their latest avatars as the Food Warriors.  In addition to the coincidence of Rafi holding the answer to the provenance of murals in Sofia, here’s a second, culinary, coincidence proving that not only do great minds think alike but that great gourmands binge alike and great New Yorkers explore alike.  My very first click on the Food Warriors’ website brought me to their recent account of a visit to La Reina del Chicharron in Washington Heights, a place that has many times caused me to salivate while walking past and that I regret never entered.  Thanks, thus, Food Warriors, for the virtual dreamed-of but never tasted meal!

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Mural, housing block, Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 with +1.4 lens adaptor. Click on image to enlarge.

Further to a previous entry on the presence (and, to me, mystery) of a spate of apartment-building-height murals, psychedelic in style and puzzling in content, in the adjacent Sofia neighborhoods of Poduyane and Hadji Dimitar, I’ve posted a photo of a third such mural above.

I’ve selected the photo not just for its bizarreness and whimsicality nor for the issues it raises as to the ownership and aesthetics of the public realm.  Rather, a close examination of the building on which the mural is painted summarizes a full set of urban issues which I have been researching, conceptualizing, and visually portraying over the past months and into which — ideas for grant support, anyone?!? — I intend to delve further in the time to come.

Specifically, note the balconies on the right-hand face of the building, some open as per their original design and others closed-in to expand private space.  Balconies, as I hope to explain in subsequent posts, are interstices between public and private space, and Sofia is a city of balconies. How balconies are, or are not, used reveals much about the history of and changes in social and politic environments and individual responses thereto.

Also note the monochrome, but vaguely Mondriaan-like, effect on the walls of the building in the photo above, an effect more pronounced in the photo that I’ve added below. The question of why such buildings have been insulated apartment-by-apartment rather than building-by-building, and what this tells us about societies and governments, is one that I have also been examining and visually documenting of late.  Although the aesthetic effect of uncoordinated action by apartment owners on their own relieves monotony and adds color to the public realm, devolution to the individual apartment owners is the most inefficient and inequitable means of preserving public health and comfort and of cutting heat-loss through building envelops, possibly the most weighty contributor to energy consumption/inefficiency in the built environment.  Hopefully, more on this as well.

Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/ +1.4 lens adaptor. The uncoordinated color schemes of privately insulated apartments on the facade lends an accidental Mondriaan-like counterpoint to the neo-psychedelica of the mural on the lateral face of the building.

Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/ +1.4 lens adaptor. The uncoordinated color schemes of private insulated apartments on the facade lends an accidental Mondriaan-like counterpoint to the neo-psychedelica of the mural on the building’s lateral face.

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Roma blacksmith, Stoliponovo quarter, Plovdiv (Filibe), Bulgaria, 1997. Nikon F3, 35mm f2.0 lens, b/w negative, scan of print. Click on image to enlarge.

Friday was International Roma Day, the annual celebration of the survival of the Romani (Gypsy) people and the commemoration of the Europe-wide persecution and mass murder of Roma by the Germans and their fellows during the Second World War.

In honor of my Roma friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, and of Roma throughout Europe, I’ve posted the photo above.  The choice of the photo is intentional.  The face and tools of the subject show energy, openness, pride, and mastery of craft.  But, on another level, the photo tells a darker tale.  In Eastern Europe, Roma are still relegated fringes of society.  Spatial segregation, exile to the urban edge, and segregated schools block mobility.  The need for traditional crafts and labor as once practiced by Roma declined to near naught over the past half-century as tool-wielding and agricultural village economies faded and the age of mass-produced and disposable goods arose.  Entree to successive waves of “new economies” — precision manufacturing, financial, service,  high-tech, etc. — has been barred to Roma by the vicious circle of educational and residential apartheid compounded by the outspoken racism that is still run-of-the-mill in the ideologically mono-ethnic “new democracies” of Eastern Europe — including Bulgaria, where I took the photo above a full twenty years ago and write these words today.

No reason to be too bleak however, Roma work hard, improvise as best they can, and try to enjoy life in the process.  So, even if it is a couple of days too late, why join me in a rousing chorus of the Romani anthem, Djelem, Djelem (English-language translation of lyrics, here).

 

Mural, warehouse, Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x tele converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Mural, warehouse, Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x tele converter. Click on image to enlarge.

I have no nostalgia for the 1960’s. I was not a hippy. I liked jazz and R&B; indeed, white rock music seemed to work counter to my biorhythms. I was into the labor, civil rights, and antiwar movements and couldn’t comprehend psychedelica.  I looked and felt ridiculous in bell-bottomed,”hip-hugger” trousers and “love-beads,” and — alas! — I didn’t “ball” at Woodstock.  The rise of graffiti in the 1970’s also left me cold.  For many of us native to the “inner city,” the proliferation of graffiti was an added degradation and a upsetting sign of social atomization and the break-up of consensus, an aggressive imposition without consent onto the visual fields of the many by the out-sized and aggressive egos of a few, and a notice of abandonment by those outsized-ly enfranchised, economically and politically, and at a safe remove from urban grit.

Nevertheless, I smile at the murals portrayed in the photos above and below, two among several that have appeared recently in the working-class quarter of Poduyane in Sofia, Bulgaria.  The murals add a touch of brightness, whimsicality, and edge — I just hope that they were done with the participation and consent of neighborhood residents!*  Not least, the murals pose at least one iconographic improvement:  A few years ago, the only apartment-block-height “artwork” adorning building exteriors in Poduyane and the neighboring quarter of Hadji Dimitar were giant banners silk-screened with the smug, scowling face of the pint-sized leader of Ataka, Bulgaria’s  disturbingly popular antisemitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-Muslim, neo-fascist political party. Give me psychedelica any day!

* If any of you who happen upon this site know something about who did the murals and/or how they were conceived, approved, implemented, and received, please get in touch.

Mural, apartment block, Podyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x wide-angle converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Mural, apartment block, Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x wide-angle converter. Click on image to enlarge.

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.

Local residents, fishing village, Sunda Strait, Western Java, mid-1970s, 35mm b/w neg, scan of print. Click to enlarge.

Further to my recent post on eye contact in photography, two photos taken two decades apart on opposite halves of the globe …

Java to Brooklyn

During the second half of the 1970s, while working from the Netherlands for a large international engineering company, I spent repeated months-long stretches in Indonesia documenting oil- and gas-related construction projects, organizing participation in technical conferences, liaising with government agencies, and using my seeming abilities to “go native” and step into the worlds of others to build mutual understanding and confidence and help to win project contracts without resorting to the flagrant corruption that was the calling-card of Western business at the time and that plagued Indonesia in the Suharto era.  When I had weekends free, I joined Indonesian colleagues in escaping the noise and congestion of Jakarta.  In those days, camera-bearing foreigners were few and far between in non-touristic locales in rural Indonesia and a word of a sincere smile and word of greeting and on the part of an outsider brought very hearty responses in return.

Two decades later, in the mid-1990s, I spent a few years based in my native New York.  At the time, American clients and employers were underwhelmed, and even condescendingly contemptuous, towards work experience gained abroad, a reaction seemingly cut from the same cloth as present-day America’s counter-factual preoccupation with denigrating the economic, social, and technical achievements of the European Union.  And so, between work assignments and research projects abroad, I temporarily stepped back into the world that had shaped me in the first place —  the pre-service-sector, pre-financial-sector New York of small, low-overhead businesses and of heavy physical work, skilled and unskilled — a nostalgic retreat that would be impossible in the face of the high-rent, high-cost-of-living, low-chances-for-mobility economy of present-day New York.

The woman in the photo that follows had just arrived in America and was about to enter the bottom rungs of laboring New York and care full-time for an elderly couple lost in the fogs of Alzheimer’s.  An unusually heavy blizzard provided her with her first view of and outing into snow. Indeed, the snow blanketing the great lawn of Prospect Park was so ample and so pristine as to even attract cross-country skiers, one of whom can be seen in the background just to the left of the subject.

Brazilian immigrant encountering first snow fall, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, winter 1995-1996, 35mm b/w negative. Click to enlarge.

Two ways to focus

The fastest way to focus?  Well in advance!  The photo of the woman in the park was taken with a camera that I miss tremendously: A Minox 35, a tiny 35mm camera, not much taller or thicker, but appropriately wider, than a film cassette and resembling a black plastic, small-scale reproduction of a Zeisss Ikonta, fold-out lens and all.  The Minox had an excellent 35mm-focal-length optics and a very accurate aperture-priority metering system, but it offered absolutely no optical focusing aids of any sort, neither split-image nor matte-glass.  One focused the Minox by estimate, setting the perceived camera-to-subject distance on the numeric scale on the lens barrel or using the depth-of-field scale to match aperture to hyper-focal distance.  The benefits: An uncluttered viewfinder and absolutely no focusing or shutter lag, focus having been set prior to lifting the camera to one’s eye.  As to the two ways to focus? One could chose to estimate and set the distance in feet … or in meters!

Two fallible cameras

The downside of the Minox 35 was its delicacy. I went through three in a decade and a half.  The metering system failed in one, the shutter in another, and a light leak and faulty film advance mechanism crippled a third.  Even less robust, however, was the camera with which I photographed the Javanese villagers, the first iteration of the Olympus OM-1, a camera that was not up to the rigors of the heat and humidity of Indonesia.  Within weeks of purchase, the rubber focus grips on the barrels of the Olympus’s lenses (35, 50, and 100mm, as per the classic combination of the time) had come loose and the lens elements of each were obscured by a proliferation of fungus — this quite unlike the medium-format Mamiya and 35mm Canon and Nikon equipment that I’d before and after.

Two worthy links

In my recent post on eye contact (linked to above), I weighed the balance between eye contact drawing out subjects and prompting them to manifest themselves vs. manipulating and overwhelming them with the presence and persona of the photographer.

Last week, I witnessed the transcendence of this dichotomy in an exhibition at Gallery Photosynthesis in Sofia, Bulgaria of near-life-size prints of magnificent, technically-masterful, full-length portraits taken by Bulgarian (Plovdivian/”Filibelı“) photographer Sonya Stankove.

Sonya Stankova took the photos in the late-1980s/early-1990s.  At the time, the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Stankova was working in a photo studio in her native city of Plovdiv, where hundreds of queued each day to have their photos taken for  passports required to leave Bulgaria in search of opportunities, real and fantasized, abroad.  Every now and then, when a customer struck Stankova’s fancy, she asked if she could take a second photo for her own collection.  She would then slide a fresh full-frame sheet of film into the large-format wooden view-camera the studio ordinarily used for passport-sized photos, engage the subject, and squeeze the shutter release bulb, keeping the lens open for an amount of time estimated by intuition.  The resulting photos captured the individuality of the subjects and, displayed together, provide a documentary view into the place and time they were taken.

To close, I (figuratively) zoom-out further to consider the ultimate question underlying photography in the digital age, via a link to the eclectic weblog of “The Online Photographer,” master-printer Michael Johnston. The subject: “Why take more photographs at all?”