alan little’s weblog archive for march 2009

magnum fanboy

31st March 2009 permanent link

The Versicherungskammer Bayern(*) is hosting a cool photo exhibition in Munich until May this year – Magnum’s First. If you’re in town, go. It’s free.

(Let me know via the mail links provided, and I’ll go with you. I already told my wife: if she loses track of where I am any time in the next couple of months, this is where to look first)

It’s quite a small, low-key show, but there are some great pictures. It’s interesting from a historical perspective too. According to the exhibition notes (here in German), although Magnum was founded in 1947, exhibiting prints in galleries was against the members’ anti-elitist ideals. Instead they focused on getting their work published in magazines – the main mass-circulation visual medium in those pre-TV days. This, their first group show eight years after the agency was founded, toured galleries in Austria in 1955. It was apparently such a low priority for them that they didn’t bother retrieving the prints afterwards. They were found in a box in the cellar of a gallery in Innsbruck over half a century later – I would like to have seen that gallery owner’s face – and are now on tour again.

And the pictures: not by any means, in my opinion, wall to wall masterpieces of amazing genius. A few really stunning pictures, also a few pictures where I ask myself why s/he chose to exhibit that. They may not have exhibited much before, but these were established, famous photojournalists publishing regularly in the biggest magazines of their day, not some bunch of inexperienced unknowns. Interesting juxtaposition, both subject matter and style, of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures of Gandhi just before his assassination, and the funeral, with Ernst Haas’ stills from the shooting of Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs. One of the momentous events of the twentieth century, right next to something as trivial as stills from a film set. But what stills from a film set. A couple of Cartier-Bresson’s Gandhi pictures are really lovely; with some of the others I’m wondering, if I didn’t know they were by Henri Cartier-Bresson, would I still be standing here trying to convince myself I can see some kind of subtle compositional magic about them. Or, in other words, why did he choose to exhibit this one? In Ernst Haas’ pictures the compositional magic is far from subtle – they’re every bit as good as Cartier-Bresson’s, but in a way that’s much more formal and obvious, and seemingly far easier for my simple visual mind to grasp.

(Some fall on stony ground. I grasp the Cartier-Bresson pictures as an opportunity to explain to my nearly six year old son who Gandhi was and why he was important. A quarter of an hour later I check if any of it went in: “Would you like to explain to Mama who that man was?” “He was the greatest Indian man” “And why was he great?” “Don’t know”. Oh well. Try again another time.)

As part of the exhibition the Verischerungskammer is also showing a BBC TV documentary from 1989 about the history of Magnum. I didn’t have time to watch this at the weekend. (Or rather, my son didn’t have the attention span. “What was it about, Jack?” “Lots of blah blah blah in English”.) And so far I haven’t been able to track down any other means of getting to watch it. I resent this. I paid for it – in 1989, and for many years before and after, I was a BBC licence fee payer – so I’m entitled to see it. It should be streamable or downloadable from a BBC website somewhere, or at least available to buy on DVD. I couldn’t find it on any of the BitTorrrent search engines either, so it looks like I’ll just have to go to the exhibition again and watch it. Worse things happen though; the Versicherungskammer even provides free coffee.

For once the print quality of the exhibition catalogue is good.

After the exhibition, my wife and her friend wanted to go out and talk girl talk in Russian, an activity to which I am woefully ill-equipped to contribute. So I took our son home and put him to bed. And, before going to bed myself, I though I’d put a book or two by Magnum photographers out for my wife’s friend to have a look at. Just one or two – but which ones? It turns out that the majority of photography book collection is by Magnum photographers. No problem, then, finding a couple of books to put on the table – but perhaps I need to think about broadening my perspectives a little?

Retro-photo-blogging: I visited Magnum’s fiftieth anniversary exhibition in Berlin in 2000, thought that “If I could only look at one photography book for the rest of my life, [Magnum Landscape] is the book I would choose” – it still might be – and was bowled over by the work of former Magnum president Raymond Depardon.

(*) Bavarian Insurance Chamber of Commerce

related entries: Photography

stubai revisited

24th March 2009 permanent link

The Stubai Glacier, revisited eight years almost to the day after my last trip there, turns out to be much as I remembered it. I can see now, more so than I used to, why some people don’t like the exposed, bleak terrain and the lack of trees and traditional wooden Alpine huts to have lunch in. It was damn cold up there too. You never know in late March. I planned to go the the glacier because snow conditions at lower resorts can be very unreliable and unpredictable late in the season. The last time I was in Stubai at this time of year, the snow up on the glacier was fine but the run down to the valley at 1,750 metres was distinctly soupy. This year March has been cold and there was cold, dry, fresh snow in the valley all the way down to around 1,000 metres; probably most Austrian ski resorts still have decent conditions. Which at least meant that up on the glacier was quiet. We had to make an emergency stop at a ski shop to get one of those neoprene face masks for my son, who was suffering from the icy wind on the highest lifts and runs, but after that we were fine.

Anyway, you don’t go to a glacier for scenery & atmosphere. You go there because nothing has thawed since October. Because, as the landlady in your bed & breakfast explains, every centimetre of snow that falls stays. You go, in other words, for powder. And the powder was great. I didn’t go far off piste on my own, but in Stubai you don’t need to – there’s plenty of great snow right under the lifts and between the pistes where you can get that amazing flying feeling where your snowboard isn’t resting on the snow, but floating through it. Which, as I explained to my wife, is what you bought a snowboard for in the first place. Pistes are just for learning.

I found a nice little game to play with my son, too, to start getting him used to his first off-piste turns: slaloming round the piste edge markers. Just one turn in the deep and/or bumpy stuff isn’t too challenging, then back onto the piste. Turned out to be good training not just for him, but for me too – for example practicing that awkward powder-to-piste transition where I always used to fall over, but don’t so often any more.

Stubai from Munich has the added benefit of being only a fraction over two hours door-to-lift. If you go the direct way over the mountains; if you’re lucky with the traffic and can take advantage of the fact that the A95 from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Munich is one of the few remaining autobahns where “no speed limit” still actually means you can drive fast.

related entries: Snowboarding

Alpbach ☆☆

17th March 2009 permanent link

Times visited:twice
Last visited:March 2009
Rating:Decent, worth a visit

Alpbach isn’t, by any objective standard, a great ski area. It’s not very big. There are a couple of quite long and interesting red runs down to the valley, but otherwise everything is pretty short. Snow conditions aren’t particularly reliable and have been ok but not great both of the times I’ve been there.

But. We spent a week there last year, another week this year and we’ve booked to go back next year.

alpbach snowscape

Alpbach snowscape, Austria, March 2009.

It’s a nice place. Alpbachtal is a beautiful valley, and very pleasantly laid back by Austrian ski resort standards. If you’re not looking for jumping nightlife, the two villages in the valley are much friendlier places to spend time than a big heavily commercialised resort like Mayrhofen in the next valley over, even though somewhere like Mayrhofen might objectively have much more and better skiing.

related entries: Snowboarding

Mittenwald / Kranzberg ☆

17th March 2009 permanent link

Times visited:once
Last visited:February 2009

I couldn’t honestly recommend Kranzberg as a snowboarding destination but, should one happen to find oneself in the area, there’s a fun afternoon to be had there. I was in Mittenwald last month for a friend’s fortieth birthday party, and spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon on the Kranzberg.

Mittenwald is a Bavarian mountain town, famous according to the tourist brochures for violin making, situated between the Wetterstein and Karwendel Alps. The Wetterstein and Karwendel are steep, rocky, heavily protected in the case of the Karwendel by National Park status, and almost entirely unsuitable for skiing. But almost every Alpine town manages to find some ski possibilities somewhere. Mittenwald has the Dammkar: a single ski run dropping well over a thousand metres from the top of the Karwendel, reached by a cable car, avalanche patrolled but not pisted. It’s supposed to be steep, long and great fun. Three or four of us middle aged guys at the party were keen to demonstrate our continuing manhood on it, but in the end we decided it would be unsociable, and we should do something else instead that was fairer for the non-skiers (and for the skiers with nothing to prove, such as our wives).

Mittenwald also has the Kranzberg, a small foothill of the Wetterstein that has some ski runs. The Kranzberg is reached from the edge of town via a little single-seater chairlift. The lift is old and slow, but on the leisurely journey you have plenty of time to admire the idyllic, gently rolling parkland that it passes over and the impressive view of the Wetterstein. It leads to to a toboggan run – ideal for the non-skiers – and an alleged ski run. Small children, sledges and snowboards (ideally not all at the same time) are carried on laps.

on the chairlift kranzberg landscape

If you thought “idyllic, gently rolling parkland” isn’t a landscape description you’d normally associate with a ski area, you’d be right. The blue run back to the chairlift is very scenic, but it is also the least downhill-sloping ski run I have ever seen. Probably great fun for lazy ski tourers, but not at all on a snowboard. The other (north) side of the mountain is somewhat more normal, with ski runs that actually go downhill most of the way, reached by a couple of quite steep draglifts. The runs are short but pleasant, and every snowboarder should practice draglift skills from time to time, however reluctantly – you never know when one of the accursed things might obstruct your path to an otherwise decent bit of mountain.

As I’ve said before, “if I’ve only been somewhere once, please assume that my rating is heavily biased by whether the snow there happened to be good or bad that day.” It’s hard to avoid having fun on a snowboard anywhere where there’s half a metre of fresh snow by the side of the piste, and the piste-side snow last weekend at Kranzberg was lovely.

I found a(nother) website dedicated to quaint and obscure German ski resorts. Here’s what they have to say about Kranzberg.

related entries: Snowboarding

back on the glacier

16th March 2009 permanent link

For various reasons – different interests and priorities, different group of friends – in the last two winters I haven’t revisited any of the places I used to regularly go snowboarding back in 2000-2001 (apart from a single day at Waidring)

This weekend, though, I’m off with the family to the Stubai glacier, which used to be one of my favourite boarding spots. I’m excited to see how it holds up. Assuming it’s glacier weather; you never know in the middle of March. At the moment the weather’s mild, with wet, heavy, dangerous snow lower down, so a good time to go up high on glaciers. Towards the end of the week it’s supposed to get colder again though. In which case there are plenty of other lower resorts in the area that I’ve never been to, and that would be good too.

related entries: Snowboarding

Hochfügen ☆☆☆

11th March 2009 permanent link

Times visited:once
Last visited:January 2001

I only visited Hochfügen once, a long time ago, but I was impressed and I’m keen to go back.

The top of the ski area is a huge bowl of powder snow. It was when I went there, anyway, which was admittedly the day after a big snowfall. It’s high up for a non-glacier resort (as hinted at by the name “Hochfügen”) and generally has a reputation for good snow. There are also long, steep and interesting looking red and black runs down in the trees. And a lift connection over the other side of the mountain to the huge Hochzillertal ski area, which I’ve never visited but I suspect there would be little danger of running out of things to do.

related entries: Snowboarding

spitzing by bob

11th March 2009 permanent link

On Sunday I went snowboarding at Spitzingsee by train on the Bayerische Oberland Bahn. There’s a lot to be said for not driving to the mountains. As with taking the bus, there’s a minor amount of hassle getting self and gear to & from the station, but then you can sit and read or listen to music or sleep. And coming back in the evening when you're tired from a hard day in the mountains is a lot safer and more pleasant if you fall asleep on a train, than if you fall asleep driving on the autobahn. (My family don’t really appreciate this benefit, since they listen to music or sleep anyway while I drive). Door-to-lift time to Spitzingsee for me by public transport is under two hours. Under an hour door-to-lift is theoretically possible by car, assuming no traffic jams, but assuming no traffic jams on a sunny Sunday after it just snowed for three days would be foolish.

I really don’t fit the snowboarder demographic on the BOB though. The rest were teenagers on their way to Spitzingsee’s “Burton Funpark”. “Fun” meaning, in this case, terrifying-looking leaping around in the air. Tricks are for kids. It really struck me just how beautiful these young people are – these being, of course, fit, athletic young people cheerfully heading out for a day’s play with their friends. My son, I found myself thinking, might be one of these beautiful young men in ten years or less, off in search of adventure with his friends. If he is, I hope the young women he travels with will be just as beautiful as the ones today. I also hope he’ll be able to think of a way to impress them without risking his neck leaping around in half-pipes – which just means I’m finally beginning to understand how my climbing was for my mother.

I was just back from two weeks’ family holiday, and I had decided to award myself a day of Me Time. Snowboarding alone has its disadvantages, though. It’s not safe to do any kind of serious off-piste. The Bavarian avalanche warning service said the risk level below the treeline on Sunday was moderate, but avalanches aren’t the only bad thing that can happen to the hapless lone mountain-goer. Not by a long chalk. Quite apart from danger, there’s also the social embarrassment of looking like Johnny No Mates. But reality must be faced, and part of my current reality is that I do indeed have no mates near at hand who are able or willing to abandon their families at short notice for a day out in the mountains. I still had a great time. And next weekend I go out for my first ever serious off-piste tour with two of my middle aged dad mates – planned and approved by our wives long in advance.

Excellent Spitzingsee tip from my colleague Ketil: on a good day, when the main runs from the Stumpfling and Sutten lifts are sure to be unpleasantly crowded, take the old Taubenstein cabin lift up the other side of the valley instead. No lift queues, quiet pistes, better snow even. There’s a nice little safe & easy powder slope to warm up on between the blue pistes on the Maxlrainer draglift.

related entries: Snowboarding

stallion’s head

9th March 2009 permanent link

Do everything you fear
In this there’s power
Fear’s not to be afraid of
James, Sound

I feared the Rosskopf (Stallion’s Head) draglift at Spitzingsee when I first saw it, almost exactly a year ago. Looking across at it from the top of the main chairlift, it looked to be the steepest and fastest draglift I had ever seen. So yesterday I went on it. It’s ok. It is indeed very steep for a draglift, but it doesn’t feel as fast as it looks and it’s only short.

As it turns out, it’s probably a good thing that the Rosskopf has an intimidating-looking lift. The top hundred metres or so of the unpisted black run down the front of the mountain are very steep indeed. In anything other than yesterday’s perfect snow, it would be one of the hardest things I have ever done on a snowboard. Yesterday it was fun – just.

related entries: Snowboarding

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