Timeless Travel
Images Made With History In Mind

Photos © 2004, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

The compendiously named Album vom Rhein, vom Bodensee bis Duesseldorf, nebst Schwarzwald, Strassburg i.E., Karlsruhe, Heidelberg und Wiesbaden was published by Globus Verlag GmbH, Berlin, in the early years of the 20th century. It was probably a present to my great-grandmother Anna Schultz, nee Lecherling, who was born in 1866. When I was 5 years old, it was my favorite picture book. Together with an 1880s edition of Baedecker's Switzerland, it was responsible for developing my wanderlust and my compulsion to record what I see--though I did not see the Rhein until I was in my 30s.

Boulder houses, Portugal. The Victorians were great ones for novelties and "improving" stories. They loved to draw morals about the picturesque poor and the like. With the possible exception
of the chimney--which is a traditional design--this could have been taken at any time since these houses were built among the massive boulders in Linhares. Mist and selective focus hide modern buildings in the background. (Voigtländer Bessa-T, 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar, Ilford XP2 at 400, spot reading of shadows.)

To this day, what fascinates me is the timelessness of the pictures. They aren't really timeless, of course. There are electric trams in Cologne, which puts it after 1903, and moving people aren't blurred as they would normally be in pictures from even 20 years earlier. The title page proudly proclaims, "2 grosse Panoramen und 90 Ansichten nach Momentaufnahmen in Photographiedruck." Momentaufnahmen are instantaneous shots, as particularly shows in the picture of the busy Heumarkt in Cologne.

Even so, they are timeless enough. Many of them could be taken today, a hundred years and two World Wars notwithstanding. In 1521 Martin Luther said "Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders" (Here I stand: I can do no other). These pictures are the same. There are no compromises.

These are not the only pictures I have seen that have the same mood. Think of Atget's Paris, or Hill and Adamson's Edinburgh, or Felice Beato's Japan. Even where the subjects are long gone, there is still a fascination in being able to look at somewhere and think, "Yes, it must have been like that."

What if you wanted to make pictures that stand against time like this? Can you do it? Yes.

First, look hard at the kind of timeless pictures you admire. They are almost always in black and white--I will come back to that--but more importantly, they are often rather static, apparently just bare records of what was there. Therein lies their fascination. They are very carefully composed records, beautifully executed. That is what makes them remarkable. If someone looks at your collection of travel pictures in 100 years time, what will they see? Will they be able to shoot a similar scene? How will it be different? Almost more fascinating, how will it be the same?

This is probably the most important thing. Change can be hard to handle. We all know it exists. Some of it, we welcome. But we need to know where we stand, where the places we see stand: here and now, and then and there.

After all, much of the pleasure in a "timeless" picture can lie in working out when it was taken, from the kind of details noted earlier. From those clues and from other internal evidence, including the clothes people are wearing, the publication date of the Album vom Rhein must be around 1904. In one sense, this doesn't matter: it does not detract from the timelessness. In another, it makes the pictures even more timeless, showing what has stayed the same, as well as what has changed.

A picturesque corner of Anchor Bay on the island of Malta. The Victorians loved long-winded and somewhat redundant titles--so I sometimes use them, too. Is that cheating? You decide. In reality, this is the Popeye Village, built as a movie set for the Robin Williams movie. At Anchor Bay in Malta. Cheating? Hmmm. (Voigtländer Bessa-R, 90mm f/3.5 APO-Lanthar, Ilford Delta 100 at 100 in Paterson FX-39.)

Choose your subject matter and your time of day with care. If you want a truly timeless image, try getting up very early on a Sunday morning to avoid people, automobiles, and other signs of modern life. There will still be clues that date the picture, but this is not important. Just make sure that the clues don't dominate the picture.

Remember, too, that if the clues are kept to a minimum, they can be fascinating in their own right. Think of two pictures of the same place, at first glance identical except for the one automobile parked in the picture. In one it is a finny monster from the 1950s; in the other, an SUV from 2005. Think how much fun that will be for someone in 2050! And if you really want to fool them, see if you can find someone who owns a Stutz Bearcat and ask him to park it there, early one Sunday morning...

On the technical side, many timeless images display a tremendous richness of detail. First, you need to control that detail, and make sure that it conveys the timelessness you are seeking. You have to be very observant, and you may have to do some "gardening" (removing unwanted evidence such as beer cans or candy wrappers) or you may have to change your viewpoint to eliminate distractions.

Then you need to capture the detail. This means sharp lenses and (if necessary) Momentaufnahmen. Or you may decide to use very long exposures, so that anything moving is blurred. Use a strong enough Neutral Density (ND) filter and an exposure of several seconds or even minutes and many moving subjects will blur into nothingness.

A tripod is essential for long exposures, but even for Momentaufnahmen it can be a big help because it forces you to slow down and think more about the view you want to take. Many of the timeless images from the past were taken with tripod-mounted cameras.