Reflecting on My First Year of Travel Photography: 15 of My Favorite Photos
August 3, 2016 | Mark Iandolo
Last summer, I quit my job and decided to follow my rediscovered dream: to tell stories. Focusing at first on photography and writing, I set off to Europe for a three-month autumn adventure that involved seeing 10 countries, dozens of historic monuments, and a few bed bugs crawling around my budget hostel room beds. In the spring, I visited Japan – by far the number 1 item on my travel bucket list – for five weeks. The Land of the Rising Sun was better than I could ever have imagined.
Through it all, I have developed an idea for a lifelong passion project: In Pursuit of Wonder. In Pursuit of Wonder is dedicated to documenting the natural and man-made beauty of this Earth – inspiring people to travel and rediscover the world around them. The goal: To create an archive of global wonders – UNESCO World Heritage Sites, stunning landscapes, iconic landmarks, historic and modern cities, and roads less traveled.
There are many places yet to visit. And I have many ideas for how to develop the project even farther, from publishing photo books to learning and incorporating video to writing long-form travel stories/novels. But for now, I’d just like to share with you my favorite 15 images from my first year of traveling the globe. These images were selected for their quality (both in my opinion and those of friends and fans) and for what they represent to me, the moment and memory they invoke.
I’ve also compiled short stories from various places (my blog and social media sites) to accompany each photo.
Blooming sakura trees become the envy of every flower in the natural world during springtime in Japan.
"A perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your whole life looking for one and it would not be a wasted life." – Lord Katsumoto in 'The Last Samurai'
Capturing the beauty of the Sakura has been a goal of mine for as long as I can remember. During my travels in Japan this spring, I was able to witness what was called one of the best blossom seasons in years.
The Meguro River, which flows through Tokyo, is lined with hundreds of cherry trees. When night falls, the lights come on, the colors clash, and the crowds thin out just enough to find a peaceful moment taking in the wonder of the bloom.
While I was lucky to witness an amazing Sakura season on my first try, there is still so much more to capture. That's the beauty of it - these trees bloom for a week a year, and all it takes is some bad weather to destroy it all. In my ideal future, I'm back in Japan almost every spring trying to capture the perfect Sakura season. I'd like to believe that that would not be a wasted life.
Day softly turns to night in Vernazza, as seen from one of the most majestic overlooks on this planet.
My December visit to the Cinque Terre almost never happened. I had been traveling Europe for almost three months at the time, and I was all set to go up into Austria from Lake Bled, Slovenia. But I was so over the cold and overcast grays that had plagued me since Germany, that I just couldn't do it.
So I set my eyes on a new prize: the UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Italian Riviera that has been a dream for photographers since the dawn of the camera (I assume). I quickly redirected my course and booked three nights (which turned into seven) in Manarola.
This photo was taken at probably the most famous sunset viewpoint in the five towns. I knew I wanted to get this shot, so I decided to go there first – before I had even gone to my hostel. I arrived on a train from Florence at 4 p.m. (after getting on the wrong train and then missing my stop because I couldn't figure out how to open the train door in time), so to make the 4:45 sunset, I needed to act quickly.
With time running out, I got off the train in Vernazza and sprinted around town asking people how to find the overlook. Despite three semesters of Italian, my language skills basically consist of "Ciao!" and "gelato!" Luckily, I eventually found an English speaker that pointed me in the right direction. A direction that included climbing hundreds of stairs, and I had all of my baggage with me. Not to be deterred, I picked up my roller suitcase and Ninja Warrior'd up the steps. I finally reached the spot, sweating profusely, and mixed in among the other photographers. I dropped my stuff and looked out over the railing...
So what happens when you finally reach a travel spot that you've seen in dozens of photos over the years, that you've endlessly dreamed of visiting? Well, you look out at the view and one of two things happens:
1. You realize that the photos lied to you and the place isn't all its cracked up to be.
2. You realize that no photo could do the place justice and that, for a brief moment, you've left this planet and are looking at something celestial.
I could wax poetic here, but really all I'll say is that Vernazza is the latter. I set up my camera gear and photographed a soft sunset, all the time thinking about how my dreams were alive. In that hour, nothing could stop me from feeling like I was on top of the world.
During a frigid December morning in Budapest, visibility at the Chain Bridge is almost non-existent. If you look over the side, you can't even see the water.
The Chain Bridge, regarded upon its completion as one of the world's modern architectural wonders, has been a cultural icon to Hungary in the way the Brooklyn Bridge has been to New York City and the United States.
One foggy morning, well before dawn, I walked across the bridge and couldn't see for more than a few feet. An eerie moment, yes, but one that felt ethereal and mystical.
The interesting thing about this image is that it was a throw-away shot. I didn't think much of it, but decided to put it on Instagram recently because I was memory-wanderlusting for eastern Europe. One of my best friends later texted me that he really loved it, so I posted it to the popular photography website 500px and it became one of my best-performing images there.
The streets pulsate at night in this dutch angle shot of Japan's second city.
"Tokyo may have more money and Kyoto more culture; Nara may have more history and Kobe more style. But Osaka has the biggest heart." - Vikas Swarup. But what gives Osaka that heart?
It's been called Japan's second city for its modern hip vibe when compared to big brother Tokyo. This vibe comes to life through its bold, modern architectural style, which creates a dramatic contrast with Japan's steep history. The two versions of Japan, old and new, come together beautifully in Osaka. The history comes in the form of Osaka Castle, which rests in a park surrounded by skyscrapers. The future comes in places like the Umeda District where the "City of Air" project resulted in two connected structures called the Umeda Sky Building, or in places like the traffic-filled intersection seen in this photo.
Osaka's been called the Merchant City. An economic hub for hundreds of years, Osaka has become a fast paced business culture driving the country into the future.
Osaka's been called the Nation's Kitchen as it historically played a vital role in managing the nation's distribution of goods. This nickname has taken new meaning in recent times, as the city's foodie culture flourishes. Walk the streets at night and see hundreds of tiny, ten-seat restaurants – always full and always serving delicious meals like okonomiyaki.
I think it's the combination of all these elements that gives Osaka the heart Swarup mentioned. Head from ancient castles to bridges in the sky. Stare at urban density for as far as the eye can see. Feast on some of the best food in the country, and maybe the world. These aspects of the city effortlessly entwine to create a beating heart unlike anywhere else in the Land of the Rising Sun.
A fiery sunset erupts over Prague, providing a majestic backdrop to the bridges and spires of the Golden City.
According to legend, Prague was founded in the 8th century when Czech prophetess Libuše, peering out from a rocky cliff high above the Vltava River, proclaimed: "I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars." A thousand years and a thousand spires later, that prophecy proved true.
The seat of Holy Roman Emperors and Kings of Bohemia. The home of one of the most photographed bridges in existence, a fabled old town square and a fairytale castle. Built along a picturesque European river – among meadows and trees as the country's national anthem says.
The defining shot of Prague may just be this view of the bridges and spires from Letna Park. When the sun sets just right, as it did here, the entire city is cast in beautiful, golden light. A fitting sunset for a fitting city, and standing in this spot watching it, you know Libuše was right.
The streets are quiet at night in Rothenburg, a perfectly preserved medieval town in Germany.
This past December, I visited Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a quaint, picturesque town in Germany. I was struck by the village's medieval architecture and living, breathing history.
Located in the heart of the Franconia region, Rothenburg became a thriving city during the middle ages. Fate was cruel, however, and the combination of the plague and the Thirty Years War crushed the population.
This brought with it a silver lining – the fact that no modernization happened in the town over the centuries following. Now, the entire town exists almost entirely in its medieval state, including the fortress walls that surround the city. It’s also the home to Käthe Wohlfahrt, the famous Christmas toy-making company.
Unfortunately, this all means that the town is overrun by tourists during the day, but I found it exciting to walk the streets at night when the town is quiet and if you open your ears (and imagination), you can begin to hear the echoes of centuries past.
The still-dead trees on the left contrast with the blooming cherry blossom tree on the right, creating the perfect story for Osaka Castle – a structure destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the last four centuries.
My favorite novel of all time is called “Shogun.” Here’s a poetic description of the book on Amazon, which is so perfectly, succinctly written that I needn’t bother trying to write one myself: “A bold English adventurer. An invincible Japanese warlord. A beautiful woman torn between two ways of life, two ways of love. All brought together in an extraordinary saga of a time and a place aflame with conflict, passion, ambition, lust, and the struggle for power…”
The thousand-page epic, written by James Clavell, explores the impact on East and West of the meeting of these two distinct cultures and civilizations. More importantly to this image, however, the story’s conflict centers around a fictionalized version of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his rise to become the ultimate ruler of Japan – the Shogun.
And at the center of that conflict? Osaka Castle – a lavish structure built by another warlord to surpass every other castle in the country.
One afternoon, I sat nearby the castle and read the novel for a second time. I was just enjoying a cool spring afternoon. Having already shot multiple images of the Castle, I was waiting patiently for the cherry blossoms in the nearby garden to hit peak bloom a few days later. In the mean time, I just enjoyed being around such magnificent history and architecture.
However, I reached a part in the book where the English character sees the Castle for the first time and is blown away by its sheer size and splendor. The way it just seems to impose its will over the surrounding landscape. Succumbing to how “meta” the situation felt – I was reading about Osaka Castle in a 50-year-old book while sitting outside Osaka Castle itself 14 time zones away from my home state of Florida – I looked up and realized just how imposing and regal the castle looked from my seat.
And rays of golden light were hitting the side of it that faced the sun. Instantly the book was in my bag and my camera was out. I quickly set up my composition and began shooting.
As is often the case despite how much planning I like to do, many of my favorite photos end up being happy accidents. Everything came together: The way the rule of odds is at play here, with three total subjects. The way the dead trees on the left and the shadowed part of the castle contrast the lighted side of the castle and the blooming tree on the right. Blooming with cherry blossoms, which have historically represented the fragility, beauty and passion of life. The way these components symbolically tell a greater story about the regal, imposing castle behind them. A castle constructed because of one man’s ambition. Destroyed and rebuilt countless times through war and peace. The way it's all topped off by the best late-afternoon sky I saw during my five weeks in Japan.
All of these elements brought together in a scene representing conflict, passion, ambition and power. With Osaka Castle right at the center of it all.
The historic center of Prague was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In this photo, a city vehicle makes it way across Charles Bridge through the crowds of people as night descends upon Prague. In the distance, the largest castle in the world turns its lights on – and thousands of tourists and residents all over the city stop and stare at the castle's fairytale like St. Vitus Cathedral.
A thousand torii gates – with kanji meticulously etched into their pillars – line the walkways at Fushimi Inari, a shrine dedicated to the fox kami.
Kyoto's history and preserved culture bring tourists from around the globe. So I went to Fushimi Inari early in the morning and had the place almost completely to myself.
The shinto shrine rests at the base of a mountain. Its path of Torii gates spans almost four kilometers. Hiking along the winding trail under the gates and through the forested hills, I almost lost all touch with the real world.
The bustle never ends at one of London's most famous icons.
You could spend every day walking along the Thames in London, enjoying the timeless sights and the moments big and small, and never grow tired of it. And that's exactly what I did when I spent a week in London. Be it morning, afternoon or night, I walked along this iconic river every single day. It wasn't till the last night that I thought, "Wait a minute, I should get a shot of Tower Bridge with a red bus passing underneath."
A quintessential Japanese scene unfolds as Himeji Castle, towering over the surrounding landscape, basks in the first light of the day.
How do you truly capture the wonder of arguably the most impressive castle complex in the world?
Himeji Castle, known as the “White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle” for its stark white exterior and its supposed resemblance to a bird taking flight, is the largest castle complex in Japan. The 41,468-square meter hilltop castle, one of Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites, dominates the surrounding area.
So how do you best represent this Japanese icon? This is the question I had when I arrived at Himeji Castle in April. Most photos you see of the building come from fairly close to it, and usually include cherry blossoms. But very few of the photos I came across on Google did justice to how immense the complex is and how dominant it is to the landscape.
After walking the massive castle grounds, a vision began to form in my head. I pictured the castle floating above the city of Himeji. I envisioned it as the cover of a fantasy novel, sitting dramatically on a forested hilltop with mountains in the background and a soft sunrise behind it – Japan is the known as “the Land of the Rising Sun” after all. I wanted an angular view of the castle, as the angles seem to bring out the best drama in all Japanese castle structures. But how to get this view?
Luck, it turns out. I toured the main donjon of the castle and from the top, I was scanning the horizon when I noticed a hill off in the distance that seemed to have an open area on the top. It literally sat at the exact height and angle from the castle that I had pictured in my mind.
I spent the night and the next morning on that hilltop alone, reveling in the castle’s majesty as seen from that viewpoint. Everything I had envisioned had come together. But what struck me about this vantage point, besides its closeness to the picture in my mind, is how simple the composition ended up being. How do you capture the wonder of one of the most impressive castles in the world? Create a simple composition that lets the castle itself do the talking.
The sun sets behind the monolithic rocks of Meteora, casting a last ray onto Holy Trinity Monastery and the autumn foliage in the valley.
Meteora needs no subtitle. The word, the title itself, evokes such a colossal, imaginative feeling that you just know it's something powerful. I spent four days hiking through Meteora, watching the sun rise, watching it set, and losing myself in the beauty of it all.
Meteora comes from the word meteor, which means "suspended in the air." That's exactly what these monasteries are. Six remain at this UNESCO world heritage site. And each of them, suspended up there on the massive rocks, speak to your soul. They suspend YOU in the air. They freeze all else and leave you in silent awe that such a place might actually exist.
You can spend hours hiking through the valleys, constantly looking up, awestruck at nature's capability for beauty and man's capability for achievements of wonder. You can spend hours sitting among the rocks, looking out at the wide-sweeping grandeur before you. Lost in the moment. Suspended in the air.
The tranquil evening contrasts the quaint yet chaotic architecture in Vernazza, a gem of the Ligurian coastline.
I recently heard a song by Asaf Avidon that goes, "One day baby we'll be old, oh baby we'll be old and think of all the stories that we could have told."
What stories does this centuries-old gem of the Ligurian coastline have to tell? What stories do its generations of fishermen and winemakers have to tell? Or the thousands of wanderlust-stricken souls who have visited?
Two Japanese women stop on the streets of Kyoto and look up at Yasaka Pagoda, a cherished landmark of the historic Gion district.
Kyoto is one of the most preserved cities in Japan – 2,000 temples and shrines dot the sprawling town. Nicknamed "the thousand-year capital," Kyoto rivals Istanbul and Rome when it comes to history.
When I first got into photography last year, I came across an image of Yasaka Pagoda that spoke to me on a deeper level. It just seemed to be "quintessential Japan." So of course I'd make it my primary photography goal in Kyoto.
The Hanatouro Lights Festival was underway during my time here. It provided a perfect extra element to the already magnificent Yasaka Pagoda and historic Gion District.
The church on Bled Island shimmers with golden light as the sun rises in Lake Bled, Slovenia.
Photographing a morning in this spot, watching night turn to day, had me feeling like a kid again – immersed in some fable, some fantasy tale of heroes and knights and good battling evil.
I spent a couple days in December in this stunning wonder of Slovenia. Even as the world’s worst morning person, I managed to make it up for sunrises like this – though after saying a prayer to the Red Bull god. Good thing I did. There’s something magical about being up this early, feeling like you’re the only person that exists on this planet, and watching a golden fable unfold.