Monday, September 8, 2014

Michael Kirchoff's Five Favorite: Destinations to Photograph

Tallinn, Estonia

When I was first asked to do a Five Favorite of my destinations to photograph, I thought, “no sweat, I can rattle that off in no time!” In actuality, it has been difficult and a bit painful. There are so many wonderful and exotic places to go in this world, with so many exciting cultures and people, that it really is excruciating to narrow a list down to only five. With that in mind I decided to make it my top five that are NOT some crazy difficult-to-get-to places that few people have heard about, but done more in the way of recognizable and accessible to everyone. Besides, one of my favorite things to do when visiting someplace obvious or touristy, is to photograph it in a way that is quite unlike anything else done before, or better yet, in a way that focuses attention away from the typical. Well, at least to my knowledge anyway. Therefore my list is made up of fairly common destinations that anyone would find fascinating from a visual standpoint. Also, I made up the list by city name. I didn’t want to be so broad as to name countries in general, nor so specific as to list actual sites or locations. People tend to make plans in this way anyhow, even if they have a narrowed idea of exactly where and when they go when they step off the plane or out the door.

Now I really don’t consider myself well traveled just yet, having visited maybe a couple of dozen countries in total. That’s a lot by some peoples standards, and a joke to others. But then, I’m not exactly done exploring yet, now am I? I also have a tendency to make my travels a solo endeavor a great deal of the time. Other people don’t always agree with the “just one more trip around the Colosseum”, or “we’ll just get up a couple hours before sunrise” mentality I have. Oh, and even though I enjoy eating in a nice restaurant as much as the next person, I’d rather just stay out shooting with an energy bar and a bottle of water. Staying active and shooting is time better spent to me. I didn’t go all that way to eat some chefs five-star seared octopus skewers (though it sure sounds yummy), I want to experience what the people and the landscape have to offer!

So here is my list, in no particular order. I’ve included only a few notes on each, as I would rather you did your own research and then go and discover them yourselves. However, if you ever need more advice, tips on traveling with gear (or film!), or want to know other worthwhile destinations, please feel free to reach out and drop me an email anytime.

St. Petersburg, Russia 

Now, if you know anything about me at all, or have seen any of my work, you know that I have a fascination with Russia. After visiting St. Petersburg the very first time, that fascination turned into a passion and love for a city that has placed it as my most visited foreign destination to photograph. Most people, myself included, consider St. Petersburg to be the cultural capital of Russia. Known as Leningrad during Soviet times, it is also a very untypical Russian city in terms of its layout and architecture, with a more Western feel than anywhere else in Russia. This is a city that was planned by Peter the Great to be the major seaport of Russia, and with the help of French, Italian, and Dutch architects, it was built with a number of waterways and canals that only lead to the inherent charm of this great city. One can spend a lifetime exploring the cities museums (Hermitage Museum anyone?), theaters, galleries, and monuments. I know I said this list is in no particular order, but between you and me, this is my number one pick.

Beijing, China 

Beijing is the place to go to ease into the culture shock of going to China. Full of history and culture and smog. Unbelievable amounts of smog, second only to the amazing places to discover. Don’t let it keep you away though, that would be a huge does, after all, lend itself to some intense sunsets. I’ve found China in general to be a very friendly country, and Beijing is no exception, even with the big city vibe. People are extremely helpful if you’ve lost your way (which can easily happen) and will help you out with directions. Since it’s such a big city, English is pretty widely spoken as well, and people will help you practice your Chinese just about anywhere. One thing I noticed while exploring there was that most of the major sites require a lot of time to truly see. You will need an extended period of time when in places like The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace, and The Great Wall, for there is something quite wonderful at every turn.

Paris, France 

Do I even need to tell you why Paris is a favorite? You all already know more about this city without me telling you anything about it. All the great things you hear about Paris are absolutely true. Sure someone is going to be rude to you, but you knew that already too, so why not just laugh it off as another Parisian experience. Besides, if this was your home, you just might act the same way to someone like me butchering your language in an attempt to purchase bread and cheese to sustain you while walking around. Paris is full of romance, history, amazing food, and some of the most stunning architecture anywhere in the world. It truly is The City of Light, in more ways than one. Yes, there is the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, but it is within the parks and streets that amazing scenes reveal themselves day in and day out...just ask Atget or Cartier-Bresson. Paris should be on everyone’s bucket list, photographer or not.

Prague, Czech Republic 

Visually, a city trapped in time, both over the long and short term. I had a thirteen year break in between visits here, and it seemed as though it was only a week. Not only were there very few changes to the establishments of the city, but during both visits I even spotted the same elderly gentleman playing violin in the shadow of Prague Castle, photographing him on 35mm film in 1998 and with my iPhone in 2011. My means of photographing him changed far more drastically than even him or where he played!
Thanks to the Nazis using Prague as a base of operations during World War II, this city suffered few casualties in the way of all the bombing going on. I could easily spend a week exploring gothic Prague Castle or St. Vitus Cathedral held in its midst. This is the kind of city that I tell people to “just go”...don’t ask questions, just go! Normally I’m a bit of a sissy when it comes to winter travel (I am from Los Angeles after all), but I feel that being here under a blanket of snow would prove to bring a whole new level of astonishment to the landscape. My own next visit here might be just that.

Tallinn, Estonia 

The original “Old Town” city center of Tallinn is the closest thing I know of to walking into a medieval world. Much like Russia, Estonia was a source of fascination for me as a child, being introduced to it by a comic book character by the name of Cerebus (nerd alert). Oh yea, a comic book that proved to be right when I arrived and was immediately transported back in time. My whole reason for even visiting Tallinn was that at the time I did not know a single person who’d ever been there, or even knew anything about it. Perfect enough reason for me to go then! The funny about Tallinn though, even though it has a reputation for being the center of Bohemia, it is also listed as a top ten “digital city”. Basically a city of technology, especially in the world of broadband communications and wireless networks. This is where Skype was invented, not that you would guess that standing at the base of the spire of St. Olaf’s Church, looking down at the original walled layout of the city. Another nice feature of Tallinn is its close proximity to both St. Petersburg, Russia, and Helsinki, Finland. Indeed, I arrived there from Russia via bus, and left for Finland via hydrofoil. In fact the Tallinn to Helsinki run and back is a hugely popular route for local weekend travelers looking for a change of scenery. Do yourself a favor and try out the photographic trifecta of St. Pete > Tallinn > Helsinki and you’ll come home full of stories and amazing images to go with them!

Beijing, China

Yes, I know, I didn’t include any cities in the U.S., but it was my intention to highlight the places that you need to really “get away to” on purpose. I have plenty of destinations in the U.S. I could include as well, but like I mentioned before, it was an impossible task to include all of my favorites. Seriously, how can you have a list of top five photo destinations and NOT include New York, the street photographers wet dream?! Clearly this is not a comprehensive list. What Top 5 list is? This is simply my own Five Favorites list as of today, and will most certainly change in the not so distant future. I want it to change, and change dramatically, for that would only mean I’m still out there exploring and discovering new places on the planet to cram into this list. The new entries could be very obscure, or they could come from a small town only a few miles away, and that’s the beauty of exploring. Travel can be expensive at times, it can be difficult or daunting, but it can also be life changing. You really don’t have to go very far at all, in fact, home may just well be your favorite place to visit, wherever it may be. What I would like more than anything is that you come up with your own list, then shatter it while you continue on your own journey...and I do hope you create some amazing photographs along the way. Safe travels everyone.

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." - Saint Augustine

Prague, Czech Republic

Photography has been a part of Michael Kirchoff's life since childhood, and an all consuming passion since his teen years. His work has graced many walls with solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York, Astoria, Oregon, and as far away as Lishui and Shanghai, China. Images from several collections can also be found in publications like Fraction, Adore Noir, Diffusion, B&W, Square, PH, Seities, and in blogs and sites like Lenscratch, Light Leaked, F Stop and Plates to Pixels. Michael’s photographs and constant blathering are all over the interwebs of Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram, hoping that a future copyright case isn’t in the not so distant future. When not talking so highly of himself in third person, he can be found planning his next get away, packing a minimum of clothing items in between mounds of cameras and Polaroid. Michael has also been known to be that guy getting pat down by irate TSA officers for carrying Ziploc bags full of sodium sulfite and lead bags full of film through security at your favorite if the concept of a favorite airport even exists. He also likes to list things, as evidenced by this bio and everything you’ve read here today.

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