#863. St John-of-the-Light

By philberphoto | Travel Photography

May 27
No fog, no haze, right?

I knew there was something special as soon as I got there, on an evening after sundown. I immediately whipped out my phone to capture the moment. It was a brand new phone. No, not the Otus-Huawei brilliantly described by Adrian. An iPhone Xr. The first snaps looked technically gorgeous on the phone screen. Logical, inevitable conclusion: this phone is a fabulous picture-taker. Colours, contrast, detail, all there! Almost like an invisible layer of fog/haze had been removed that plagues “all other places”. The exact opposite of Pascal’s gorgeous pictures … And I began to go down the slippery slope of heresy, the one that has swallowed up tens of millions of camera owners and (almost) Pascal. If this phone is THAT good, who needs a camera?

Home is the sailor, home from the sea…

I was wrong however. I pulled out my trusted Sony A7 RII and Zeiss primes, and they did better than the phone, and not by a small margin. Whew! things were back to normal.

Attachment in the pre-hypertext days…

Being in this seaside resort of the south-west of France for a multi-day brainstorming session still allowed me shooting opportunities. I slipped out every morning at or before sunup and happily snapped away until it was time to go back, clean up, have breakfast and start making brainwaves. And the same during afternoon/evening breaks. Perfect!

While the first evening had been cloudy, the next couple of days included “perfect weather”, except a cloudless sky is not conducive to the more spectacular pictures of sunups and sunsets. But complaining would have been crass, right?

The bliss of an early morning walk cum photography… or is it the reverse?

Saint-Jean-de-Luz, as this resort is called, was once a busy tuna and sardine fishing port, and it has escaped most of the horrors of sea-resort development. And being there off-season is to be treasured. It combines Basque identity with a sea culture, and, among other joys, offers many fine and some very fine restaurants. Being there in season however is another story, unless you enjoy severe overcrowding. Maybe not as bad as neighboring Biarritz, but close.

Looks just like a phone pic’, don’t it?

But I digress. Back to photography. Saint-Jean-de-Luz is definitely an un-destination as long as you go there in un-season. That is when you can get un-forgettable images. And yes, in season, they will be forgettable..:-)

When the light is so wonderful, who needs a lighthouse?

That is when I understood why Saint-Jean-de-Luz is so generous with great light, clarity, luminosity, contrast and colours. Its name. It means St-John-of-the-Light… Which goes to show that whoever named this village many centuries ago knew all about photography…

a bridge across.. forever (c) Richard Bach

And no, there are no phone pics in this post. That is for later. Mebbe…

Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer…

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  • grinch says:

    Lovely pics, and a bonus that there are no baby boomers.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    “When the light is so wonderful, who needs a lighthouse?” – I love it, Philippe!
    The first time I reached the south, I was told very very bluntly & firmly that the south-west corner of the country is “verboten” – basque! – alien! Tourists of course don’t care about local issues, so they go there anyway, as you mention – Biarritz has been the destination of choice for countless holidays for wealthy Brits, and no doubt Americans have pursued them there, in droves. So till now, nobody has mentioned St Jean de Luz to me. It still looks like a fishing port, rather than a tourist destination.
    And yes, complaining about the weather is utterly pointless – we have no control over it, and have only two choices – to live with it or do the other thing. I gave up complaining about weather years ago, because it was so utterly pointless – without sunshine, the leaves and flowers would not form, and without rain, the grapes would not produce the wines for my table.
    Cellphones? – Yes – “tick”, for convenience – “tick” for the fact they produce quite nice photos – especially so, in the hands of complete idiots, who could never hope to get so many soul-less, boring selfies with a “proper” camera. But there are technical issues ahead, which I simply defy them to resolve. The “real” camera industry has been trying to “do better” for years, and it is apparent that size determines image quality. Of course if people are only chasing after snapshots to share on their SMS’s these issues are irrelevant, and they can convince themselves that their photos are magical. But as soon as they are printed & enlarged, it all changes.
    And if the “real” camera industry, with all its technical expertise, experience and other resources, has been unable to go beyond these technical limitations, it’s rather ludicrous to imagine that a telephone manufacturer will.
    PS – I love your last picture the most – when you were finally able to capture the golden hour!

    • philberphoto says:

      Pete, that so many people think the Basque country is “verboten” (c) Pete Guaron means it is not overrun with tourists the way other delightful places are. And it has so much to offer, the sea, the mountain, the food, the light. Yes, the light. It is not always the same quality. Did you ever notice how wonderful the light is, in places like Saint-Jean-de-Luz? See you there!

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    Looks like lighting to kill for. Early morning in most cases, with enough cloud cover to create just enough diffused light for good color and contrast without glaring. Beautiful set of pictures.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    let me quote:
    “a bridge across.. forever (c) Richard Bach”

    New to me, I’ve enjoyed his writing on flying, and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull – which may also have been suitable for a fishing port essay…
    – – –

    > “Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer…”
    Yes, they say so, and a seafarer is ever drawn back…

    But I think Joseph Conrad comes nearer to it saying about the Sea:
    “… To love it is not well. …”

    From his The Mirror of the Sea,
    at the end of chapter XXXVI.:
    (available at Project Gutenberg)

    “… And I looked upon the true sea— ….. Open to all and faithful to none, it exercises its fascination for the undoing of the best. To love it is not
    well. It knows no bond of plighted troth, no fidelity to misfortune, to
    long companionship, to long devotion. The promise it holds out
    perpetually is very great; but the only secret of its possession is
    strength, …”

    [ This is my absoute favorite book by Conrad, and a great book on the Sea.]

    • philberphoto says:

      Kristian, thank you for your quote of Conrad. You should see the smile on my face…:-). And,, if you enjoyed other writings by Bach, I recommend the bridge across forever. I checked, it is available on Amazon.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Thanks Philippe!
    I can imagine your smile, mine is often there when I read The Mirror of the Sea, 🙂 .

  • Dallas says:

    Philippe, what a great post. Now Anne & I have another place to visit on our next trip to France thanks to you.Your collection of shots are exccellent. Dallas

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    I like a lot this velvety light… like a caress 🙂
    You captured it intact!

    OT, who would anyway dare calling a lighthouse a building without light equipment 🙂

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    You have captured the “vibe” of St. Jean-de-Luz, Philippe! They take me right back to my two trips there several years ago. More Americans should visit St. Jean-de-Luz (off season) instead of the over-hyped Biarritz, in my humble opinion. I fondly remember the sea & the seafood, wandering thru town, and being undeniably happy to be there!

  • MurphyWasAnOptimist says:

    Thanks for capturing the beauty of Donibane Lohizune.

    It would pain me to rain on your parade but I’m sure you must know (as indeed everyone who visits does, and everybody with access to Wikipedia could) that “Luz” in the toponym comes from the Basque, not the Castilian. Hence, it does not refer to light, but to “a place in the swamp”. The whole name translates as « Saint-Jean des marécages », Saint-John-in-the-swamps.

    Wish I had Wikipedia back when I first visited Donibane Lohizune. In 1974, the circumstances were a bit different. In Spain, the Franco régime was suffocating in its protracted agony. The Basque provinces on the Spanish side were haunted by ETA terrorism and violent repression. Nominally, the language was still forbidden. On the French side, the air was tense. I was a young journalistic tyro with an unwieldy Zenza Bronica 6×6 and a sense of doom impending at the hands of the Guardia Civil, once I would cross the Bidassoa border.

    By sheer luck, my guide in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and subsequently in much of the Basque country, happened to be the director of the Musée Basque de Bayonne and professor of Basque language and literature at Bordeaux University, Jean Haritschelhar. He elucidated the meaning of Donibane Lohizune, and much else besides. An earthy son of the mountains, with contacts in the remotest villages and an encyclopedic memory, Haritschelhar steered me through the Basque country.

    Notably, he poured cold mountain water over any romantic Hugo-esque notions I might entertain about the local folk lore. He loved the down-to-earth, self-deprecating manner the Basque have of naming some of their most radiant places: “It is what it is. It looks how it looks. If it looks better than it is named, all the better.” As, indeed, in Donibane Lohizune.

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks for this informative, eloquent comment! It is comments such as yours, Kristian’s and others that make DS sucha special place for me. I stand corrected, of course, but that does not make my argument about the quality of the light less applicable. Se non e vero, e ben trovato…

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        ROTFLMHAO – it’s like history, Philippe – truth is whatever you want it to be!

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