Out of color

The photos are slowly turning to black and white before my eyes. It’s a cold and windy January. I’ve made it so far.

It’s not until we isolate that we realize how much we depend on the others, and how much we are connected to the rest of life.

Some activities are obviously social simply because we cannot do them on our own. But even apparently individual activities, such as taking a coffee in the neighborhood coffeeshop, or taking a solo daytrip to get away from it all, depend on many others. They depend on employees, public services, infrastructure and, often, on the kindness of strangers.

As there are so many things we used to do and cannot do anymore, I guess it’s a good time to ask ourselves what are the things we could go without.

And what are the things we really need, the ones we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without.

Reflected (Belgian Ardennes, December 2020)
Frozen dead leaves (Forêt de Soignes, early January 2021)
The ghost of the pine forest (Hautes Fagnes, Belgium, December 2020)

A lone tree has fallen

These two photos are separated by more than two years and a half. I’ve taken the first one in the spring of 2019 because I was struck by the image of the lone tree against the moody sky.

It was a cold, humid and moody day. The tree looked like it had been dead for some time. But it stood tall, its branches reaching out for something. Reaching out with no expectation of receiving. The stone wall to the right belongs to a medieval chapel.

I came back in December 2020 and I saw the tree fallen. It hadn’t been cut. It had simply collapsed under its own weight. It fell towards the stone wall, its highest branches reaching over into the chapel courtyard. Its branches are still reaching out, like the human casts of unfortunate citizens of Pompeii, caught by the lava with their hands reaching out for an escape. Just like the first time, it was cold and cloudy.

There is a Romanian folk tale in which the hero goes through all sorts of trials in order to achieve his dream – immortality. When he finally gets back home, victorious from all the battles but jaded and without having achieved his goal, he stumbles upon his own death. The grim reaper had been there all the time, waiting for him – for him and nobody else.

I don’t know why this tree reminded me of this folk tale. Maybe because, in its dry stillness, the tree offered an impression of endurance beyond life, until it collapsed. It projected an image of immortality and it met its own death there, in the field.

“The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber. The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The place beyond the forests

Imagine a place where you feel completely at ease. Where you feel alive. Where you can be yourself – including that part of yourself that you ignored for so long.

Is that place your home? Your back garden? Your secret childhood place by the river? That cozy table in your favorite coffee shop? A remote place deep in the wild?

Each of us may have more than one such place. For me, one of them is hidden somewhere in Transylvania, the place beyond the forests.

“Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water.”

This is how Jonathan, Bram Stoker’s protagonist, describes his voyage through Transylvania as he approaches Count Dracula’s castle.

Stoker’s description sounds flattering, but for me it is painfully clear it’s written by somebody who hasn’t actually been there and does not have any personal connection to the place. It is like a cheap painting of an imagined exotic landscape. Bright colors, clear waters, and snow-capped mountain peaks. Of course, for him the landscape was just a makeshift background for his vampire story.

For me it’s different. It is not a postcard. It’s a permanent mark, a solid ground, a wound, a reason for hope, a concentrated solution of life, bitter-sweet. It’s something I always carry in me.

It’s lying in the sun, listening to the distant sound of the sheep bells as the animals move slowly, eating their way through the high planes.

Taking time among free-range horses, waiting for them to trust me and get closer. Petting their neck and watching the vapour of their breath in the crisp morning air.

Taking a break after a long climb through the dense pine forest, to enjoy the view that suddenly opens in front of me. From up here, I can visually retrace my steps through the wild river valley below me.

Standing at the entrance of a cave, feeling the cold breath of the inside of the mountain. Watching the vapors of the ice-cold river as it disappears into the darkness. This river doesn’t look like much, but it has managed to slowly carve its way through hard rock.

Here at the entrance, facing the darkness of the cave, I feel my heart beating faster. Everything is raw and untamed, like this river being furiously sucked inside the mountain. All my senses are awake and I feel fully alive.

What overwhelms me is not the intensity of emotions, the excitement, the adrenaline. It’s the feeling of being completely present with everything that happens, and accepting it.

It’s like standing in front of my own darkness and finally being able to say that I accept everything as it is.

6 am

I am walking through a patch of wilderness that opens towards the North Sea. I want to get to the seashore before sunrise.

The horizon is intense orange slowly turning into gold. I can hear the sea through the breeze, like a white noise softening every other sound on earth. I’ve scared off a few rabbits on my way. The bushes are full of movement and sound. The sand dunes are full of life.

I move along and I stumble upon a flock of sheep. The sun has barely risen above the horizon and the horizontal light turns the sheep into golden snowballs. It smells of dozens unknown plants and flowers, of sea and of animal life. It smells of all the journeys I could have taken and, for some reason, did not take. Of all the unlived things.

But there’s no sadness or regret here and now. Everything is happening so fast. There’s so much to see, so much to feel.

The sea is really close now. I hear the waves close by. One more dune that I struggle to climb, my feet sinking into the sand. Then, all of a sudden, the horizon punctuated by fortifications from the Second World War. I’ve made it just before sunrise.

People have fought and died here just a few decades ago. They have probably sent a letter to their spouses days or hours before the fight. They have probably shared a cigarette with their mates before the shooting and shelling started. It’s all quiet now.

There’s barely enough light but I see the graffitis on the concrete structure in front of me. One word stands out in the dark, in white paint: resist.

In three hours, the sun will be way up and tourists will start entering the dunes to take shelter from the heat. And mankind will once more be all-present and all-powerful. Gloriously leaving behind it plastic garbage, taking selfies on the fortifications and crushing the delicate blue flowers of the dunes.

Then the tide will come in and wash it all away. Wildlife will hide away and stay silent, waiting for the dark. And life will go on.

Everything is in flow

The small stream is at almost perfect standstill.

There is an imperceptible movement somewhere, the water molecules are rolling downstream in slow motion. But to the naked eye everything seems frozen.

It’s early autumn and the first colorful leaves are slowly gathering on the water. The Great Falling of Leaves has not started yet.

I’ve stopped for a minute to have a drink of water and watch the sun playing its hide-and-seek through the branches.

It’s cool down here. It’s a good place to rest and stay silent.

Panta rhei said a Greek named Heraclitus about 2500 years ago. Everything is in flow.

There are hundreds of books, articles, movies, plays and paintings building on these two words. Panta rhei. You cannot step in the same river twice. Everything changes constantly.

Right here, although there is a small waterfall upstream, the silence and stillness are overwhelming. The water rushes down the waterfall and all of a sudden calms down as it zigzags between the rocks.

I’m sitting there and the stream is still on the outside but is moving through me. And it carries with it all the sorrow, clarity, regret, realisation, depression and hope of the recent past, like leaves on the water.

The seventh sky

So many memories of looking at the sky.

Up on the mountain, lying on my back and catching my breath after hours of hiking. There’s nothing else but that moment of heavy breathing and the clouds passing by. Then the breathing slows down and there’s just light. I lie there between the rocks and I become a rock, a part of the mountain.

Or at nightfall, close to the tent, staring at the Milky Way. The heat from the fire nearby distorts the image, as if playing an old roll of film that’s partially damaged. Fire sparks mingling with the stars. And that feeling of getting swept away into the sky. Falling off the face of the earth.

The seventh sky is where the sun is always shining while down here, on the ground, is miserable.

Looking vs seeing

How often do you look at the sky?

Me, not so often when I’m living my normal city life. But when I’m out hiking and exploring, quite a lot. I look all around me.

We spend a big part of our life looking in front of us. We experience what happens to be happening in front of us. It’s like looking through a keyhole.

Even so, looking is not necessarily seeing. We look through things, we don’t pay attention, we don’t care that much. We see shapes and details but often what we’re really looking at is our problems, desires or expectations.

In some ways, taking photos helps you see more, because it forces you to focus on the essential. In order to do that, you have to identify the essential and render it visible. Neither of these comes by itself.

Identifying the essential is not easy because the essential is not out there. It has to do with the way we interpret the scene and what we want to make out of it. You may be in the most beautiful or interesting places on earth and not come up with anything more than random snapshots. The scene does not speak by itself. It needs purpose. It needs the right framing and idea to guide it.

There’s a world of difference between the scene as we see it and the photo taken. Compositions that make a lot of sense when we’re absorbed in the scene can result in flat, uninteresting or chaotic photos. The camera does not capture emotion, smell, mood, the whole experience of being there. It does not capture our field of vision. It captures photons from whatever direction you point it towards.

Turning this visual mess into something intesting has to do with things such as composition, subject and use of light. Deciding what to include in the frame and, maybe more importantly, what to leave out.

Time

Time is perceived differently at different ages. I remember the endless days of my childhood, the agitation of waiting for something that was just a few hours away but seemed to be forever frozen in the future.

Now I cannot make sense of many days before they’re already gone. I just record their passage. It’s like sleep – you go in and out of it and meanwhile time has passed. Only that it’s not sleep, it’s life. It’s what should have been life but has been replaced by schedules, meetings, worries, urgencies, fatigue, anxiety. And some sunshine in between.

How do you convey a sense of time in photography?

Of course, you can show a wrinkled face. The frailty of old age. A building in ruin. An abandoned park. You can put side by side photos of the same scene in different moments of the day or year. You can capture change by working with longer exposures or intentional camera movement. Or, on the contrary, you can freeze movement with short exposures, capturing expressions or gestures that would have been otherwise lost in that micro-fraction of a second.

You can work in black and white, desaturate colors or otherwise manipulate the color space in order to evoke the past. Or you can simply evoke a mood that is closely associated with the passage of time. Nostalgia. Longing. Irreversibility.

The photo above was taken in a small graveyard in Transylvania, close to a wooden church. Despite the somewhat dramatic editing, there was nothing sad or morbid about the scene. It was serene. High grass moved by the wind, nature slowly reclaiming the graves.

Letting go

When it comes to photography, learning to relax and accept what happens, to let go of control, is as important as technique. Serendipity is behind some of the most interesting photos.

It’s important to make plans. It’s even more important to realize when they need to be abandoned or changed.

Get into the scene, be present. And work with the situation as it is, not as you would have wanted it to be.

Photos do not have to be truthful to what was really out there when you took them. They have to be truthful to what you wanted to convey, to your interpretation of that scene and that moment.