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A Picture Becomes a Thousand Words

July 30, 2021

“There’s a theme to the art you have hung up in your office: black and white creepy pictures.” –My daughter

I think she’s exaggerating. The pictures in my office aren’t exactly creepy. They definitely have a mood, perhaps a bit of a noir sensibility mixed in with some historical context; a little woo-woo occult flavor thrown in here and there. Only one of them crosses the line into classic Twilight Zone territory, though. That one’s of The Tower of Silence in Mumbai and relates directly to a novel I’m in the process of writing.

The Tower of Silence is essentially an open air burial ground for an ancient, pre-Islamic religious sect called Zoroastrianism, and yes, that’s right, those are vultures perched on the tower’s wall. But isn’t it wonderful? There’s a sense of peace to the photo, and it reflects – at least to me – a natural order.

And here’s one of the Jewish Cemetery in Prague’s Josefov Quarter. It’s got thousands of gravestones, all of them sticking up this way and that like crooked teeth. Bodies deep in the ground buried one on top of the other. I love the history, the religiosity, and resilience of such a place, and feel comforted by its existence. This photo, by my friend Susan, sits just to the left of my desk, and I like to take it in when I’m writing a particularly ethereal scene.

This next shot is an aerial view of Peace Square in Prague. One dominated by perhaps my favorite neo-Gothic cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Ludmila, named after the saint and martyr who also happened to be the grandmother of Good King Wenceslaus. It is said she was strangled with her veil at the behest of her own daughter-in-law, who opposed Ludmila’s attempts to convert the Slavs to Christianity.

Well, alright, maybe my daughter has a point. Except here’s another one. It’s not an actual print. I tore it from a picture book and intend to have it framed, as a sort of poor man’s short cut to a collection of real art photography. It’s a Jan Saudek, and reminds me of my son, who used to get so excited when the coal trains passed by our house. One time, when he was barely four years-old, a conductor let him sit in the cab and blast the horn.

Jan Saudek - boy watching train

I like old pictures. I have for as long as I can remember. They seem to mix in with my own life’s narrative quite seemlessly, the way cognac dissolves into a complex, creamy sauce tailor-made for a beef tenderloin.

Old pictures are contemplative, capturing stillness in a way that the quick and brilliant modern lens does not. Or doesn’t seem to. Perhaps it’s modern life that refuses to be caught standing still?

And old pictures are a bit like a prayer. They make us think, reflect, rather than merely react. We might end up whispering to ourselves as we ponder the unsuspecting characters we observe in those images, and the historical events we know await them. “Good, God, just five years from the time that picture was taken…”

Even the most jovial shots – of an elegant London in the Victorian Era, a wild Berlin in The Golden 1920s, a free and easy California at the apex of the Summer of Love – reek of both nostalgia and danger. Of the years, days, split seconds before influenza epidemics, Titanic sinkings, wars, holocausts, and Manson murders. Of a time before instant global connectedness, when we had little choice but to sit with ourselves, or interact with those around us instead of pretending to be busy, checking our phones.

The spell these pieces of the past have cast upon me are personal, too. They don’t just stem from the active fantasy life of a passionate story-lover, although I admit that is part of it. My interest in bygone eras and foreign lands was triggered by my own childhood perceptions of my family’s country of origin, Czechslovakia. A place that remained shrouded in mystery until I was twenty-one years old.

Due to a rigid communist regime, we couldn’t, under any circumstances visit our one-time homeland – at least not until after 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell – and we had to be very careful about any correspondence with the people we left behind. For their sake, not ours. And my parents had left behind pretty much all of their possessions when they fled, so few actual family photographs made the journey with them to America. Add to that no heirlooms, no trips to visit extended family, not even phone calls.

It was as if we had appeared in America out of nowhere. A family of no ancestors or homeland.


My grandmother’s village

Throughout my childhood, browsing my immediate family history felt a bit like reviewing a redacted government document stamped CONFIDENTIAL. Some of the sentences remained intact, and I got the general gist of what was being communicated, but it was like most of the names and places had been struck through with thick, black marker.

My only comprehensive connection to my parents’ pre-America world came from a stack of old books that were piled up near our stereo cabinet, next to a bunch of polka records. In that pile was one particular book – a big, cloth-covered hard book containing old, black and white pictures of my mother’s birthplace, Prague.

I remember turning each page, utterly disbelieving that this was an actual place, let alone a city my mother knew as well as our southwestern suburb of Chicago. The time-worn, coal stained buildings, the hundreds of spires and gargoyle statues, the rain-slicked cobblestones, and street signs that sported outlandishly tortuous words like Vltavská, and Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad, left me agog, contrasting farcically with the split-level Brady Bunch homes, the freshly paved sidewalks, and the friendly, golden arches of McDonalds restaurants that made up my day to day life.

The most ominous were the photos of lonely streets with only a single pedestrian walking. A phantom dressed in old-fashioned formality, utterly unaware of the camera. It was as if she was walking towards me personally, but would keep on walking, never once looking back.

That always gnawed at me.

Prague, which would one day, through a miracle of history, become my home, was presented to me like an old movie set – abandoned, left only for the drive-by tourists, like myself. Not a lot different from the Psycho house that sits on the Universal Studios lot. A place that had been useful once, even famous, but now just sits empty. Gawked at by people who need someone to explain to them who Alfred Hitchcock even was, and why they should care.

“Prague was like Paris until Hitler came,” my grandmother would try to convince me. “Old, yes, but also glamorous and modern. Smart and artistic.”

Studying that old picture book made her assertions seem ludicrous. The buildings appeared dirty and haunted, the people, what people there were, a little sad and a lot distant. It looked like Prague had never seen a party and never would. It was a city that had perhaps known stormy skies and bone-chilling cold, dungeons, funeral attire, and secret societies, but never the kind of revelry that could attract the likes of Hemingway, and other distinguished members of The Lost Generation.

Of course, my moving there, and finally obtaining access to Prague’s past as well as her present, even a glimpse into her future, proved my grandmother right. As always. And showed me just how dramatically a staid narrative could be transformed, reinvigorated, even comletely blown up. Like the very miracle every known religion promises can be delivered by a benevolent God – just when you least expect it.

The Prague of post-communist 1990s, was just that miracle, and a curious place to say the least. Her once gleaming bones – some Gothic, some Baroque, others Art Nouveau and Art Deco – were gorgeous, but every bit as bruised and smudged as the old black and whites of my mom’s picture book. That part was true. Even the people seemed stuck at first, continuing to dress like it was the late 1960s. As if time had stopped when my family left, or more accurately, when the Soviet tanks rolled in, squashing the brief period of political liberalization and protest that had bloomed under a reformist president in that fateful year of 1968. A year that seemed to set the whole world on fire – in a blaze that managed to spread behind the Iron Curtain, despite the perennial wet blanket that had covered those luckless nations since the late 1930s.

Yet, in the Prague of the 90s, there was also a collective breath of relief in the air. A sense of hope and thrill that was unrivaled. A latent boldness had been unleashed, and people were drinking harder, smoking better cigarettes, dancing into the wee hours, and finally, looking forward to the what could be. The past, the present, and the future had converged there, making it the most fascinating place in the world, and all because the unimaginable had happened. The naysayers – politicians, journalists, academics, exiles – had been proven wrong.  Dead wrong. A powerful tyranny, thought to be there to stay, had not only crumbled, but evaporated. And practically without a fight.

Out of nowhere, a new world order had been born.


The new “Fred and Ginger” building – designed by Frank Gehry (1992) – near Old Town, Prague.

I suppose it’s that experience – of immersing myself in a series of remote, black and white photos for years, and then stepping into them, witnessing something that had not only been beyond my imagination, but my wildest dreams – that transformed my life. I was shown possibilities I had long since stopped entertaining, and it permanently changed my relationship with promise, anticipation, castles in the air. In other words, faith. This new, imperishable sense of optimism took root and began the process of transforming me from an aimless creative into an author of fiction. It had shaken my American girl shoulders and awakened the Slav in me, too, I suppose, coloring in the black and white photos I’d loved so much, for so long. If that’s not a novel, I don’t know what is.

Prague Me Kampa

Photographs – particularly ones that inspired me in my youth, or I’ve gone on to “collect” in my adulthood – continue to be rich source material for my work and my spirit. I think they always will be. The places they urge me to visit become part of my make-up. I’ve so often felt like I’ve come home when I’ve stepped into the very scenes I’ve stalked in the old black and white.

I can certainly see how a lover of history, an excavator of the past, could come to believe they have lived before.

Because old pictures, too, have more than one life. They have the life the photographer captured, the many lives envisaged by the people who might gaze at the photo in a book, in an old shoebox, or on the wall of a gallery, and the life we experience when we step into the mud, onto the stone, or the centuries-old mosaic tiles captured on some day years ago, by a single click from a camera.

Those pictures inspire more than a thousand words; they give rise to a thousand worlds.

  1. Wow, what a great post. The photos are fantastic.

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