The German language is many things. It can be stubborn, demanding, exacting and rigid. It can also be strangely elegant and beautiful. Easy, it is not. It’s spoken in three countries, and its dozens of dialects and regionalisms are so varied that someone from Hamburg visiting rural Bavaria would likely have a hard time understanding the locals, and vice versa.
As someone uniquely bad at learning foreign languages, German is an ambitious choice for me. Not only do I need to learn nouns, but I have to learn their gender too. Things can be masculine, feminine, or neuter, and even that can be confusing. “The woman” translates to the feminine die Frau, but “the girl” translates into the neuter das Mädchen.
Despite these personal frustrations, Germans have gifted the world with some special words. Without German, we’d be stuck at home without “wanderlust,” and without the word Schadenfreude how would we describe the joy we feel from another’s misfortune? Interestingly, some German words do not have an English translation. Kummerspeck literally means sorrow bacon, but more accurately describes the weight gained from emotional overeating. If someone calls you pantoffelheld, you might think they’re literally calling you a slipper hero, but they’re really saying that you’re henpecked.
Of all the German words that lack direct translation to English, none loom as large in the German consciousness as the concept of heimat.
Literally translated, heimat means homeland. That much is true, but it’s like saying that the Fourth of July means fireworks. It’s a part of the concept, but only the beginning. To Germans, heimat isn’t a word so much as a concept — it’s the place you feel most at home. It’s a feeling not of country, but of place — that place could be as large as your country, state or even village. It’s rooted in the home, feelings of nostalgia, safety, family, and language. It even has its own style of traditional music — typically the kind you hear at an American Oktoberfest. It’s a complex concept unfortunately made even more complex by its appropriation by Nazis in the 1930s and far-right groups today.
I’ve tried nailing down an easy translation with a few Germans, only to see a patient smile and a reassurance that I hadn’t quite nailed it down — the most polite “you had to be there” I’ve ever heard.
Slowly this concept of heimat took over my imagination. I couldn’t imagine that Germans had exclusive domain over its understanding, though the yearly heimatish festivals held in villages smaller than most Walmarts begged to differ. I decided to use an upcoming extended visit back home in the U.S. to see if I could lay claim to my own little piece of heimat.
A week before landing in America, I decided that the best way to explore my homeland would be with the tools I used to explore it as a kid — a Nikon N60 and Kodak Gold.
The N60 was my first camera — received as a birthday present and taken on countless trips to beaches, backwoods and battlefields. Nearly every memory that I captured on film from age twelve to twenty was taken on that camera and usually with Kodak Gold film. There’s something about Kodak Gold that already has me on a road to understanding Heimat. Is there a film with a name that flows easier or conjures nostalgic feelings than Kodak Gold? How many family memories were captured on how many millions of feet of its warm chemistry? How many prints made from it sit in family albums, sepia flavored from the sun?
The plan was to photograph the places I called home growing up, but to do so as effortlessly as I could. This meant switching the camera dial to automatic and shooting the film at box speed. I wanted to point, shoot and not think about anything but the location. In this regard, there probably isn’t any better tool for the job than the N60.
Called the F60 everywhere outside the U.S., the N60 debuted in 1998 and served as Nikon’s low-tier autofocus camera for amateurs until it was discontinued in favor of the N65 in 2001. It’s outfitted with everything the non-photographer would need to make acceptable photos; a metering range from EV 1-20, shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/2,000 of a second and a flash sync of 1/125. It has the full PSAM exposure complement along with completely automatic mode, as well as advanced modes such as “lady with a fancy hat,” “guy running,” “tulip,” “night time” and “economic outlook chart,” which I suppose is for landscapes. I was probably naive enough to use those features in 1999, but in 2019 I would just be using automatic mode. That decision was made for two reasons – first as an exercise in giving up control (important for someone like me) and second, to focus solely on composition (important for everyone.)
We write a lot on Casual Photophile of finding great deals on great film cameras, something that’s increasingly difficult to do. But cameras from the late nineties are one of the few remaining untapped veins for those looking for highly capable cameras with tiny price tags. The N60 I bought online cost me $15 with free shipping. When it arrived in Beaver, Pennsylvania it appears to have never been used. After ten minutes of searching, I couldn’t find a single blemish, scratch or marking to indicate its former life.
Things like 1/125th of a second flash sync, a shutter as fast as 1/2000th of a second and both automatic and manual exposure control were top shelf features at various points in time. This camera combines them all in a package that costs less than a case of bad beer. Let’s drive the point home. There are disposable cameras that cost more than this camera and they produce far worse images than the N60. My three-pack of Kodak Gold only cost three dollars less than the camera, bringing my total costs to $27. If you want the film experience for the least amount of money, it’s hard to beat this combination.
Rather than spend extra money on an N60 with a third-party zoom lens I used my Nikon 50mm f/1.7 AF-D lens, the cheapest lens money can buy, brand new. It was my first lens purchase many years ago and in that time I’ve learned that it’s the best $132 any Nikon user could spend.
With my nifty fifty screwed in and Gold loaded up, I set out through my hometown of Beaver.
Beaver is one of the thousands of American towns that is both loved by parents for its safe streets and good schools, and hated by kids for its lack of stimulation. If you’ve seen the film “Pleasantville,” then you’re familiar with Beaver in theory. Growing up, Beaver was famous for having one of the lowest crime rates in America and for having the longest serving mayor in history — a feat that enshrined the town in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Describe life in Beaver long enough and you’ll eventually start to reek of cliché. Town streets were wide enough to play pickup football. We would ride our bikes on weekends (before cell phones) and knew to be home for dinner, which was always paired with the NBC Nightly News. I grew up in a house that flew the flags of the Beaver Bobcats, Pittsburgh Steelers and Bruce Springsteen.
Beaver was luckier than most of the other towns in the county, as it escaped much of the economic turbulence that rocked Western Pennsylvania when steel management sought greener pastures. Because of this, kids from other schools called us cake eaters that lived in the “Beaver bubble.”
2019 Beaver is a bit nicer than 2003 Beaver. The five and dime store has been replaced by a Starbucks, the field we used for Saturday football games is now a gaudy mansion, there’s a burrito place, and enough niche stores on the main street to make you whistle “(Nothing But) Flowers” by Talking Heads. But Beaver’s institutions are still there; The Hot Dog Shoppe still has breakfast for less than a fiver and Kretchmar’s Bakery is still making the iced cookies I drooled over as a kid and proudly displays the photo of the staff with the President when he visited.
Unfortunately a severe case of jet lag was clouding my motivation, which wasn’t being helped by the cloudy weather familiar to anyone living in Western Pennsylvania. So while I was enjoying being home and reconnecting with my stomping grounds, the shutter count on the N65 was staying low.
But even with a low shutter count, I was still feeling frustration over my self-imposed limitations. In automatic mode, the N60 seemed hell bent on selecting an aperture of f/9.5 even if it could have easily had a smaller aperture for long distances or larger for closer objects. Once, while photographing loaves of bread, I switched to manual just to get down to f/1.8, an aperture that seemed to terrify the camera. The cameras meter would seem completely fine to a casual photographer, but to a neurotic like me it seemed to constantly poke my ribs.
The cloudy weather continued on multiple day trips to Pittsburgh. The Steel City boasts one of the most magnificent introductions if visitors come through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. The long tunnel opens to a skyline formed by three different rivers that consistently overwhelms the senses. Downtown Pittsburgh (“Dahntahn” in the local Yinzer dialect) is shaped by the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers joining to form the Ohio, and is packed with skyscrapers that stand as a testament to the city’s role as America’s biggest steel provider for a hundred years. By the time I entered the scene in 1987, Pittsburgh was already making its now-famous emergence from the steel exodus as a hub of technology and medicine.
Each visit to the city seemed to be a pilgrimage of sorts — to wash down a sandwich at Primani Brothers with a bottle of Iron City, to see the Pirates play the Rockies in America’s greatest ballpark and to see the statue of Mr. Rogers. In 2019 it was especially moving to hear the audio from the show that taught children to talk about their emotions and have conversations with all of their neighbors.
Pittsburgh is halfway between Beaver, where my dad comes from, and Blairsville, where my mom comes from and where much of my family still lives. There’s no amount of dementia that could make me forget the drive between those two towns, separated by an hour and a half, two tunnels and a major city.
Blairsville suffers unfairly for a lack of economic opportunity — a town filled with hard workers that have trouble finding work. Its main street has decidedly fewer options for shopping and eating and is anchored by a Dollar General. But statistics rarely tell the whole story and Blairsville is (for lack of a better word) a town with very little bullshit. The people there are honest and mostly lack the superficiality of better-off places. It’s telling that someone who voted for Jill Stein felt most comfortable in a town that overwhelmingly voted to restore greatness in 2016. As a kid, I listened to the majority of my Springsteen and Mellencamp in Beaver, but songs like The River and Minutes to Memories felt much more appropriate here.
Free of jet lag and with creative juices flowing again, I tackled Blairsville with gusto. Of the ten days I was there, at least seven of them saw me photographing its streets both day and night. Unsatisfied with just the N60, I also shot the town on my Nikon F4 (which I reviewed here) and D700. Photographing here felt different than anywhere else I’d ever photographed. For the first time, I felt a connection to the location that ran bone deep — something that’s not easy to say for someone uncomfortable with public displays of sentimentality.
Walking the streets of town with a camera was more than enough to conjure memories of playing whiffle ball in my grandparents’ yard, the sound of Pirates radio broadcasts, soft serve ice cream from Chaek’s window and Sunday mass at Saints Simon and Jude Church. More than anything, I can hear my grandfather at the end of a huge family meal coughing the word “pie” louder than anyone could possibly cough naturally.
I’d been searching for my own personal heimat, and now it felt like I’d tapped into the main line. I knew I’d struck paydirt because I couldn’t really explain why or how I’d found it. Here was a potent amalgam of “homeness” that combined memory, family, food, sounds and even the land itself. Most of all, it felt completely individual to me — something that couldn’t be shared. We all have some variation of it, each unique and exclusive.
This was truly autobiographical photography, so much that before flying home I made sure to leave the N60 in Blairsville, comforted knowing it would always be where I needed it to be. It annoyed me plenty and I hated that I couldn’t change the ISO setting, but it was reliable and never failed to do what it was designed to do.
It would be a few weeks before I mailed off my rolls of Gold and received scans from the lab. I felt giddy unzipping the folders and importing them into Lightroom. Giddiness quickly faded as I went through each photo feeling more and more underwhelmed with each click of the mouse. This wasn’t what I shot! I mean it was what I shot, because here are the images, but they didn’t capture what I saw through the viewfinder when I pushed the shutter button.
Some things are different because they happened in the past, and our memories of them are affected by every second that followed. We take photos to document those memories and keep them safe from the passing of time. What I had tried to do was to document the parts of my world that are un-photographable. The photo of a box of cookies from Kretchmar’s can never capture how those cookies taste just like a photo of the Pittsburgh skyline will never fully capture wonder we felt as kids riding the incline to see it.
And I can take a thousand photos of the bridge over the Conemaugh River in Blairsville, but none of them will ever capture the feeling of coming home that I’ve felt crossing that bridge for thirty-two years. You can see a photo, and you can experience a photo, but you can never live a photo. It would be like a German coming to western Pennsylvania and trying to define what the area means to me. I’d smile politely in reply and say yes, but you don’t quite have it. I’d try to give them the nicest “you had to be there” I could.
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Enjoyed this post so much I read it twice. As for Heimat? Seems like you nailed it.