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The Bay of Kotor

28 August 2011

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Beyond the touristy southern coast, Montenegro was perfect for travel. The daylight gave us ample time to find our way and the country was small enough and the roads smooth enough to go from the southern to the northern coast in one day. We headed along the winding coastal road to the bay of Kotor, known as Europe’s most south-western Fjord and located a couple of hours south of the Croatian boarder. It’s actually a submerged river canyon, a circle of dramatic mountains with a shock of blue green water filling in the middle. The ring of mountains breaks in one tiny spot where the water flows in from the Adriatic ocean. The views were stunning from every angle.

We drove around the bay until we came to the old Mediterranean port city of Kotor, a Venetian built city surrounded by impressively high stone walls.

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Inside the city’s gate the streets were narrow and the surfaces all in stone. Jutting up behind the walls, the mountains never left our view, making the city feel quaint and spectacular at the same time.

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After finding a little fruit stand with it’s own varied landscape of fruits and vegetables, we sat on a street corner and ate our first ripe tomatoes of the season like apples.

We searched for people who might be willing to sit for a black and white photo, wondering what kind of response we would get from locals if we asked them directly. In Albania, the black and white camera gave people a sense of great self respect and their reverence for the process and their feelings of honor to be photographed was obvious. But in Greece where everyone was skeptical, we’d had to be tricky about roping people in, never asking people directly, but trying to entice them into the process by setting up the camera and taking pictures of ourselves to peek their interest. The only way to find out was to try, so we made our way to the Combi and loaded are arms with bottles of developer and fixer, the camera and tripod, and other supplies. Then we walked just outside of the city walls were we had seen a small farmer’s market and a few artists selling their work on the street.

The first woman we spotted was selling crochet and woven hats. She had strong shoulders and a toughness in her face that seemed like it would translate well onto paper. We approached her stand and looked at her work, fidgeting with the items and wondering how to bring up the camera subject. She stood chatting with stocky, brash, blond woman who spoke some English. “These nice crochet, from Serbia.” The stocky woman broke out of her conversation to explain to us when she realized that we seemed interested. “She do herself, nice real work.” “Is she from Serbia?” Molly asked, surprised. “Yes, but here for many years.” She said, slapping her hand lightly on the broad shouldered woman’s back, who smiled but wasn’t sure exactly what was being said about her. “We’d like to take a picture of her.” Molly ventured. “With an old camera. We are traveling around taking pictures. They will be black and white and maybe later in an exhibition.” “Ohhoww,” said our makeshift translator, and then launched into a Serbian version of what I had just said. Our strong shouldered subject shrugged, a gesture that could have meant ‘sure, yes go ahead,’ or ‘no thanks not today.’ We leaned in closer and pointed the camera on its tripod with wide smiles on our faces, trying to show how fun it would be. The woman gave us the same cryptic shrug. Her face was light and open, but her body language was flat and indecipherable. We looked at each other again and then back at the stocky blond translator. She shrugged in similarly dualistic way.

Then a thin young woman came over and asked in perfect English, “Do you need help asking a question before you buy something?” She was small and bright eyed and made us feel at ease at once. Before we could answer, she saw the camera and then asked, “What is this beautiful machine?” Aurel tilted the tripod toward her so that the large box of a camera that sat on top of it leaned in her direction. We explained that it was a very old Afghan camera and that we were traveling from there to France taking portraits along the way. We wanted to take some pictures of people from Montenegro. “But we are not from here!” The thin woman said, “We are all three from Serbia, and here because of the economy. But this is a beautiful project. A real artistic project.”

We explained that in fact we wanted to take pictures of the people we met along the way, and though we did want to take pictures of Montenegrins, we also just sought to document the people that were in this place at this time. She seemed to understand totally. “Let me talk to her.” She told us, pointing to the stong shouldered woman selling hats. “She is a good example of a Serbian woman and is selling traditional crochet. She is the right one to photograph”. We nodded, thankful for our luck in finding someone who seemed to understand perfectly what our aim was.

She stood for a few minutes and chatted easily with the woman we hoped to photograph, occasionally pointing to the camera or one of us in her explanation. Afterwards she returned to us and said, “Ok she will do it for you.” We were happy to hear such good news, having fixated on the idea that this was the right woman to photograph in this moment.

Aurel set up the camera and Molly looked for a good background. The trick was that the woman could not venture too far away from her stand, which was out on the side walk and lined with palm trees. There was no wall or easy background around, and we knew that backgroundless pictures didn’t read well. The camera needed something solid to rest it’s eyes on behind the subject, otherwise the mess of blurriness at their back competed with the details of their face. We set up a chair by a palm tree and hoped the trunk would be wide enough if we took the picture up close, to eclipse the busy street behind. The woman motioned to take the chair. “No, wait,” Molly put up her hands in hold-on sort of gesture. “We have to check the light.”

As always, the process of taking one photograph was a complicated dance of setting up the perfect parameters. And we had sort of created a system of taking a first picture of one of us in order to check the light and exposure time. This always understandably confused our subjects terribly, especially when we couldn’t explain fully what we were up to. Molly sat down in the chair set out infront of the tree, and Aurel bent down to look through the door in the back of the camera as he moved the lens back and forth to focus. The woman’s eyebrows crinkled. Had she gotten this all wrong? Were these two strange and over excited foreigners really just wanting to take a picture in this spot of themselves? This must have been what was crossing her mind as a look of mild embarrassment was crossing her face. “No, no,” Molly gestured, “Just a minute and then your turn.” The gestures were a series of points and a single roll of two opposite index fingers to indicate the concept of “just after.” The woman nodded and smiled.

Aurel reached into the long black sleeve that allowed him to put his hand inside the camera without letting light in and used his fingers to deftly open the photo box where the photo paper was waiting. “There are only 10 sheets left,” he called out from behind the camera. “That will just get us to Croatia where we better find more.” Carefully he set the photo paper on the frosted glass inside the camera. Then he removed his hand and came to the front where the lens cap covered the lens. Looking up at the sky, he said, “2 seconds?” We agreed that there was a lot of light and two seconds should be a good exposure time to start with. Aurel held the cap between his fingers and then deliberately lifted it from the lense, counting slowly, one, two. Then he swiftly returned the cap with the signature cupping sound. Molly, who had been holding perfectly still, relaxed and got up to help develop the paper negative. But it didn’t seem to want to develop. Aurel pressed his eye against the spy hole on the top of the camera while he agitated the photo in the developer inside the camera. “It’s blank!” He yelled in frustration.

After a minute in the fix, he pulled the purpley, over exposed photograph out of the camera and we tried to figure out what was going wrong. Too much light? But two seconds was so short. We agreed to try again. At this point the broad shouldered hat woman we planned to photograph wondered back over to the seat, having seen that we were finished and thinking at this point it must be her turn. She motioned for the seat tentatively but Molly had to stop her. “Wait, again, I’m sorry.” She said, hoping that the sorry look in her face would be enough to get the point across. The woman shrugged and turned back to her booth.

After four tries we realized that the first three papers had somehow been exposed. The fourth, because we had brought the exposure time down to half a second (whatever that means when you don’t have any true timer!), was totally underexposed. We throw up our hands in frustration. We had only six pieces of paper left and we needed to get pictures of people in Montenegro! Every shot required fiddling of many kinds—exposure time, camera angle, lens appature, and that ate up sheets of paper as we tested. Six sheets was barely enough to take 2 good pictures.

We knew we couldn’t just keep taking tests. We had to take the under exposedness of the last picture and calculate accurately how many seconds a proper exposure would require. And we had to take the next picture of our actual subject, cross our fingers and pray.

Finally the Serbian woman had her chance in the seat. “No move,” Molly gestured, placing her hands on her own shoulders and twisting her body back and forth followed by a wag of her index finger. The woman nodded and sat stoically still. Aurel set up the focus and placed the paper on the glass inside the camera. We both held our breath and Molly removed the lens cap for three and a half seconds.

When the negative emerged from the fixer and Aurel pulled it through the long black sleeve and out of the camera, we both breathed a sigh of relief. The exposure was perfect, whites were bright and blacks were dark. But there was a strange haze over her face, almost like a wire mesh pattern. We wondered what it was—a trick of the light? Something weird on the paper? A fingerprint? A shadow from her hat? On a negative things look surreal, unbalanced, and bizarre, but this little hazy area seemed different. We debated using another precious piece of paper, but decided in the end against it.

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We went on to take one more photograph in Kotor of a Montenegrin woman that our bright eyed friend and interpreter helped us convince. She was a flower seller with deep, dark eyes and a hard expression. We did the exposure cold, and again came out with a perfect picture.

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When we finally got back to the Combi, we were able to take a digital picture of the negatives and discovered that the hazy mesh pattern on the Serbian woman’s face was actually a shadow cast by her straw hat in the sun. That seemed acceptable since the hat itself was an important part of her story.

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We piled the camera and various supplies back inside the Combi and decided to take the long way back to the mouth of the bay by driving the road that cut along the base of the ring of mountains and circumvented the entire bay. The views were amazing and we stopped a few times to jump into the water.

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