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Do you find yourself thinking you know some cities that you have only visited better than the ones you have lived in? Well, of course, you know them differently. As a tourist, for one thing, when you have time to wander around, find what events are happening and not have to think, what else do I have to do that day.
I realised that I have this problem when it comes to photography. Wandering around Edinburgh I’m concentrating too much on where I’m going and what I have to do and simply not seeing everything that is around me. Which is why so many of my photos are from other places.
I hope to correct that imbalance slightly this week.
The Union Canal runs through the heart of Scotland, connecting the centre of Edinburgh with Falkirk. It’s where I do a lot of my running because once you’re about four miles out, the city disappears and you are running along the towpath beside open fields, in the shadow of rows of trees and under beautiful stone bridges that take you back to a different time.
The trouble with running it is that I never have my camera with me, and even if I did, I would not be stopping to take photos. So last week, everything went well and I found an hour to jump on my bike and get out to the parts of the canal that make the distance out to there worthwhile. And here’s what I came across.
Just over a mile from the city centre:
But it gets a lot better later on just because the water equals reflections everywhere:
And bridges with the sun behind them give us real contrasts:
Welcome to a different world:
And my favourite (yes, I got the birds in it!)
Maybe I will have to find a way of taking that camera with me on my runs after all…
I am feeling for the characters in my book right now. Everything they knew is disappearing around me, building by building, brick by brick.
It was a strange experience going back to places I was last in over twenty years ago and finding that I recognised next to nothing there. Entire streets were gone, replaced by shiny new buildings that bore no resemblance to the places I had once studied or eaten in or just walked outside of. Admittedly, the new buildings have moved on a bit since 1950s East Germany architecture was being realised, but all cities change and after a while, we can often not even remember what was there before.
That’s one of the problems of trying to go back to somewhere we had an emotional connection to. I had to give up on anything much in Leipzig being as useful to me as photos of the city in the 1970s, but it reminded me that it is those personal associations which make a city for us. The buildings might go or change, but we remember what we did there, and with whom, and it is those memories which matter most. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t sad when what we knew is no longer there, and that’s one reason why there are some places I probably will never return to. I prefer them frozen in time in 1992 (Tübingen) when the restaurant underneath the town hall served huge savoury pancakes and we met an American couple on holiday, acting as (probably rubbish) tour guides for them for a day or two. The restaurant is (I am told) gone now, but in my mind, it’s still there and we can go there any time we like in our memory.
This one used to be a rectangular block of cement. But the new building means nothing to me. It’s just a building. In time, however, it will bring back memories for the students now at the university there, and that’s all as it should be. Nothing stays the same forever. I have my memories, and they have theirs, and maybe some time we can share our different experiences of the same place.
In the last six months, the last two buildings two of my characters worked in have either been demolished (cue heart sinking as I arrive at the spot and just know that hole in the ground is the building I wanted to see – the perils of thinking ‘I’ll go there next time’!)…
… or are losing their old occupants. The Berliner Zeitung newspaper is moving out of the building it has been in for decades:
As well as those two, this landmark university tower in Leipzig is now being used by a media organisation rather than the university:
I have the luxury of several sets of memories of these places, some of them even mine. And the buildings might go or change, but the memories stay and, in some cases, are captured in stories where they never disappear. But sometimes I am still sad to see them go because it feels as if a bit of me goes with them.
The one thing I do when I’m away from home is walk. A lot. I might just set off in a random direction to see what I come across. Or sometimes I will try retracing a route I have walked a hundred times before because once in a while this is when I see something for the first time. One of the differences between me and a proper photographer is that I might have to go somewhere that many times before I finally see the photo that jumps out at me and then seems obvious. But perseverance is also one way of getting to the answer you want.
I think I cracked Berlin this time photographically, finally managing to capture some of the contrasts I see in the city. I also spent most of the time with plasters on my heels so I could walk for enough hours of the day, but it was worth it.
Here’s what came of it this time, in an entirely random order with some recurring images.
Welcome to my Berlin.
One of my gripes about digital versus film is that I get different colour renditions depending on which digital camera I am using, and the colours often bear absolutely no resemblance to the ones my eyes see. Now it might be that colour film has/had the same issue, but I have only used black and white film for so long that I can’t remember if I had the same problem with film. In this case, it worked to my advantage – the subtle colours from a winter sunset were nowhere as near as pleasing in ‘real life’. There are three layers of Berlin in this photo. In the foreground the wreck of a ship, to the left in the middle the two towers of the famous Oberbaumbrücke and behind that (and hazy) the television tower which dominates the landscape of the city (more on that later). And yes, I walked all the way from that tower and discovered so many things I had never seen before, including walking past the power plant that sits near the centre of the city.
In the middle of sophisticated residential streets, you come across abandoned, graffiti-covered structures which always catch my attention. This one had so many padlocks on the gates that I decided they really did not want me going exploring any further. Spoilsports.
The television tower again from an angle I had not seen before because I had never walked right beside this church. The city is an eclectic mixture of the old and the new and I thought this captured that part of the city. You can see it in colour in a minute and decide which you prefer.
That wreck of a ship is back again – you can see it in the middle on the left – but this walk beside the river started with these massive structures in the middle of the river which I had never got round to seeing close up before. Definitely better in the evening light.
I am finally happy with this photo. It’s taken me a long time to get it as I wanted it. The pointed part of the structure is part of the wider complex the tower sits within. As I’ve said before, it’s just a matter of perspective.
The same tower and church as before, but from a different angle and this time emphasising the religious element contrasting with this symbol of East Germany.
What you won’t see on a postcard. This, for me, introduces the side to Berlin.
The skyline of Berlin is still sprinkled with clusters of cranes as the latest building projects take form. It’s been that way for decades and there is no sign of anybody slowing down. So maybe it was right that the crane was in this photo, even though at the time it annoyed me because it seemed to spoil the overall image.
Yes, you’ve seen it before, but I liked the vibrancy of the colours. When you get a day like this in winter, you have to make the most of it.
Still love my geometric shapes and I loved the way the shadows accentuated the structure.
I was busy taking a photo of something that it turned out was not worth bothering with, and then I turned around.
I will admit that I recognised Marx and Engels immediately from behind. Just don’t blame them for everything that was done in their names. But they changed history.
Not many words today. Just some pictures. Not even a commentary. Or colours. Talk about minimalist. I hope you like at least one of them!
I am spending more time on photography than I was expecting to. And I have been thinking about perspective. I’m still using a camera with a fixed lens (ie no zoom) so if I want to change my perspective, I have to move. And it struck me that this is an analogy for life. If we want to change our perspective, we have to move from where we are. Otherwise, we will only see the same thing whenever we look.
In fiction, perspective matters a lot. As a writer, you have a number of choices. First person – ‘I ran.’ Second person – ‘you ran.’ No, don’t do that. Please just don’t do that. Third person – ‘he ran’. And then there is tense. ‘I was running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she fell.’ Or ‘I am running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she falls.’ One has happened, one is happening in the moment. Both perspective and tense change the feel of the story and how we relate to it. Some books mix tenses and perspective, sometimes effectively, sometimes annoyingly. One author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was adamant that ‘you should only ever use the first person singular if you have a very specific reason to do so.’ And I realised that over half the books I had read in the previous few weeks were written in that tense. Writers have as many different perspectives on their work as much as in any other occupation. And the Book Festival has been invaluable in hearing different perspectives.
The other beauty of fiction is that it can help us to challenge our current perspective. We are forced (albeit willingly) to adopt the perspective of someone else, someone who will never share the same views as us. Even an autobiography will show a development in the author’s views over time. We are not the same person at 40 as we were at 20. Now I have to accept that ‘living’ a life through a novel is not the same as actually living that life. There is only so much that can ever be put into a character in a book. And yet. There is evidence that visualising something mimics the experience of doing that activity, not completely, but at least partially. Athletes know this well. My favourite example of this is Michael Phelps. During one race, his goggles began to fill up with water and he was unable to see properly in the water. He closed his eyes and kept going, executing perfect turns at exactly the right time. He set a new world record in that swim, because he visualises the perfect swim every night, then tries to perform it the next day. When trouble struck, he already knew what to do and simply performed what he had already seen in his mind (and practiced so often).
Some of the books that have had the most memorable impact on me are ones where I cannot now remember the character’s name, but where they gave me a different perspective on something I had no experience of – and in most cases, never will. I remember the feeling of being that person for a while. Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home is a good example of this – a woman loses a baby she has longed for and finds her marriage at an end, and is surprised when she finds love with another woman. The book is not preachy, it just gives the reader a different perspective. I think part of the enduring impact of religious works is their attempt to give us a different perspective on our lives, on our relationships with each other, and to think differently about our place in the universe. Books can educate, entertain, and they can offer us a different perspective on life.
So back to the photography.
Here is a really boring street, the kind of one we walk past every day without paying any attention.
And here is the same street at night (two variants – neither manipulated by me other than by waiting for the sky to darken even more so the orange would dominate the scene).
Harder to walk past without noticing. Unsurprisingly, I took the evening photos first as the scene caught my attention immediately, then went back days later to take another shot of the same street during the day (which I will now delete, as it has no value other than to illustrate the point!).
And here is a bridge – three perspectives, all of them having a slightly different impact, just from taking a step forward or crouching down.
We will not change our perspective and learn to see the world differently if we are never prepared to move from where we already are. We already know where that is and what it looks like. It might be better or worse from somewhere else, and it might well be uncomfortable, but we will learn something in the process.
There is no doubt in my mind that I notice more when I am wandering around with a camera. Even if I am trying to get somewhere rather than just walking in a random direction in a city, as I tend to do on holiday, and even if I end up not taking any photos, or not being happy with any of them, I will still have been conscious of a lot more than if I don’t have that constant search for a photo in the back of my mind.
So, with that in mind, here are some things I saw in Berlin (and Poland) these last few weeks. I hope that none of them count as tourist snapshots.
I love my geometric shapes:
This man was playing in Wannsee last year and was still there when we returned this time. I just wished we had longer to sit and listen to him.
Yup, repeating patterns… I love them.
Tree roots by the lake where we stay. The trees are all perfectly happy and healthy:
Buildings like this are built for people like me:
My eye was drawn to the lovely curves of this structure (whatever it is!):
Another building designed for me:
And another – this time in Szczecin (Stettin) – this is in the Philharmonie building.
They do not build bridges like this any more:
Some forms of transport look better than others:
And some have a story attached – this bike was part of commemorating the 25th wedding anniversary of a couple who were doing a bike tour with the two witnesses from their original wedding. They all came back to where they had been married all that time ago, with these lovely balloons adorning their otherwise very functional bikes. We just happened to be passing.