Monday, January 16, 2012

A Calendar for Procrastinators...

   ...from a photographer's notebook

Sample image from "Photographically Yours, 2012"  ©Steve Ember

At last, a photo wall calendar for the rest of us!

You know, those who don’t finish their Christmas shopping eight weeks before Thanksgiving…

So, fess up, now. Did you procrastinate in purchasing your 2012 wall calendar? Are you still looking at December on your ratty old 2011 calendar and trying to interpolate what today's date really might be?  If so (and who really cares about January anyway, except your credit card company?) please consider supporting your humble photog (whose new calendar should appear by the time you've paid your January bills).

By then, you'll be needing something to look at and smile.

My “Photographically Yours, 2012” wall calendar is printed on premium high-gloss card stock, not that flimsy paper you might be used to in commercial calendars, with a sturdy spiral binding.

It features some of my finest Alpine landscapes, including from Kodachromes shot while that iconic film could still be processed!  There is a new London Nightscape, and even a rainy evening “Dreamscape” for April.  On this side of the Pond, there are Washington scenes, including last year’s “Super Moon” rising above a stunning Potomac panorama comprising the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial.

And what else might you expect from your faithful photographer? Trains? Airplanes? Oh, yes, they’re there, too. Plus some hot air balloons. Hardest task was choosing only twelve images, but I think you’ll like the variety.

Naturally, the “Photographically Yours, 2012” Wall Calendar is offered at a discount, considering it will most likely not adorn your “waiting” wall until the end of January. I’d originally planned to offer this calendar for $20 plus shipping. I can not make ridiculous 50% “clearance” offers like the big guys, as the calendar is not produced in those huge quantities - I believe we call it a "cottage industry." But, for $15.95 plus modest shipping, it can be yours well before it’s time to reluctantly leave January’s German winter landscape for February’s Washington nightscape!

To order your “Photographically Yours, 2012” calendar, plus any additional copies for your procrastinating pals, please contact me at

©2012 Steve Ember

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Misty (but vivid) Memory...

  ...from a photographer's notebook

Church and Evening Mists, Lower Engadin

When it comes to my beloved Canton Graubünden in southeastern Switzerland, looking at or rediscovering one of my images from years past often encourages the process of writing those “thousand words” a picture is said to be worth. 

Oh, you’re asking, “If it’s worth a thousand words, why do both?” Well, because the photo has a “back story” that informs much of my enthusiasm for Switzerland, Graubünden, the Alps...and if said image should receive gallery honors or other special notice, there's all the more desire to share it, as well as some memories relating to the visit that made for its creation.  

So, without regard to meeting, or exceeding, those “thousand words,” here are some memories from my very first visit to Graubünden – specifically, the region known as the Engadin. To be accurate, the Engadin is really two distinctly different regions – the Oberengadin (Upper Engadin) and the Unterengadin (Lower Engadin).  What is common to the Upper and Lower Engadin is the river that runs through both, and which gives both regions the “En” part of their names. That would be the River Inn. Yes, the same river that flows into Austria on its way to the Danube, and which gives Innsbrück (“Inn bridge”) its name. The Inn also meanders through portions of Bavaria on its scenic travels to the Danube.

Inn? En? Well, it makes perfect sense if you consider the oldest language spoken in the Engadin, to say nothing of greater Graubünden: Romansch.  Romansch can certainly make for some seemingly tongue-twisting place names along the routes of the Rhätische Bahn and the Post buses, but some Romansch is just enchanting.  For example Engiadina (Engadin is the German name) means “Garden of the En.” Er, Inn 

I mentioned Upper and Lower Engadin being distinctively different. I’ll leave culture, customs, village pride, and other considerations to those with a more scholarly approach. But, as a photographer, a distinction that I relish is the variety of weather conditions and the different kinds of light one encounters and what they do for the Alpine panorama.  The Upper Engadin, typified by such places as St. Moritz, Pontresina, and Samedan, prides itself in its “Champagne Climate.” The south-facing slopes of the Alps benefit from mainly sunny and dry conditions – I believe the boast is that such conditions prevail over more than three hundred days of the year. 

On the other hand, one is more likely to find a greater incidence of mountain-moody weather when journeying into the Lower Engadin. And that has its own attraction to a mountain-loving photographer. 

“Church and Evening Mists, Lower Engadin” is special to me for the memories it brings. I mentioned it was taken during my very first visit to Graubünden. That is special in and of itself, as it started a tradition which (even though it did include a sixteen year interruption) I intend to keep up now with regularity. 

I’ve often written – in connection with Switzerland, especially – of the beneficial effects of serendipity, those unexpected confluences of fate or simple happenstance that can make for delightfully memorable travel experiences. 

One such instance of serendipity occurred in the autumn of 1989.  After riding the Glacier Express from Zermatt (in Canton Valais/Wallis) to St. Moritz and spending the first couple of nights there, I moved on to the village of Pontresina to spend the next few days. The Rhätische Bahn station at Pontresina is an inviting departure point for trips into the Bernina Range, even going as far as Tirano in Italy if one so desires. 

My plan on this quintessentially “Champagne Climate” day was to ride the Bernina Line to Diavolezza, there to embark on a photo hike on its snowy glacier. Actually, I wouldn’t enjoy Diavolezza’s dramatic vistas until the autumn of 2010, a visit during which I intended to celebrate my remaining stash of Kodachrome-25 slide film with the very best Alpine motifs I could arrange, while such film could still be processed. 

So, Diavolezza in ’89, nein; but Serendipity, jawohl! 

Doesn’t take reading too many of these rambles to know that your correspondent, in addition to being a camera-toter, is a train lover. Funny how such interests so often come together… 

So, there I am, aboard a Rhätische Bahn train, soon to depart Pontresina. Another bit of serendipity: I got distracted walking from my hotel down to the RhB station. Easily done in the Upper Engadin, where so many photo motifs beckon. So, this particular train will not connect with the photo hike group I was planning to hook up with.  But, well and good.  A travel credo of mine, which usually serves me well,  is that what I don’t see this time, I’ll certainly catch up with on a future visit.  Diavolezza, case in point! 

This RhB train had a make-up typical of the period. The lead car was actually also its “locomotive.” Thus, at the front of the car is the driver’s compartment. So, the irresistible urge to go up front and look at the controls, while waiting for the driver. 

As my Nikon-bedecked self is checking out the control cab of this Rhätische Bahn rail car, I become aware of another Nikon-bedecked presence on my left. “Do you like trains?” a friendly German-tinged voice has asked.  His name is Tom, obviously a kindred spirit in terms of trains and photography.  I’d quickly learn, a kindred spirit, as well, in terms of the Alpine lure of Graubünden. Tom is down from Germany, on vacation, with his wife Ello, and their dog Felix.

Tom asks where I’m headed, and I confess to having missed the train I’d planned to catch, and thus undecided as to destination. In that case, Tom asks, why not join him, Ello, and Felix for a hike. 
Rhätische Bahn Bernina Line train, including open "Aussichtswagen" cars, along Lago Bianco. Kodachrome ©1989 Steve Ember

Turns out, Tom is extremely well versed in the scenic delights along the Bernina Line, as well as this entire region of Switzerland. The three of us, along with our energetic four-legged companion, left the train at Ospizio Bernina, the highest station on the steeply climbing narrow gauge line and hiked along Lago Bianco ("White Lake," but actually an inviting shade of glacial moraine turquoise, nicely setting off the red trains, this day also carrying yellow "Aussichtswagen" open cars, of the RhB Bernina Line). From there, we make our way across the ridge line, taking in the mighty Bernina Range peaks and glaciers all around, to Alp Grüm. 

Hotel Belvedere, Alp Grüm - Kodachrome ©Steve Ember
There, on the sun terrace of the Hotel Restaurant Belvedere, in the inviting high altitude sunshine, we enjoyed a lunch of Bündnerfleisch, the Graubünden specialty of air dried meats, lots of hearty Swiss cheeses and bread, and toasted the scenery with a beer or three. Then, after looking down on the model train-like spiral curve leading up to Alp Grüm’s station, we boarded one of those open-air cars on a Rhätische Bahn train for the trip back to Pontresina. 

Tom and Ello had their car and invited me along for more Graubünden-exploration over the next few days. One such trip carried us over the Flüela Pass, at 7,818 feet/2,383 meters, connecting Susch in the Lower Engadin with Davos. An October blizzard on the Passhöhe added to the adventure.  Points of interest after the “early winter” on the pass included a charming little Unterengadin hotel restaurant in Zernez (where I remember enjoying my  very first Tiramisu (yummy start to another “tradition”) and the Inn village of Scuol. 

At Scuol, the road crosses a high bridge over the rushing, churning Inn. On a high bluff, overlooking the old town and the river is a church with a Romanesque stone tower . While we had left the snow on the Flüela Pass, traces of the storm were with us at the lower elevations, creating an evocative misterioso mood.  Indeed, the mists were swirling about the church on its commanding perch above the village. 

The image was captured on Agfachrome-100 slide film. I’ve written elsewhere of how purchasing my Nikon slide scanner in 2009 led to an ongoing rediscovery of my legacy film images.  This was one of them, and it came packed with memories. Thanks for indulging me and allowing me to share some here. 

My printer made a lovely 14x20 giclée capturing the atmospheric palette of this Lower Engadin moment from 1989. It has been selected for inclusion in the January 2012 exhibit at the Art League Gallery in Old Town Alexandria. If you are in the area, I’d like to invite you to the Artists Reception next Thursday evening, January 12. For more information, please phone the gallery at 703-683-1780. 

Oh, yes, that serendipitous meeting in the control cab of that Rhätische Bahn train started  an ongoing friendship – as well as solidifying my love for Graubünden, reaffirmed on many a repeat visit.   

Tom and I remain in touch, twenty three years later. On most of my succeeding trips,  whether to Switzerland or Germany, we’ve managed to link up to chase and shoot trains and the landscape, drink good beer, eat hearty meals, and raise our glasses to Graubünden, and, of course, the bright red trains of the Rhätische Bahn.

If you'd like to see more of my photos of the Engadin (Upper and Lower), other parts of Canton Graubünden, the trains of the Rhätische Bahn, and other aspects of Switzerland, please visit my work on FotoCommunity Once there, go to "To the Photos of..." and navigate the folders: Engadin, Swiss Alps, Rhätische Bahn, and Kodachrome!

Photos + Narrative ©2012 Steve Ember

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