Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Casablanca: Home to a Modern Legacy

From the waters, Casablanca unveiled itself one color at a time as the sun rose.
First, twinkling golden lights
then, brown haze
then, gray concrete
then, yellowish paint.
The first green to appear was military.
The first orange, on a billboard advertising cellphones.
Then, a rose colored minaret pierced the dull air.

The streets were dotted with black (the color of choice for Muslim women). But the Moroccan women were rather non-commital in their dress, as if undecided whether to be Muslim or western, or both, or neither, or something in between. The men had clearly decided – Nike sweatshirts and denim jeans.

Anyone arriving Casablanca by sea would be torn between two first impressions. A filthy port city, like any other filthy port cities in the world. Or, is it Mecca???

Well, it’s not Mecca, but it IS the largest religious structure in the world outside of Mecca. The Hassan II Mosque, completed in 1993, majestically commands the coast and dominates the city, defining Casablanca better than any movie that was never actually filmed there could do. It is a spectacular monument, whose vastness and space are as striking and impressive as every inch of detail and decoration. Crossing the tiled courtyard (capacity: 80,000) on foot is like setting out in a rowboat to cross the sea.

Speaking of the sea, the waves crashing the shores surrounding the mosque were no less impressive, adding blue to compliment the blue tile of the stunning mosaics of the Hassan II mosque.

Created by over 6,000 traditional Moroccan artisans, each small piece is insignificant in itself, yet part of a greater design which, without that piece, would not be whole.

Islamic religious art makes perfect sense. There are no dark dreary oil paintings, no bloody crosses, no shrines with elephants or monkeys, no statues, no icons of saints. Living beings are divine creations, already perfect, thus they cannot possibly be improved upon by art. Rather, the art adorning mosques consists of geometric patterns, intricate designs with no beginning and no end, providing space for contemplation, prayer, meditation (whatever one chooses to call it) upon the infinite nature of the true Divine without distraction of idolatry. Now that’s religious art in purest form - universal.

While traditional religious art form adorns the Hassan II Mosque, there are also some rather impressive modern touches. Heated floors, electric doors, a sliding roof, and, from atop the tallest minaret in the world, a laser beam which shines through the night sky toward Mecca. The entire construction was completed in less than a decade, and many say the Hassan II Mosque will earn its place as one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Riviera en hiver

No one told me, I mean really told me, how I would love the south of France. And other than the impressionists in the museums, no one really made an effort to describe the light to me. Why hadn’t anyone told me about it? I mean, I’m a photographer Who better to appreciate it?

I remember when I worked across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago (how lucky was that? ) and strolling over during my lunch hour to gaze at my favorite Monets. There were several paintings of simply a haystack, no big deal at first. But each was different - the colors he chose were surreal: eggplant purple, tangerine orange, icy white, olive green, often all thrown together in perfect harmony. Only a brilliant eye could find all those colors in a haystack, never mind convey them to others.

But now I get it. Now I’ve been to where the light is magical, and now I understand the vision of a painter who, literally, sees the light. It’s just something a camera doesn’t capture....why is that? But once witnessed and experienced by the naked eye, it’s impossible to erase, and the magical light shows up everywhere, with a palette of astral colors to transform the mundane into surreal.

I was never much of a painter - I pretty much still draw pictures the exact same way I did as a child (which only my 4-year-old thinks are brilliant). And my colors had to be exact, but even the Crayola super 100 box didn’t have the right brown for a horse, or the right green for a tree. It always looked like just crayon colors to me. And I wasn’t any happier with paint. It dripped too much or appeared brighter in the cup than on paper. And it smeared as my hand moved. Nope, the right side of my brain refused to speak artistically to my left hand, and I left the fine art talent to the right-handed members in my family.

Thankfully, at that same young age, I learned other mediums to express myself as an artist - dancing, acting, performing, writing. And I also learned the camera. I liked the pictures I could create with it, they were far more realistic than anything I could draw, and photography made better use of both sides of my brain.

But even now, and now especially, I am dissatisfied with the inability of digital photography to capture the colors of nature with the same depth and richness of Velvia film, which, in itself, falls short of accurately rendering true color as seen with the naked eye. But these astral colors were there! I saw them! Why didn’t my cameras???

The light is everything to a photographer - the difference between good and perfect. We chase the window of “perfect light” in that space between day and dusk. So when I looked out the train window enroute to Nice, I would have sworn it was that magic window of the day....but my watch, set to local time, read 11:30am. The winter sun was high in the sky.

The sun was high over the Mediterranean too. And from the southern coast of France, in the early days of January, the winter sun magically rises from, and sets into, the waters of the Med, spending the whole day crossing east to west over it. I concluded that was the reason for the magic light - the sun is constantly over the water and reflecting off it onto the southern coast of France. Reflected light is softer and gentler than direct light. It permeates everything with a soft glow. I’ve seen it elsewhere, I’ve captured that golden glow on faces and in nature in other parts of the world with my camera, when timing was everything. But here, in Nice, in Menton, in Rocquebrun, even in Monte Carlo, it’s day-long perfect light. if that’s not enough..... there’s still a window of even more perfect light in the last hour of the day. (My favorite thing about perfect? My daughter’s inability to pronounce it, always exclaiming gleefully “it’s perfket ”). That work’s for me. The only thing better than more perfect is perfket.

So, my camera failed me in the south of France. Sure, I took lots of pictures, many in perfect light, some in perfket light, but none capturing what I was seeing with my naked eye. Those colors. Those astral colors - the ones Monet pulled out of the haystack. I saw them. Every moment of every day, with every step I took along France’s Riviera. I was certain it was attributable to the magic light of the sun reflecting off the Mediterranean. Surely Spain would follow suit.

But when I got to Barcelona, the light was different, the magic less. Casablanca. Marakesh, Tenerife, Madiera, even Malaga, on the southern coast of Spain, didn’t have it. There were the usual windows of the day when the light was best, but it wasn’t the same.

The colors, however, the new astral palette, followed me. I saw them everywhere I looked. And even back home now, I still see them, like never before. The light may be ordinary, but the world looks different. Monet’s haystacks are everywhere.

This is where I’m supposed to upload some images. Not gonna happen, sorry.

Perhaps these colors exist only in the mind - so an artist can create them on canvas, but a lens can’t capture them on film. I don’t know. I could comprehend the light - easy enough to explain. But the astral palette....well....I can’t explain it. And now I can appreciate why no one ever tried to tell me about it. It’s not something to see, not something a photographer is going to have any success at’s something simply to experience. And yet, not everyone does.

I guess Monet and I are among the lucky ones. How perfket.