Nobel laureate Martin Karplus ’51 was 23 when he left the U.S. for postdoctoral work at Oxford University in England. Having just completed his doctorate in chemistry at California Institute of Technology under two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, the young scholar felt he’d earned a bit of vacation.
Karplus, the Theodore William Richards Professor of Chemistry Emeritus and 2013 Nobel laureate in chemistry, was born in Vienna in 1930. But his family fled when Hitler invaded in 1938, and he was raised primarily in America. In his two years at Oxford, he used his breaks to explore Europe, taking the ferry from England and driving around the continent in a Volkswagen Beetle. Along the way, he recorded his travels with the Leica IIIC his parents had given him on the completion of his doctorate, documenting a world that was already changing. A selection of these midcentury photos make up “Remember Yugoslavia?,” showcasing a long-gone multicultural country during a rare time of peace. The exhibit by the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies is on display at the Jacek E. Giedrojć Gallery in Adolphus Busch Hall until Jan. 13, 2020.
In 1955 Yugoslavia, and the Balkans in general, were isolated, and many of the pieces on display would have an air of being from an earlier century were it not for their vivid colors. Karplus has no formal arts or photographic training, but his photos — largely portraits of people in traditional garb or doing chores that hadn’t changed in centuries — have a timeless beauty. In one from what is now North Macedonia, women in headscarves carry laundry to a communal wash house, the bright red of a skirt drawing the eye; in another from present-day Slovenia, an older man does his bit to help to thatch the roof of a house. Carrying an armful of straw, which Karplus points out did not speed the labor along by much, the man seems to value his ability to contribute, his heavily lined face knit in concentration.
“I realized that I was taking pictures of life that I knew 10 years later would be gone,” recalled Karplus. That isolation could make travel tricky: On the country’s one major highway, he said, “Maybe you’d see one or two trucks a day.” After filling the VW’s tank in a small town, “You had to find out where the next town with a gas station was.”