Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg
For many years, I photographed only landscapes and natural subjects, being careful to avoid anything showing the intrusive hand of man.
Separately, I have been an avid international traveler for all of my adult life. One day, I suddenly got the bright idea to combine my travels with serious image making. Photographing cities is certainly a one hundred and eighty degree U turn from nature photography but, with the proper mindset and viewpoint, it can be just as artistic. Well, almost.
After having made perhaps two dozen trips to Latin America, which has magnificent landscapes and is a joy to see and photograph, I recently realized a long term bucket-list wish and traveled to Russia. For someone of my generation who grew up at the height of the Cold War, it seemed to be a huge leap. But gone are the days of the Soviet Union. These days, Russia is open for business and that certainly includes tourism.
Venturing into the one-time “belly of the beast,” I began by spending 10 days in once-forbidding Moscow. It was a fascinating experience! I strolled through places whose names I had heard spoken only with dread and vitriol since childhood. Red Square, Lenin’s tomb, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the very Kremlin itself! These magnificent sights are a true visual feast.
The Kremlin’s many towers, its magnificent Czarist palaces and soaring golden cathedrals are architectural and historic treasures that provide enough compositions to keep any photographer busy for days.
Central Moscow architecture is a unique blend of European with a slightly Asian touch for flavor. Add to that the psychedelically colored onion domes and spires of venerable St. Basil’s and the many other magnificent Orthodox churches and you have the makings of a stunning portfolio in just a single area.
Keeping my travels strictly apolitical, I concentrate solely on the visual. That said, when walking the streets of this immense capital city, one quickly realizes that the old cobwebs of the USSR are gone, swept away by a flood tide of personal freedom and prosperity.
Spending some time in the Metro, Moscow’s marvelous subway system, is a must. Down there, each station is a unique work of art that should not be missed.
Taking the First Class Sapsan bullet train to St. Petersburg opens up a whole new experience. This city of Peter the Great is cut into bit-sized segments by so many rivers and canals that it earns its nickname, “Venice of the North.”
Magnificent Pre-Revolutionary palaces, once numbering well over 300, can still be found everywhere. First and most elegant among these is the Winter Palace, crown jewel of the famed Hermitage complex. Rivaling the Louvre of Paris in size and arguably surpassing it in grandeur, the Hermitage is a thrilling experience that is, perhaps, the prime sight to see in a city with almost too many attractions to count.
Just across the wide Neva River from the Hermitage is the historic Fortress of Peter and Paul with its stout walls and stunning, atypically designed cathedral. When strolling its grounds, be prepared for the firing of the Noon cannon. Nervous tourists tend to think “bomb!” and react with some fright when its loud BOOM suddenly fills the air.
Now it’s time to venture a bit farther afield. Peterhof, the sprawling and spectacular, over-the-top palace complex of Peter the Great, is best reached by high speed hydrofoil through the Gulf of Finland and is at least the equal of Louis XIV’s Versailles. Walking around the many golden fountains and palace buildings of Peterhof can provide a feeling of being transported back to 18th century Imperial Russia. The Peterhof palace complex was glowingly restored after the damage sustained during WWII. Allow a full day for this excursion.
Another day trip begins with the short train ride from the city to grandiose Tsarskoye Selo, an expansive compound of grand palaces, mini palaces, gardens and the favorite palace of Catherine the Great. After all, when one has so many palaces, one really should choose a favorite.
It takes almost another full day to do justice to grand Tsarskoye Selo.
Back in the city, St. Petersburg’s largest cathedrals including St. Isaac’s and the Church on the Spilled Blood, sight of the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II, will leave your eyes wide, your neck craning and your media card full. Make sure to take in both their exteriors and fabulous interiors. Bring your very widest lens.
After these highlights, simply walk the city’s wide boulevards and narrow streets. Compositions will greet you at every turn. It is impossible to run out of photo-worthy scenes here. The magnificent and historic buildings punctuated by glistening canals, picturesque bridges and long white boats have the ability to keep any photographer busy from dawn ‘til dark.
Getting around these big, bustling cities can present some hurdles for us Americans who neither speak Russian, nor read the often incomprehensible Cyrillic alphabet. Happily, they’re low hurdles. Most all hotels have staff fluent in English, many restaurants provide menus in English, the great Metro systems have terrific maps and Uber is everywhere. Make sure to have the Uber app loaded on your smart phone prior to departure. Otherwise, don’t be bashful about haggling with the taxi drivers. They will try to extract high prices, particularly for long rides such as airport and train station transfers, but will negotiate. Make sure to settle on a price before you enter a cab.
Wi-fi is everywhere, but requires a local phone number when away from your hotel.
Buy some Russian currency from your bank well before departure in order to have rubles in your pocket upon arrival.
Moscow’s multiple airports are 21st-century sleek and filled with high end designer boutiques.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award winning and widely published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.