One-minute Masterclass by Steve McCurry

Two days ago, the art publisher Phaidon started to publish a series of video interviews with Steve McCurry, in which he explains in one-minute installments practical details of his personal approach to photography. In the first clip, he speaks about how it is important to take a few moments to talk to the people that you are intending to photograph, to establish a personal relationship with them before you shoot their portrait. This is not self-evident for street photographers, who are regularly debating whether it is better to “shoot first and then ask questions” – so to say – since approaching their subjects destroys the “decisive moment”. I personally feel that McCurry is right and that I will try harder to get into contact with my subjects. However, I find this is easier in non-Western cultures, where photographers are still not seen as an intrusive element, whereas in Western Europe it is much harder to break the shell of people’s personal space for virtually everything, not to mention candid photography.

 

 

In the second installment, McCurry makes the point that it is a good idea to knock on people’s doors and ask whether it is possible to photograph, say, a cityscape from their rooftops. This is in fact an enlargement of his first point, in that he argues that it is better to make it clear what one does, and to engage those around oneself in the act of photography. I think it depends a lot on personality of the photographer whether s/he would do this, but I definitely it can be more rewarding to establish a relationship rather than shoot and run. In “War Photographer“, James Nachtwey is shown taking pictures of a family that lives between railway lines (I think it was in the Philippines) because they could not even afford the simples roof over their head in the slum next to the railway line. He greeted the family, spoke to them, worked with them, and was able to take pictures of a closeness that street photography only rarely can convey, due to the inherent distance between photographer and subject.

 

 

Today’s video interview with McCurry is about something different. He tells us about how it is important to “be in the moment” when photographing, whether in conflict zones or urban settings. He argues that it is impossible to do this when shooting with someone else, as one looses concentration and the connection to the setting in which one finds oneself when one is not alone, and I can only but agree with this. I have gone out two or three times photographing with others, and it has never worked for me. As my family can attest – as soon as I have a camera in front of my face, I am not with them anymore. The immediate environment suddenly becomes the only thing that is relevant, in relationship to the act of photographing it.

 

 

In the rear-view mirror, a journey (part 3)

Of course reality hit us as we headed home to Vienna and saw all the boxes.  We wanted to renovate our city loft before we moved in, but hey ho. We pulled up our sleeves and started to sand, paint, oil and clean. The kids went off to camp for two weeks to help them prepare for school; a programme consisting of early mornings, followed by four hours of maths and German, then horse-riding or rafting, finally homework. A boon for parents.

The kids’ new school is quite interesting. The school is a normal state secondary school but offers a sort of bilingual IB (International Baccalaureate) in modern languages. In most of the lessons there are two teachers, one an English native speaker, and they take it in turn to teach the lesson. How the heck this works we do not know but it was voted the best school in Austria a few years ago. The kids are settling in quite well and managing in German, better than we hoped.

In fact it is Georgina who has the most problems adapting to the Austrian system, lamenting the lack of school teams, choirs and facilities. We both don’t understand the odd lessons in the afternoon, up to four hours after school finished. But they do have hot lunches and a supervised homework club –  now that is nice after Rygaards, the school Maddie and Tristan attended in Hellerup.

After our two-year office sabbatical in Lyngby at the edge of forests, fields, and all forms of water, we realise that we are meant for the city. We love eating out, busy parks, nightlife. We like trams and grand piazzas.  Our loft is near the centre and we have been taking work breaks in street cafés, or tap away on our laptops in the shade of vine trees at our local restaurant. We have been out more in the last two weeks than in the two years before. We came to the painful realisation that we cannot settle in a non-wine producing country with very hard water and so far from the action – so Denmark had to go. Still, we do perceive Vienna differently now.

After Copenhagen we find the city here a bit rough, dirty and positively Eastern European. We miss Scandinavia’s elegant simplicity of dress and style; the perfectly wrapped scarf, razor sharp design, homely hygge (google it. too hard to explain) and municipal neatness. Their national furnishing tones: white, light blue, sand and dove grey are stained on our memory. We have good feelings for Denmark and life in the North.

The life plan is now for Georgina to go back to work in January after she completes her dissertation, while Alex will probably continue consulting (one of the reasons we moved back is that 80% of his clients are Vienna-based). We will finish our flat and perhaps look for a new real estate project. We thought we would miss the dimensions of our previous homes, but in fact we love our unusual loft. There is so much noise from the balconies and streets that we feel part of an urban theatre. The balcony opposite ours frequently sports a set of teenage daughters gauging their singing talent by chanting the latest X-factor stuff in the middle of the night.

Our neighbourhood has also become somewhat more diversified. The families and pensioners in Fortunvænget have been replaced with fin de siècle architecture, grand avenue promenades, coffee bars and pastries, and galleries and theatres and palatial museums. Just next door, there are some of the most peculiar outlets one could imagine: the bandagist, the bristle specialist, the House of Foam, shops selling only juggling equipment or inflatable artifacts… you name it. Further afield, there are, of course, the thermal spas, forest hikes and river tours, not to mention skiing, skating and magical Christmas markets and Heurige.

In summary, we can say that there is a lot to be said about living in the North, we just can’t think about anything right now. Oh no, not true: we will always remember the long Sundays Alex spent mowing our indomitable lawn, the walks in Dyrehavn during which we had very very close encounters with wild deers, then  got lost and had to take 4 1/2 detours to get home, the cycle rides through the forest to the beach, where even in winter people strip naked to dive into holes in the ice.

All in all, it was a blast, but a quiet one.

Signed,

Georgina, Alex, Madelene and Tristan

In the rear-view mirror, a journey (part 2)

Once we finally had everything under control, and discarded all our keys (to the dismay of the owners), we were free to travel again. This time, we decided to head south to continue the rest of our Baltic Sea tour. Earlier in the year, we had spent a few weeks in the North, which is to say: the Northern North, as in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Madelene and Tristan loved this trip, although we packed in a lot, figuring it would be unlikely that we will pass this way again (although we are already planning to make attempts to try). They were whizzed through national museums, civil war exhibitions, German occupation installations, Soviet heirlooms, cultural institutions, art galleries, guided tours and any number of design shops. On the other hand, they were paid off with visits to aquariums, model villages and fun park rides; but by then they were so wiped out that Tristan actually managed to fall asleep on the last leg in Legoland.

When we finally managed to cross the Danish-German border (no controls though, yet), the trip along the coastline turned out to be quite a serene one. The little known islands in the North Sea are gorgeous with wandering sand dunes, mile-long beaches dotted with wicker beach seats. The reed-topped houses and winding rose hedges are straight off the postcard. In contrast to the Danish islands, they have been pimped up for rich northerners who cruise through the narrow streets in cabriolets with sunglasses pushed up and sweaters artfully knotted across their shoulders. You could be in Chelsea – or Skagen, or Martha’s Vineyard!  One of our friends called it “munchkin land”, for its somewhat twee but endearing mini-houses with low entrances – apparently to force the entering person to bow inadvertently before the Danish King/Queen – and the ubiquitous overgrown stone-walls. Alex’s mum is buried here, so we returned to the church with the whale shaped door-handles.  She is in a lovely spot.

On the mainland you get the real Schleswig-Holstein and step somewhat back in time. This is where Alex had his teenage years and we met up with his old school pals to hang out on the grassy bank watching the tide flood in over the muddy washes, an ecosystem of some sort protected by UNESCO it seems. We ate thick meaty herring sandwiches, washed down with malty fresh beers. We flew kites. The clear Baltic Sea on the other side seems like a lake in comparison. So close to the border, they have Danish schools there and Danish language TV and the house we visited had typical Scandinavian long white floorboards, designer furniture and silver birches in the garden. Think about that: Danish beauty with German prices.

 

In the rear-view mirror, a journey

Our last day in Lyngby, Denmark, was spent with friends, as it should be. It was also spent with the emergency people from 112 (999 for UK readers), which was rather unexpected. Having cleared out the house the week before, we had decided to hold an ultra minimalist farewell party, with many (but not too many, on account of the lack of glasses) of our friends from the North.

It was an eclectic evening, punctuated by laughter and general merriment, until it was interrupted by vivid screaming and sirens – one of the guest’s children had dislocated her shoulder on the patio. Her father was so shocked that we were tempted to send him to hospital as well, but in the end we could cure him with the remaining vodka. All in all, it was a warm and memorable night.

On the next day, we were in such a hurry to leave our abode for the last two years that we threw all our keys into the mailbox, including the one for the mailbox. But then, this was only the last installment of a great move. Great, as in great misery. We call it poncily the transportus horribilis. 

We are pro house-movers by now, having gone from place for more than ten years, so it came as a bit of a shock that even our rather untrained Iranian moving company was miles ahead in terms of quality of the German team we had hired; or rather, the subcontractor of the subcontractor whose umbrella company had sent us such a tempting and professional offer.

The three guys that arrived came one and a half days late, smelling distinctly of a ferry lounge bar. They had no common language, no sense of direction or urgency, were unspoiled by rational thought or professionalism, and had not prepared for anything: no money, no working phones, no food, and no idea about time management. They did one, and only one thing properly: stock up our compilation of anecdotes, but that big time.

They didn’t label a single box. This would have been useless anyway since their cartons already carried useful notes from two previous families, which meant that we found items for “cellar” (we don’t have one) happily joining those for “children” (we do have some, but they don’t own adult tool sets or blenders). They had no idea – none! – why screws should be held together with the cupboards they initially belonged to. They said encouraging things like: ‘Madam, it looks like we don’t have enough space in the truck, why don’t we just take your expensive things and leave the cheap ones here.’ They were simply mind-boggling.

This set-back triggered a maddening chain reaction on all our other planning; including Alex having to fly to Austria before the movers ever arrived in Denmark, to open the door to our new place for these brutes as they had not organised storage as we requested. In consequence, Georgina and the children had to pack until darkness set in – it was July, after all, so that means at least midnight in Denmark – while the blokes huffed and puffed and pushed books by the armload from shelves into oversized boxes meant to transport bedding.