It was dark by the time we arrived in Vienna. We hadn't even expected to be arriving at all that day, but had made such good time on the ride from the Czech town of Znojmo that we now found ourselves at a McDonalds on the outskirts of town, trying to borrow a cell phone to call our host as it grew dark around us.
We had tried calling Maria a few times already with no luck, and Hamilton and I were now left sitting in a booth, eating fries, trying to think of what to do next. There was really nowhere to set up our tents discreetly at this point. On all sides we were surrounded by highway, industry, and the Danube. The route into Vienna, at least the one we took, certainly did little in the way of first impressions, and seemed as though it couldn't be further contrasted with the cities historic reputation as a hub for art and culture.
It was now nearing 8:00pm and we figured we'd give Maria one more call before leaving and looking for alternatives. No one in the McDonalds had a cell phone (at least not one they would lend us), but we were able to find one next door at the convenience store after some rough miming and translating.
I dialled the number once more and held my breath.
I explained to Maria our situation and, although a little surprised, she quickly assured us it was no problem for us to come a day early. Relieved I hung up and relayed the news to Hamilton, and we began the hour long ride through the dark to Maria and Birgit's place. Following a network of cycle paths through a manmade island and park in the middle of the river, we stopped along the way for some long exposure shots of the Danube and the city skyline to commemorate our arrival.
It didn't take long to realize that there was more to modern Vienna than the history we generally hear about. Both Maria and Birgit were bicycle messengers, heavily involved in the cycling community, and introduced us to a number of their friends at a BBQ the night after we arrived. We met a lot of great people at the party, but left with a sense that – at least within the cycling community, there was a definite edge, a grittiness not to be expected from one of Europe's historic capitals of culture and refinement.
The grittiness continued to reveal itself as I explored the city further, and it clashed wonderfully with the ornate churches and architecture of centuries past. Vienna was alive and vibrant, full of life, as well as history.
I spent a couple days simply wandering the streets, at the time mostly drawn to the historic architecture and sights, especially the Schonbrunn Palace, who's grounds seemed to offer endlessly interesting angles and compositions. It's only looking back now however that I realize the wealth of photographic opportunities I missed out on from a street photography perspective. I could feel the grit and vibrancy while I was there, but I was too easily seduced by the more instantly gratifying sights of grand architecture and historic monuments.
Only this photo captures what I felt to be the underbelly of Vienna, the opposing side of the coin to the pomp and grandeur the city is better known for. I realize that both sides are equally present and important in making the city what it is, but looking back I wish I had dug into some of the intricacies and peeled back the shining veneer a little further to view what lay beneath.
I think a lot of times as photographers we're drawn to a place based on what we've heard about it, or seen in the photos of others. Once we get there ourselves then, we forget to ask ourselves the key questions we should always be asking of a new subject.
Who is this subject? What makes subject place unique? What is the personality of the subject and how can I bring that to the fore? What can I do to best tell the story of this subject truthfully through my camera?
It's been almost two years since I was in Vienna, and only now am I realizing what I left on the table during my stay. I'll take it however, as a valuable lesson to keep in mind for future explorations. Seldom, if ever is a reputation earned in bygone centuries still 100% accurate or relevant today. And while some may view that with dismay, it only means that there have since been new layers of interest added, ripe for the peeling back and digging into.
Have you ever realized after the fact that a place you were photographing was actually something other than you realized at the time? Do you feel like you've “missed out” on certain locations, even after spending time in them and photographing extensively? Let me know in the comments and keep the conversation going!
If you found this article useful, entertaining, or inspiring I would love it if you would consider signing up for my weekly newsletter so I can keep you up to date with more great content! If you know someone else who might enjoy this, or any other article I've published, please consider sharing it through any of the social buttons below, or via email. If you have any questions, comments, or want to talk about photography, travel, storytelling, or anything else, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!