Fog, Hero Shots and the Spirit of a Place

Snapshooters and photographers seem to worship the Sun as the mentor of all their photographs, but maybe it is time, at least for some of us, to accept that some places are best seen under a mantle of fog. If we really want to experience the Spirit of the place, that is.

This text derives from a recent visit to Pena Palace, in the Sintra region, Portugal. Leading a group of photographers there, we’re faced with inclement weather, pouring down rain, that made it difficult to photograph. Still, I found that for the brief moments the rain stopped and allowed us to photograph, we got images that go well beyond the usual sunny snapshot or master work, and talk more about an intimate experience, and the light that really belongs to a palace built as a sign of a Romantic period in the life of the region.

You see, Sintra is known for its mists and fog, always lingering around areas of the small mountain range, even in Summer. It’s that unique atmosphere, resulting from a forest created by man — mostly King Fernando II, who wanted to have the forest from his birthplace, Austria, on this corner of Europe — the mountain range and the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean that makes Sintra what it is. While it has attracted Man since the dawn of time, as a worship place for the Moon, as the end of the world for Romans, and as a summer resort for the Portuguese kings and queens for more than six centuries, it was during the XIX century that Romantic writers and artists discovered the hidden jewel. Sintra became a “must go” destination for people in Europe.

The Pena Palace, crowning the hills of Sintra, is one of the main expressions of architectural Romanticism of the nineteenth century in the world, becoming the first palace in this style in Europe, built about 30 years before the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. It’s enjoyable to be up there when the Sun shines, but having experienced the place throughout some 60 years — I was born in the village of Sintra and have walked these paths over and over — , I feel that misty days are the best to really experience what Romanticism writers felt when visiting the area. It’s that mix of shades of green mixed with the shades of grey the mist or fog introduces that really makes the place shine, albeit under a light different from the one the snapshooters and casual photographers seek.

The best time of the year to visit Pena Palace is, probably, during Winter, when there is less of a crowd around. In fact, the interior of the palace, as nice as it may be, is not a good choice for photographers. It’s usually packed with groups of people so there is no place to photograph properly, or even to move about freely and enjoy the visit. It’s a pity that so many visitors are allowed inside simultaneously. So, for your own sanity, if you want to visit the Palace, forget your camera, use your eyes and try to keep away from the crowds. If you must have photographs, prepare for some snapshooting and less of a SEEING experience.

When you finish, dedicate time to the outside. Although you’ll find lots of people around, the crowds may be less of a problem, and if you visit during weekdays and out of the tourist season you might enjoy the peacefulness of the place. And if you can experience the place when the sky is covered, accept the challenge, because it will give you a unique series of photographs, that really reflect the spirit of the place, a spirit you’ll find in multiple areas of Sintra’s hill range.

This series of photographs, taken during a recent visit to Pena Palace, should explain, better than words, what you can expect. They’re just a segment of multiple pictures created while there, in the brief moments the rain allowed us to photograph. They represent, for me, one of the best experiences of Pena. And believe me, I’ve been there, and in the surrounding park and forest, many, many times, in different kinds of weather. The challenge of mists, dull sky, lack of contrast, all concur to create a challenge for your eye and senses. If you put your camera down, you lose. We didn’t. And for me, my hero shot, the one that marked the real spirit of the place, was just outside the small bus that took us up to the top: the mist hiding the tree in the distance, framed by the green leaves on tiny little branches. I knew, that moment, I had found the key to photograph Pena in a different mood. And I grabbed it.

I or we will be running some special tours to catch this “Spirit of the Place”, something I wrote about for Portuguese magazines and newspapers back in the 1980’s… of last century. Already then I felt the magic of Sintra. It has always been with me!

And just to show that there is another point of view to explore, see, below, a panorama created some years ago, of the Pena Palace, under sunlight. It’s on my website Photography & Context, where you can find some of the workshops I run, always centered on photographs with context.

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