Gems of Germany: The Saxonian Switzerland

Goals in landscape photography are often connected with places, gorgeous regions that one desires to get in front of the lens one day. This is perfectly alright, because it’s to a great part the fascination of being out in nature, soaking in the feeling of astounding places that motivates the photographic process. I often dream far far away and imagine what it would be like to see the Alaskan coast or the Milford Sound for the first time, and how I’d capture this moment in my camera. But – of course there is a but – evolving in photography is also about disconnecting a bit from the travel itch and about getting creative with what you find at your doorstep. In May I decided to get most of both methods: I travelled to a place that is awesome, but pretty close to my home and offers a great variety of possible subjects to get creative.

The place I’m talking about is the Saxonian Switzerland, a region in the east of Germany that spreads into the Czech Republic where it is called Bohemian Switzerland. The connection to the famous alpine country indicates that there might be mountains that dominate the landscape. While this is true, it’s not a classic mountain scenery that one will encounter. As a by-product of the alpine orogeny – which brought us the Alps, the Carpathians, the Pyrenees and may other ranges in Europe – the thick layers of sand stone that accumulated in the plains of central and northern Germany over millions of years got lifted, broke and were exposed to the weather. This process is responsible for all mountains of medium height that we sport in central Germany and the variety of shapes and reliefs is astounding. The Saxonian Switzerland is special among these small mountains. One image may give you an impression why:

The Monument Valley of Germany

In southeast Saxony and the neighbouring parts of the Czech Republic a huge block of sand stone was lifted without being tilted significantly. This resulted in a large sand stone plateau – not unlike the Colorado Plateau west of the Rocky Mountains in southwestern USA – that broke under the geologic pressure at a few places. What was more important – in the US and in Saxony – is the shaping power of wind and weather that the sand stone rocks have been exposed to. Water entered small cracks in the stone, deepening them into steep slots, narrow valleys or even broad bowls. The great thing is that this process is still underway and we are able to witness every step in the process at some point. What we get is a kaleidoscope of open plateaus, residual table mountains, countless cliffs, needles, spires and sand stone towers, arches, deep canyons, cascades, the broad valley of the mighty Elbe river and boulders of any shape and size populating the plains.

What is different to the Colorado Plateau is infact only a small detail: while the geogical and geomorphological processes are almost the same, the climate zone and vegetation sets both regions apart. The Saxonian Switzerland is not barren and dry, it’s rather densely forested and from time to time really wet. The sand stone here is also rather yellow and greyish and not red, by the way. When I stood at a view point the very first evening of my trip, the analogy to the Colorado Plateau stroke me immediately. Here we have a German Monument valley, and it’s filled with charismatic trees, sees fog quite often and boasts creeks and waterfalls like the Pacific Northwest – well, not quite as much and spectacular, but you get the idea. Here are a few more photos that give you a sense of the place.

I arranged my trip to the Saxonian Switzerland with two goals in mind. The first was obvious, to get a few cracking photos that show the grandeur of the place. I wanted it to look as wide and wild as possible. The famous local photographer Tobias Richter helped me out as a guide and led me to the best viewpoints of the area. The unstable weather helped quite a bit with dramatic clouds, wet grounds for fog and some unique light. The second goal I had in mind was to shoot some of the famous creeks and canyons the region is best known for. If you have seen a photo from around there it’s very likely that is a scene from the Kamenice river which flows besides ancient beech trees in a marvellous canyon. This is the most attractive spot for water photography, but certainly not the only one. Again, the wet weather helped and I was able to shoot well into the days for hours. I love shooting creeks inside dense, wet forests, but had far too little opportunity so far. So again this was only about the place, but also about deepening and developing an individual approach and routine in this subdomain of landscape photography. This worked out extremely well and I spent hours standing in creeks with drizzle on my head while tourists crouched under trees and hurried back to their case. And I got some nice photos as well, I think.

To my amazement I fulfilled a third goal without even planning for it. Over years I developed and approach to landscape photography that cherishes abstraction and reduction to the essence. I strive to boil down a place, a scene or a moment to the very few elements I feel vital and leave out the rest. This works for wide angle photos, where it is a result of a careful composition and from to time to time exposure effects. But I feel more and more satisfied leaving the lens in the backpack and discover more intimate scenes. It’s not exactly that I’d consider them nature macros, at least not all of them, but I strongly select only a few elements of a place I concentrate on. I was surprised how extensively I could live out this side of photography and how much beauty was to be found in the details. Here are only a few of the many intimate scenes I photographed.

After the three days I asked myself whether this weekend close to home was less or more satisfying photographically as a trip to a far far away place. I came to realize that as much as I love travelling to exciting destinations all over the world, shooting can be fulfilling wherever you are. Infact, I created so many images that I really like, that I must confess that working creatively with what your surroundings offer may bring equal results and help you develop as a photographer than throwing yourself into a far-flung photography bonanza. I will do both in the future, for sure.