I’ve always been amazed by my father’s dad, even though I have very few memories spending time with him. My “Poppy” was a career photographer for National Geographic. He was born before the turn of the century (February 24, 1898… have you ever known anyone from the 1800’s?!) in a rural town in Delaware that even today only boasts a few hundred residents. He raised his family in Washington DC and got to travel the world for his work (long before traveling the world was something you actually did). These are all things that I find particularly fascinating and I have discovered we even have a few parallels in our lives. Except, he was a rather short man and I’m basically what you call basketball height (5’9″ is about the tallest you’ll see on the court, right?).
A scene along Lago di Maggiore
Of all those attributes, his long-standing career with National Geographic is probably the most interesting to me (and one I’m happy to brag about). On a whim one day (several years ago), my sister-in-law, Jessica googled his name and was surprised at the results. Over 400 of his images appeared on websites like art.com and others (I’m still researching how I can lay claim to the royalties… lawyers feel free to message me). Jessica conspired with Jen and they surprised me with an huge print of one of his 1950’s Washington DC images (I was living downtown at the time). Since Jen’s parents, Dominic and Diane had just purchased their condo in the Lake Como, Jessica and Diane also purchased one of his more famous 1950’s lake images in order to surprise me twice, as well as Jen. When the gifts were presented, my dad, beaming with pride ran out of the room for a moment and came back with the two original copies of National Geographic magazines that contained those exact images. I kept one magazine with my image at my home in Washington DC, and we took the other magazine to Dominic and Diane’s condo in Italy to be with the print that now hangs above our bed.
My grandfather’s photo that appeared in the August 1950 issue of National Geographic
I promise, there’s a reason I’m giving such a long account of my personal family history and it all ties back to my wonderful wife. Not only was she thoughtful enough to present me with this great present a few years ago, but she also had a fantastic idea for a day-trip when my parents came to visit, which they did recently.
Julia was all smiles when her “Pop-Pop” and Grandma got off the plane. My folks had been with us to Lake Como before, but this was the first time in warm weather. They were excited to see everything with new eyes, all over again.
“Benvenuto, Pop-pop and Grandma”
Julia shows them around Italy
We had a long, but flexible plan laid out. We went to a small nearby lake, Lago di Montorfano and had a picnic.
Julia splashes in Lago di Montorfono right by our house
Then she needed a little gelato to cool down
We went for a drive along Lake Como and visited one of our favorite towns, Menaggio.
Stefani and Sonny are all smiles in Menaggio
Julia wanted to tell Pop-Pop a secret
I think she told him to smile
Julia can’t hog all the kisses from Pop-pop and Grandma
She wanted to touch the water but would get startled at each little wave crash
We also took a day trip to Monza – a town famous for the Formula 1 races that are held in the streets each September.
In front of the chiesa (church)
Julia insisted on “petting” the lion
And of course, we visited downtown Como. On the day we were in Como, there was Fiat 500 rally in Piazza Cavour. Recently, I was telling some American friends about this gathering of miniature vehicles and describing the car as the “Fiat Cinquecento”. They were looking at me like they had no idea what I was talking about and I was getting more and more frustrated – “Come on… I know that you know what I’m talking about. They’ve been in the States for a long time now. The little car. The Cinquecento!” Finally, I realized that I had been saying “five hundred” in Italian and so it wasn’t making any sense to him!
Classic old Fiat 500’s
This guy had his 500 equipped right – barrels of wine attached to the roof!
Hey, even security needs a little vino!
Of all the day trips though, Jennifer had planned something that eclipsed them all. She had decided that we would find the exact spot where my grandfather captured his lake image and recreate the exact same photo. I thought this was a marvelous idea, but equated it to finding a needle in the haystack. I think my dad thought it was the best idea he had ever heard and didn’t doubt for a moment that we would find the location. Since we had the original magazine, we read the account of the photo described by my grandfather. He captioned the photo, Summer Villas in Tiny Ronco Flank the Shores of Europe’s Deepest Lake, Maggiore, Shared by Switzerland and Italy. So it turned out that the image was actually taken on the Swiss side of a lake that crosses the border of both Italy and Switzerland. We knew the lake – Maggiore and we knew the town – Ronco. Some quick time spent on google confirmed that Ronco was a small village and so I became confident that we could cover the shoreline by foot and car fairly easily.
Some sailboats in Ronco
On a clear day, we packed up the car and set out toward the northwest corner of Lake Maggiore. The journey would take about two hours crossing some beautiful countryside. When we arrived in Ronco, I cruised the shoreline for a while looking for anything that resembled the photo. Nothing stood out. That’s OK… no reason to panic. It was time for lunch anyways, so we stopped to reward ourselves with a wonderful lunch overlooking the beautiful lake.
A happy couple eating lunch that overlooks the lake
Julia makes a silly face while eating her pasta (and she also made a big mess)
After a leisurely lunch it was time to go back to work. Since we had covered the south side of the village and the car was already parked, I made the decision to go north by foot. We walked for a bit. Then we walked further. Finally, I spotted it. But it wasn’t right. So we pushed on. Everyone’s pace slowed. But I remained confident it was just around the bend. It was not. Eventually, the sidewalk ended and I was pretty sure we had left Ronco twenty minutes prior. Sadly, we turned back to the car, but not before stopping at a bar to talk to the locals. I asked the proprietor if he was familiar with the location of my image (I had printed a copy to take with me). With barely a glance, he said “sì, sì. Conosco quel posto. Questo è Ascona” (yes, yes I know that place. That is Ascona). Wait, what? Ascona – the town about 10 kilometers up the road? He couldn’t be right, could he?
Julia marches through Ascona on the hunt for Poppy’s spot
We piled back in the car and drove to Ascona, just a few minutes up the road. Immediately after we parked, we saw it – the exact spot where my grandfather snapped his photo over sixty years prior! I learned something about my Poppy that day. Even though he was an exceptional photographer, his attention to detail may not have been the best. We imagined him, hunched over his photography equipment and notepad, enjoying a leisurely lunch and wonderful vino. I pictured him scribbling a few notes about the Lake and then asking a waiter the name of the town, not bothering to care (or realize) that he was lunching in Ronco, a town close – but yet so far from Ascona.
This was the area of the shot – the houses were different colors, but they were all still there
We were thrilled to have found it, Poppy’s published error notwithstanding. We were also amazed at the beauty of Ascona, a charming town with roughly 5,500 inhabitants. We walked along the water’s bank, our eyes always gazing upward toward the mountains and homes that appeared in Poppy’s image. I was particularly pleased, but not altogether surprised to see that all the same homes were still intact (although a few additional homes and condo’s had sprung up over the years). My father and I plotted and planned and finally agreed on the frame of the image. I must have taken over 100 images before we were done. Really getting into the spirit, I made my mom and dad pose with me like the dockworkers did so many years ago. We walked further down the shore and then realized we had picked the wrong spot. I suppose my grandpa isn’t the only one entitled to a mistake.
I’m trying to line up the image
My father and I review my work to check for accuracy
I posed us all as the dockworkers and tourists in the photo
Three generations pose where the prior generation had been over sixty years prior
Julia was all hugs
After we discovered we had been shooting in the wrong spot, we re-set and shot again. This time, we were confident that we captured the exact same image. There was even a boat on the ramp, like in the original photo.
Re-framing the shot
We both agreed on the new spot
Posing as dock works again
The final product – this was the shot I chose to resemble the original
And the original again so you can compare how we did
We spent a little time walking around the town and then headed back to the car, pleased with a job well done.
Julia insisted on getting her feet wet
Playing with daddy
Campanile (bell tower) of Ascona
Restaurants line the pedestrian street along the lake
An old Castello (castle) turned into a modern day Inn
Flags of various European countries lay still on a windless day
An old church on the hillside
Boats in the harbor
I couldn’t believe that I stood within feet (perhaps even the exact same spot) that my grandfather did sixty three years prior. My grandfather passed away nearly thirty years ago – when I was five years old. I felt more connected to him at that very moment that I ever had before. I know it was a special day for me and I’m sure it was even more special for my own dad. I will always be grateful to my wife for suggesting that we embark on this journey together.
Channeling my inner Poppy in order to take good pictures