The hundred or so miles around Tonopah, Nevada, offer the darkest skies in the continental United States. I didn’t know this when I was camping by myself in Saulsbury Wash, but learned it later when I drove into town. The owner of the local bookstore even gave me a star finder to use at night. He said he always gave these away free to visitors. The only other book he gave away was a Bible, he couldn’t see himself to making a profit on them. It was an eclectic bookstore, and not at all narrowly religious. There were large sections on science and evolution, and a small backroom of erotica. You entered this room through a seventies-style bead curtain, and were immediately met by the soft porn covers of old sex manuals. I liked the town, and the people in it, and thought if I was a different kind of person, not so wedded to cities, that this is exactly the kind of place I’d enjoy living. Before the moon rose during my first night camping out in Saulsbury Wash, the skies indeed were a blanket of stars. I could trace the faint line of the Milky Way. It had been a long time since I’d seen a night sky like this. I felt like a parched wanderer in the desert who’d finally come upon an oasis. I stayed in the area a couple more days, then took the road west, toward Death Valley. I was leaving Nevada after two weeks, and in those weeks had fallen in love with the landscape and the people. The state came as a great surprise to me, its beauty a shock. One day I hope to return.
As a kid, one of my favorite television shows was called The Beachcombers. I don’t remember much about it, certainly not if it had any plot or who the characters were, but what I do remember is that it left me with an overwhelming desire to one day live by the ocean and spend my mornings walking the beach, hunting for what washed up on the shore. The beach is one of those Iiminal landscapes, a region of gorgeous exchange between land and water and sky. When you stand at the edge of a vast plateau, you don’t imagine all that lies beneath. It’s hard not to do that when you stand at the edge of the ocean, and know that a whole other world exists just out of sight and out of reach.
Montauk is kind of a dream beach town, and though increasingly it’s becoming infected with the wealth and aura of the Hamptons, it retains the feel of an old fishing village, especially during the off-season. I don’t have a car and walk the mile or so into town for groceries and to reach the beach. The section of road I live on was built originally as a Grand Prix track, so it has some wild twists and blind corners. I don’t believe it was ever used for Grand Prix races, which is a pity, as I’d loved to have seen F1 cars roaring along these roads. During the walk into town, there’s a final corner I turn, on Essex St, and there, at the bottom of the hill, I see my first glimpse of the ocean sandwiched between houses. It gets me every time. One of my recurring dreams as a child was walking down a street and seeing the ocean at the end of it. It was a potent dream for a child living in some of the rougher parts of London. But here I am, at least for a month or two.
I took these photos during a single walk, about two miles north along the beach from the main town, and back again. I’m showing them here in the order they were taken. I have a few rules when photographing. One: compose in the camera and never crop an image. Two: no more than three attempts at composing a shot (with almost all of these, I took a single image). Three: minimal manipulation (contrast, sharpness), the kind basic darkroom equipment would allow. The first of these rules I believed in when I used to shoot with film, and the others pay homage to that old skill. It would be useful for those brought up with digital cameras to adopt constraints. They train the eye and focus the mind when looking at the landscape, and can lead to surprising discoveries.
Late afternoon in October 2012, a walk home along one of Berlin’s many canals. I’d walked this route many times, at day and well into the night, but this was one of the few times I took photographs.
I don’t think of Berlin as being a true walker’s city. The street lights are designed for cars, to make sure they don’t idle too long. The result is that walkers often have to wait an inordinate amount of time to cross a street, and if there’s an island, the only way not to get stuck there and wait for a second light change is to run. For the elderly, this means almost always waiting, sometimes several minutes to cross a single intersection. It’s one of those silly Euro-eco ideas which means it’s much easier to drive around than walk. But that doesn’t take away from the rough-hewn beauty of the city. And it remains one of the most livable cities I’ve ever visited.
Over and again, when I asked about the precarious future of Greece, people gave me this response: “Greece has been here for thousands of years. It does not die, and it will not this time.” Walking the streets of Athens, I find myself marveling at the beauty and humor and energy of the graffiti I see everywhere, and also feeling dismayed, because it does mar the city, it does make it ugly, and it does make the lives of Athenians who have to encounter it every day that little bit worse. But I also think of that quote, and I know that cities, like people, go through periods of creative destruction. Who knows what will emerge out of the Athens of today, what city will stand on these shopworn foundations? But one thing is certain. The city will be here, and so will its people, and I suspect that much of the energy released onto its walls will also help to feed its rebirth. For in seeing the city so brought down, one can begin to imagine the city reborn.
Click on the images to view larger versions.
For additional photos, see the earlier post, “The City Painted, part one.”
All images copyright 2012 Ranbir Sidhu.
Past midnight in a poorly lit alley near Metaxourgeio, a man approaches me pushing an overloaded cart. I’m taking photographs. No one else is around. What time is it? he asks. I say I think it’s a quarter past, and he nods and points to his cart. I sell all this, and now I pack up and go home, he says, I do this every day. Where are you from? I ask. I’m a Kurd, he says, I’m from Iraq. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a green sprig. Smell it, he says, pushing it into my face. Take it and smell it. It sounds like an order, and I do as he asks. The plant is basil, and in that dark alley, it smells wonderfully fragrant. He smiles when I recognize the plant, then nods. This is what I sell, he says. And saying nothing else, he walks away, leaving me with the fragrant sprig of basil. I keep it as a good luck charm, because this night I’m still not sure what parts of the city I’ll walk through, and what protection I will need.
On the following night, I learn a couple of days later, in the same area, around the same time, an Iraqi immigrant is stabbed to death by five unknown attackers.
Click on the images to view larger versions.
For additional photos, see the earlier post, “Athens at night.”
All images copyright 2012 Ranbir Sidhu.
At the end of November last year, I gave up taking the subway. A few reasons. I’d just returned from a six-month trip to India and being confronted with the same grim faces on that underground steel coffin brought home to me the fact that I was… well… home. And being back here, how profoundly not at home I felt again in New York City.
Of all the tedious rituals of city life to return to, the subway was the most dispiriting. It starts with the descent into those airless caverns, and only gets worse, at least for me. I hate waiting. In fact, hate is too mild a word. I abhor it, I vilify it, if I met Waiting in a dark alley in the middle of the night, I would do my best to snap its ugly neck. There is something deeply infantilizing about the long (or short) waits we have to endure before the train arrives, for here we become wards at the mercy of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the unloved orphans it consumes daily and who must always bow to its caprices, begging, “Can we please just get on your train, sir?” Maybe the train arrives within thirty seconds, and we find ourselves thankful for the wretched crumb of timeliness thrown at our feet, or maybe we wait a quarter hour, or even longer, staring down at the devastated concrete that floors these torture chambers of the modern world, if only so as not to look at the devastated faces surrounding us, in the mornings ejected unhappily from their beds, in the evenings ejected exhausted from offices.
In and of itself, the wait seems reasonable. The subway is a public good, it provides the infrastructure to move millions of people every day, and keeps a city like New York from grinding to a halt. And it’s good for the environment, and for health, and nominally, there’s a democratic spirit at work. We’re all in it together underground, a bit of London in the Blitz transported westward. But as one wait piles on another, as one line is added to another, those dreary, stifling minutes underground become intolerable. For the modern city, that compacted horizon of lives stratified, one on top of the other, each crushing the one below, finds its condensate on those lonely platforms and inside those deadening train cars. The city, if it is anything, is a dirge of choruses all of them memorializing “the wait.” The wait at the stop light, the wait for the elevator, the wait in the lunch queue, the wait on the phone for customer service, the wait for the delivery man, the super, the cable guy, the wait at the laundromat, the wait for a table for dinner, the wait at a bar for the barkeeps’ eye, the wait for the sorely underpaid cashier to acknowledge your existence, the endless wait for the city to do the same.
And once you’re on the train, it gets no better. For inside, you sit or stand, carried along powerlessly, literally shuttled back and forth underneath the city, not even blood in its arteries, for blood has a vivifying function as it pumps along. Inside the train, you become a null, a being waiting again to arrive, as if you have been murdered and await resurrection as a zombie. We become children once again, ruled by the whims of an unknowable and towering parent, powerless in its presence, and all around is the evidence, the faces of the fellow travelers reduced to ashen replicas, their nearest counterparts the democracy of bodies turned to stone in Pompeii. If this is democracy, it’s democracy of lives lived in hell, it’s democracy of the coming apocalypse, it’s democracy stripped of soul, of breath, of anything that might be imagined as human, a cudgeling, murderous reduction of city dwellers to cave dwellers, and cave dwellers to the newly dead.
Perhaps I’m laying it on a little thick. People do take the subway, sometimes they smile, sometimes they laugh, and most of them arrive on the other side apparently alive. And without it, the lives of the vast majority of people in this city would become intolerably difficult. But with it too, I believe, life becomes intolerable. When millions are forced, on a daily basis, through the meat grinder that is the subway, year in and year out, what else can it do but make ghosts of us, demoralized and hypnotized by an industrial ideal of the efficient city and its proper functioning.
All these incredible images by Travis Ruse.
In Dad’s ancestral village, these days, in the Doab in Jullundar district in the Punjab. Here’s a picture.
I took a long walk today, out west for some miles to the next village, then cut back and south toward another, closer to home. I’d looked on Google maps satellite images for a route, and it looked like there was one, but a half mile out of Phalpota I was lost in fields. I met some labourers and they pointed me toward home, and I could see the other one too, some distance away. I spent the next hour walking back to the village across the fields and then found a track which led back to the road I’d originally taken. On the way out, a man riding a bullock cart stopped and started shouting at me, I couldn’t understand what he was saying and so eventually walked on, but a schoolgirl came by right after. She was maybe nine or ten. He needed help moving his bullock. It wanted to go the other way from where he was going and he needed someone to pull him round. The girl tried, and her, the bullock, and the cart, all toppled into a field. They got out after some amusing antics, and the cart passed me by and the man offered me a lift, but I declined, which I regretted. It would have been nice to sit up there and watch the fields go by, even for a short distance, but he was loud and he his only form of communication seemed to be shouting in my face, so maybe I was better off. The road was beautiful and much of the way, all I could hear were the birds and the sound of my own footsteps. I met the man again a way down the road. The bullock had pulled the cart into another ditch and the thing had half toppled over, dropped its load of one very large bag of what looked like cement. As I walked up, the man pulled his pants down facing me and pulled his penis out and started pissing, and as he did this called to me to come over. He talked for a while like that, his hands around his dick, then he pulled up his pants and together we lifted the cement bag back onto the cart.
And some more pictures.
There’s a kind of particular marvel about walking in old cities at night, a quality of light and stone and the intense focus of faces and just the way people move and act at night is so different from the day. The old walled city has that magic, much like Jerusalem, but it also has a searing kinetic energy which is mesmerizing. Click on any of the below to view larger.