Nothing captures old-world cityscapes like a good vintage travel-photo book — but my cell phone comes close
By Steve Netsky
When I’m not busy dodging a pandemic, my idea of a good time is browsing in a used book store. I’m always searching for books of photos of European cities and towns. I have books exploring Krakow, Paris, Tallinn, Prague, Budapest, London, Vienna, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Venice, Kiev, Florence, and Rome. I’ll also buy books that cover entire countries, but it’s the images of the cities and villages that I’m after.
In truth, I’m a little more particular than that. First of all, the photos have to be in black and white. That means most of these books date from before 1970 and are generally inexpensive. Who wants to look at old black and white photos in the twenty-first century? I do. Second, I want photos of out-of-the-way places. When I travel, I make a point of checking out the back streets to see things I wasn’t expecting, and I want some of that from these books.
Most of the volumes in my collection were probably sold as souvenirs. The main attractions are always there: the monuments, the cathedrals, the fountains, often along with pictures of sculptures and paintings from the great museums and churches. (Yes, the Sistine Chapel lacks something in black and white …) But the photos that invite long looks are of untouristed areas. They’ll feature courtyards, alleyways, obscure corners. Why do I find these compelling?
For one thing, each place has its own look: its own architecture, cultural idiosyncrasies, topography. Add to this the fact that it’s not just the photos that are old. The cities and towns pictured in them are frequently ancient. Some of the shops and houses are undoubtedly gone now, and much has changed. There’s the sense of a vanished world.
I doubt the photographers were responding to the call of a muse. They would have been skilled professionals doing a job, and black and white photography was favored over color because it was so much cheaper to print. Few of the original purchasers would have considered the books’ photos to be art. But looking at them now, what else can they be? Between the play of light and shadow, so perfectly captured, and the scenes themselves, so full of mystery, some of these images are the stuff of dreams.
In The Unknown Spain (1925), by Kurt Hielscher, two women work in a fantasyland of a courtyard in Andújar with overlapping arches and a lower passageway leading into darkness. A dozen pages later, there’s the town of Ronda, improbably perched on a cliff above a deep gorge that is crossed by a colossal stone bridge beneath which a waterfall descends hundreds of feet.
My most beloved book on Prague — Prague In Photographs (1954), by Karel Plicka — visits a side street where a small Gothic balcony extends from a residence. The balcony is ornate, but who would expect the gargoyles jutting from its corners?
“In The Unknown Spain (1925), by Kurt Hielscher, two women work in a fantasyland of a courtyard in Andújar with overlapping arches and a lower passageway leading into darkness. A dozen pages later, there’s the town of Ronda, improbably perched on a cliff above a deep gorge.”
Many of the best shots in my Cold War-era Tallinn book (1975), by Eric Raiküla are framed by archways. Oddly, the enchanting medieval old town, well represented in this book, competes with page after page of Soviet-style apartment blocks.
Sometimes the places exert a pull I find irresistible. In books on France, photos of two triumphal arches, La Porte Saint-Martin and La Porte Saint-Denis in Paris, caught my attention because tourists always go to the more famous Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile and Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. I felt bad for the two less popular arches, so on my next trip to Paris I took a fascinating walk through a down-at-the-heels neighborhood to see them. I was not disappointed.
These books inspire me — to imagine living inside these scenes, walking those streets, gazing from those archways. I find myself wondering how the places look now, seeking some of them out when I travel. In homage to those old books, I try to reproduce something of their vintage style in my own travel photos.
I am by no means a skilled photographer, and I don’t think of my efforts as art. Until recently I had only taken family photos. But my twin brother, Ron, an artist, gave me valuable advice when he gently suggested that my family pix could be even better if I were to put the subject closer to the center. Armed with this trade secret, I was ready to find some subjects.
A family trip to Florence and Rome provided the opportunity. I can only spend so much time in museums, so I would wander around with my cell phone, taking black and white shots of intriguing urban landscapes. In Florence it seemed that every other street had a delicate curve to it, revealing different degrees of sunlight. The lanes were scarcely wider than alleyways, and that slight turn was always enough to thrill me. I took plenty of photos in both cities.
My favorite is of a scene in Rome. During our stay, we often passed a courtyard, a quiet hollow off a bustling street, in which loomed a stone staircase. It was clear that the steps reached a door, but then they took a turn you could just glimpse. Of course, I took a picture. Now I keep going back to it, lured in by unanswerable questions. Where did the staircase lead? Did it connect with a passage onto another street? Did it take another turn? Or did it simply lead to another door I couldn’t see?
On our visit, I had many chances to climb the stairs and look around the corner, but I always fought the temptation. I guess I didn’t want to ruin the picture. ☾
Old Italy on a modern phone cam
An odd little courtyard in Rome. This is the photo I return to most often, drawn in by the stone staircase and its hint of a turn at the top. Where do the steps lead?
A cobblestone lane in Rome leading to the Tiber River. Though taken not far from the heart of the city, the photo seems to thrust you into a nineteenth-century rural village (if you ignore the floodlights at the right).
One of Florence’s thin, winding streets — endlessly intriguing in that you never know what is around the bend. I always tried to photograph these without cars in them, preserving the look of bygone days.
Another street in Florence, with the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, or city hall, in the background. The “bar” sign could have been from the 1940s, but the same cannot be said of the words “gluten free” running down the edge of a doorframe across the street.
STEVE NETSKY, who was born in Philadelphia and has a B.A. in History from Temple University, has worked in the music business since his twenties as a songwriter, performer, educator, and manager. Previously he ran Togetherness House, a community performance venue in Philadelphia; played tenor banjo and guitar with the Klezmer Conservatory Band; taught courses on the music business at UMass Lowell; and served as the production manager at Rounder Records. Currently he works with Ed Keane Associates, a management and booking company, and coaches the Songwriters Workshop at New England Conservatory. He lives with his wife and daughter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A beautiful piece, enticing me to visit some day!
Beautiful article – I have a couple of similar shots from my travels! Keep up the fascinating practice.
Delightful essay. Author views old black and white photos with a new perspective.