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Jan 30, 2013

Lisbon Stories (10)



(Dafundo, Lisbon Coast) João tells me that sometimes things get stolen in here - mostly iron for the scrapheap, but also flatware, cups, and dishes kept under the fishermen's boats covers for festive gatherings. He raises the tip of one of the covers to reveal the boat’s contents and parades some extraordinary fishing lures, holding them between his thumb and a forefinger once cut short by a mishap with a fishing hook. He then walks towards the truck wheel rim the locals use to grill food and points at it with the cigarette locked between the fingers. 'They once tried to steal this,' he says not without pride, 'but were unable to carry it.'

It's hard to believe that this strange place used to be one of the trendiest beaches of Lisbon, but you know what they say: photographs - at least those taken 100 years ago - don't lie.

Jan 22, 2013

Would You?


A tourist looks down at the stadium of the ancient site of Olympia, Greece. She’s seeing more than any Greek woman of the Archaic and Classical periods could ever dream of: the usual penalty for a woman caught at the site of the games was to be thrown off a cliff. We can imagine the ladies sneaking in with false beards and phony voices – like the stone-throwers of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ – but chances are they didn’t go that far. Would you?

Jan 19, 2013

Lisbon Stories (9)



João, 53, works in the cinema and advertising industry as a technician in charge of generators. He is the man who ensures that the lights are on at all times. Have you ever witnessed a complete studio shutdown? There’s a whooom sound, and bang!– the Universe collapses into a particle again. That’s what João does: he prevents localized reversals of the Big Bang. Or used to prevent, because the crisis and the austerity left him out of work.

When the tide allows, João goes clam-digging at the river banks. I’ve arranged with him to go along one day – ‘All you need,’ he says, ‘is a pair of wellingtons.’ Like many of his neighbors of Dafundo, João passes some of his time on the strip of land where the railway line connecting Lisbon and Cascais was built. He feeds the pigeons, cultivates vegetables, watch the joggers and cyclists go by and, generally speaking, has a good time playing cards and drinking red wine.

Tables and chairs manage to survive between boats, piles of empty bottles and junk of all kinds. Zé, another local, had shown me before the chair you see in the picture. I point it to João. He immediately claims the authorship of the piece: he made it from two ‘objets trouvés’. I take a shot of him with his artwork. Oblivious to the significance of the moment, cyclists and joggers insist on passing by.

Jan 17, 2013

Lisbon Stories (8)


'Hmmm. I like the look of whatever it is that this guy is eating. Can't make heads or tails from the menu, but this dive is full of locals, so it's probably good. Some of them even wear suits! They probably came here for a cheap meal. Hmm. I really like the look of whatever it is that guy is eating. I can't make up my mind. Oh my, he's shooting at me!'

Jan 15, 2013

But Heraclitus said...


The owner of this elegant piece of automobile equipment has, well, upgraded it. In front of his house, at a narrow curve on the slopes of the Serra de Sintra, Portugal, is now parked a brand new blue tricycle. So, is everything really in a state of flux? ‘You very silly person’, Parmenides would answer, ‘of course not.’ 'No?' ‘No. The new tricycle is; the old one is not.’

He does have a point. Still, I’d rather publish this eleven year-old photograph than a picture of the trycicle that now is, for I find the one that is not more in accordance with the poetic exuberance of Sintra.

Jan 14, 2013

The Metaphysics of Surfing



I once had the opportunity to watch a surfer as he fought his way to the pages of a spiritual book. I know it was a spiritual book because beautiful sunbeams radiated from its cover. The book was not a weighty tome, nor was it hard to read: spiritual books are never hard to read – if they really are spiritual, that is. (I’m sorry; my English is failing me here.) The fighting was all about the surfer’s cross-legged, upright seating position. You can’t keep focus on a narrative, even if it is a spiritual one, when you just broke another intermediate cuneiform bone. Not all of us have the Stoic abilities of an Epictetus, who, just to make a philosophical point, happily watched as his antagonist broke his leg.

I remember thinking that this surfer probably wasn’t a very good surfer, but what did I know?

I had quite the opposite sensation with that kid on the left of the picture. I watched, camera in hand, as he trained and gave a display of grace and agility on the sand. When the other kid made his appearance on the beach, it became obvious that the first one was some kind of a spiritual guru. ‘And rightly so,’ I said to myself. I now understand what surfers mean when they say they feel grateful for their first good wave. It’s not that different with photographers, is it?

Jan 12, 2013

Chestnut Trees

Queluz Palace gardens, Portugal

Are you old enough (and saw enough Woody Allen movies) to have read Sartre’s existentialist novel, ‘Nausea’? Sitting on a park bench, Antoine Roquentin, the main character, stares at the dark roots of a chestnut tree and is confronted with Existence itself. Now, those trees in the distance are not chestnut trees; they are white poplar trees. Roquentin suddenly becomes aware of the essence of things beyond their names and physical appearance; he distinguishes between Being and Nothingness, which is always a good thing when you’re driving in heavy traffic. I don’t think the gracious pastoral figure in the picture ever felt such a degree of detachment as to doubt her own existence. No wonder. After all, those trees in the distance are not chestnut trees.

Jan 11, 2013

Etiquette


In medieval times, profane words were kept in places other than a dying man’s bed, where Divinity and the Devilish Brigade were supposed to be having a nasty dispute. Symbols and gestures were paramount. Few could read, let alone write, and the ones who could were often more into heavenly, when not horticultural, issues. But I digress. Please take a look at the picture. The King is giving his right hand to his wife. Probably at the cost of perpetual shoulder pain and general discomfort, the Queen stretches her arm to give her right hand to her husband. Death is no excuse for not observing the etiquette.

(The tombs of king Duarte, the Philosopher, and his wife, Leonor, exposed to the inclemency of the weather at the Imperfect Chapels, Batalha Monastery, Portugal.)

Jan 9, 2013

Happy Birthday



One of the little tragedies in my life was to have lost all photographs I took of you, Catarina, from your birth to when you were about 4 or 5 (video recordings have been lost, too, but for some reason I don’t weep much for those.) Their disappearance remains a conundrum. I still feed a tiny particle of hope that they will show up one day, but I’m not sure if I should, for hope isn’t necessarily a good thing. Remember Pandora and her pot of evils. Hope was the only thing left in the pot when she managed to close it. You see, this was a pot of evils – so Hope must have been considered an evil, too.

The farmer and part-time poet Hesiod, who lived in or around the 8th century BCE in Greece, wasn’t exactly an admirer of women’s qualities. He mustn’t have been very popular among the ladies to say that Pandora, the first woman, was herself an evil that the cunning gods had bestowed on men as a punishment for their ‘hubris’.  That’s a misogynistic approach if I ever saw one. And yet, Pandora means ‘the all-endowed’, for she was gifted by the gods every single talent imaginable.

Ever since you were born I knew Hesiod was a silly man. At 22 you are all-endowed, but never an evil. He got that part wrong from the Muses. I’ll keep looking for the photographs, but I don’t really need them. Your birth and first years are imprinted in my memory and will be there long after other, lesser things fall into oblivion.

Happy birthday!
Your loving father.

Jan 8, 2013

Sunday


Sunday mass has finished at Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal. I watch the locals, mostly old people, as they leave the small whitewashed church. At the beach below, women in topless play dangerous games with Helios, the sun. Old men watch them from the security of the walls above. A nun stays behind and talks to someone. I can almost hear a voice saying, 'Ite, missa est' - 'Go, for it is over'.

Jan 6, 2013

Nil Admirandum



Edward Weston probably began the trend when he photographed the sensuous toilet of his house in Mexico: the year was 1925. In the late 60s, Bill Owens made another toilet illustrious. Complete with a flush, it had been converted into a flower holder and occupied a central position in the garden of a suburban house. A woman was watering the flowers and, according to Owen’s caption on the photograph, she said: ‘Before the dissolution of our marriage my husband and I owned a bar. One day a toilet broke and we brought it home.’
The owners of this house in Midwestern Portugal would probably be heartbroken if I told them their idea was not that original.

Jan 5, 2013

42



(Castilla-la-Mancha, Don Quijote's homeland, Spain.) People who spend a long time at sea or live in the plains are more prone to melancholy than those living in, say, mountains or forests. No wonder, for they have a glimpse of Infinity.

Infinity is not a line. It is not a direction. It is a question. If you manage to reach the end of Infinity – a paradoxical notion, but once you've seen a monkfish you are prepared to accept anything – you'll have the key to the Meaning of Life. Even if, like in Douglas Adams' novel, the answer to "the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything" ends up being a rather disappointing two-digit number. ‘A joke’, Adams explained. Geeks wouldn’t be defeated, though, and for years have been trying their best to show us infidels how meaningful ‘42’ is. ‘The Meaning of Life,’ they say, ‘cannot be a joke.’

Jan 4, 2013

Lisbon Stories (7)


The man points at my somewhat conspicuous lens. ‘Is that a wide angle?’, he asks with a cheerful smile. I smile back and answer, ‘Yes, it’s a wide angle.’ He gives me the thumbs-up. Sitting next to him, his wife – I think she is his wife – looks puzzled by the expression. ‘Grande angular.’ They are tourists from Brazil. I've always liked the sound of Brazilian Portuguese. My mother, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and has a deep-rooted fondness for the country, says it is Portuguese with sugar. The old Bica elevator starts moving. There’s some thrill in the cabin. The slow descent and the narrowness of the sidewalk turn the passersby into pictures at an exhibition.

Jan 3, 2013

Modesty


At the entrance of a monastery at Meteora, Greece, two British women (the older lady’s t-shirt is a give-away), presumably mother and daughter, avidly look up their copy of Baedeker, the Lonely Planet of the 19th century. Well, not both of them; the young woman wears a lovely melancholy on her face that a less insightful observer could mistake for boredom. She looks distant, doesn’t she? Maybe she’s thinking about some Dragoon that hasn’t been writing to her as often as he should (remember, we’re in the late 19th century, the age of Romanticism.) The anachronic atmosphere is reinforced by the fact that both women are wearing skirts, a rare outfit among tourists, and that the skirts are exactly alike. In fact, they're cloths furnished by the nuns to cover the ladies pants or even, Heaven forbids, their naked legs and shorts. Not fashion, you see, but pious modesty.

Jan 2, 2013

Lisbon Stories (6)


Spot the Moon (Parque das Nações, East Lisbon) - Early morning walks allow you to see things is a crisp, unpolluted way. People are either asleep or too worried about getting to work on time to notice you or stay in the frame. The office building's lights are on, but through the ever larger windows you can only see the fleeting shadows of the cleaning personnel. Cleaning is not real work, is it? It disturbs, it is noisy, it is distractive, so it must be done before dawn, like Santa Claus's work, by people that live in places we've never seen and speak many languages we'll never understand. A fair number of the city workers live underground, in some secret place we can't or won't see, and breathe, trough pipes like these, the air we have in excess.