Is it possible to find happiness inside a commercial shipping container? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on a whole slew of factors. But be that as it may, my interest remains on those who would actually answer “yes” to this sort of question. This is specially the case in big cities like Washington, DC where long, sour faces have become the modern Venetian masks of the average worker. Ever ride the metro during the rush morning or afternoon hours? You would be forgiven for thinking that smiling has been officially banned in the city. More than that, you could also be forgiven for thinking that you have become invisible, or transparent at the very least. No eye contact, no acknowledgement of your presence, and definitely no smiling. Strangers doing their best to ignore each other while sharing the same space, the same direction, and the same universe.
But then, when you least expect it and are about to give up on humanity, something different happens. Right there in the middle of grumpy city, and inside a hot metal shipping container, the very meaning of happiness and friendliness. No suits, no high-paying job, no ideal working conditions, and no high-flying college diploma on the wall. Just the mere presence of a photographer looking into the container was enough to do away with invisibility. As if being transported into another Second World galaxy, I was suddenly blinded by the toothy smile of an alien DC character and his incredible good attitude. An unsolicited display of friendship immediately followed, ending in a gladiators’ duel of who could express the most effusive “great talking to you” goodby. Walking away with my camera, I couldn’t help but think of the words uttered by the late Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh: “There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” A chance encounter, a lifted spirit, and a much needed shot of faith in humanity. Away I went with a little more bounce on my steps and a much needed reminder of the power of good attitude.
Quick, think of Washington, DC and what is the first thing that comes to mind? No doubt, images of politicians, government, and power brokers galore. Below that layer most people will probably think of lobbyists, spies, embassies, and huge governmental businesses. Keep the conversation going for an hour or more, and perhaps, but only perhaps, someone will think of the incredible art scene that has made the area one of the leading arts centers in the country, despite all the more “serious” stuff that constantly goes around it. Really, dig in and you will find some of the best companies in the world, with local talent that would rival the best of New York. What’s even better is that most theaters in the area sit right next to some of the best restaurants you’ll encounter anywhere. These are not usually the kind where you have to dish out a thousand dollars for a meal for two, but rather the kind of trendy, modern, type that populate most travel magazines. At the risk of leaving some out, I would much rather not start naming them here, but check out here, and here, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s actually a lot of fun to be had in the city, provided there’s not a politician within a thousand feet from you.
There is something refreshingly simple about visual isolation. Not sure whether it is because of what we choose to leave out or because what we choose to accentuate. But whether it is the result of subtraction or addition, our enjoyment of visual scenes seems to be directly related to this simple visual arithmetic. Everyone has their favorites, but for me, subtraction seems to win most of the time. That is not to say that my intent is to photograph a single object in a scene, but rather that in every scene recorded, I find it more appealing when something within that scene plays a dominant or prominent role. It could be a castle at a distance, or a gentle hand over a book, whatever. What matters is that the photo is clearly anchored on an object, or a theme, as opposed as having every item in the photo compete for your attention. Granted, though, that focusing on an object is not as complicated as focusing on a theme. A photo of flowers will always be easier to capture than a photo depicting melancholy. But something must dominate the thought process, something must stand out to be remembered, and if a photographer is lucky or skillful enough to capture both an object and a mood, then that is payday in a creative’s life. Easier said than done, but undoubtedly the magnetic force that keeps us on the eternal journey of discovery.
Everyone has his or her weaknesses. It’s only human. One of mine is a recurring one, and by recurring I mean like once a year, but not more in deference to my waistline. I’m talking about your traditional, run-of-the-mill county fair, where your shoes get dirty with God-knows-what, and where even the mention of new wave cuisine could find you fed to the animals for lunch. Not that I have a drop of farmer in my blood. On the contrary, as a self-proclaimed urbanite, you are more likely to find me eating al fresco at some city bistro rather than standing devouring a turkey leg with my bare hands while some unknown red sauce drips down my cheek. That is, most of the time, because come summer, it is the county fairs that get my attention (this year, the Loudon County Fair, to be precise), and I frankly couldn’t care much about those bistro. It is secret sauce I want, lots of it, and I want it on everything from greasy fries to corndogs.
But county fairs are a lot more than a food pilgrimage for me. They are also therapy. That is because there, amongst the people bathing pigs, parading cattle, and taking care of show goats, I will also find the kind of real people that you rarely see in the big cities. You can’t pretend much when you’re rubbing clean a pig and herding goats the next minute. Things are, well, what they are. No pretentiousness, no bragging, no posturing, no nothing, but heroes all in my eyes. As I see it, the farmers who take part in these county fairs are some of the key linchpins in that complex system which feeds every one of us. And that is why taking out a day to see the fruit of their efforts is something I never miss every summer. They don’t even mind being photographed, which is an added bonus. All I know is that it always feels good being out there learning about things I don’t know anything about and spending some enjoyable moments with people I have never met before. Just can’t wait for next time, and those corndogs better be there.
Why take in the sights when you can be staring at your mobile phone? That should have been the title of this post, for the epidemic of small screen fixation has by now reached astronomical levels. The day I took this photo, I had to literally move out of the way because a young woman went right through the space I was occupying a mere fraction of a second before, while her eyes were glued to her mobile’s tiny screen. Don’t think she ever saw me, or cared for the shadow that jumped out of her way so she could barrel through without a concern in the world. And as to the gentleman in the photo above, I stood next to him with my camera for nearly ten minutes, never to see him raise his eyes from his phone, or care for a second to anything that was going on around him, which obviously was plenty enough.
So what to make of this collective obfuscation that has enveloped our society? From a photographer’s point of view, it kind of makes our lives a little easier, as no one even notices you unless you appear digitally within their screens. But even this is a double-edged sword, so to speak, because as it becomes easier to photograph the phone zombies out there, the activities in which they engage while we click away are becoming a lot more boring. For too many people, the big picture has lost too much ground to the small picture. Life around them seems to have become too boring, specially when compared to the constant refresh of their mobile screens. People just don’t go away with the click of a button, and conversations will always require more words than texting. That small screen sure sounds a lot more convenient, not to mention less time consuming. The problem is that you just can’t fit enough of life into one of those tiny screens, and no matter what you do, those small screen will never love you back for that matter. It glows without shining a light on you, and for a price. A temporary necessity transformed into a constant one. A window to all but what surrounds you. And there’s always a lot going on around us.
During the hot summer months, I tend to hang out around the great museums in Washington, DC. Not only do they have some of the best art collections in the world, but they are also the perfect places to try some creative photographic techniques. And did I mention the air conditioner? Well, that too. But no matter what my photographic intentions are during these wanderings, I never seem to take too many photos. I’m just too distracted. You see, I continue to be fascinated by the creativity of the artists, old and contemporary, whose work dot these galleries and who’s incredible talents generally make me feel like some sort of artistic anti-matter. So mostly walk and look, camera hanging from my neck like a heavy adornment, and all the while gawking at the simple genius of those who have seen form and color in ways that I can only dream of.
On this particular day, my fascination was all with the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and his current exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum downtown. Now, I had heard a lot about this “dissident” artist and his head-butting with the Chinese government through news reports and documentaries, but this is the first time I had a real chance of seeing his work in person. What’s more, it all consisted of Legos. Yeap, the kind of plastic pieces we buy for our children. Mind you, though, that these were not ordinary Legos, as they are better described as portrait mosaics that happen to be made of colorful plastic squares. And on the floor, which forced you to look down as if lowering your stare before the authorities. Absolute genius. But it all left me with somewhat of a sore neck. Not from looking down, but rather from the weight of that rock attached to a strap around my neck which barely got any use during the exhibit. It figures. Once again, I was too busy seeing to worry about my camera.
Ah, to be a gentleman. There are not many words in the English language that are mere doors into a larger context than the word “gentleman.” Not that the term holds as much connotation in the modern world as it did a century ago, but rather than its mere use gives rise to all sorts of controversial interpretations of its meaning. For some it is merely descriptive, or at the very least, representative of an era when well-dressed men with impeccable manners and taste, roamed the earth. For others, its mere use is the functional equivalent of a war song, a remnant of an era when men with all sorts of predatory faults dominated the earth at the expense of just about everyone else. The word just seems to flatter some while insulting others. Such are the times in which we live.
Are we to conclude, then, that the whole notion of a “gentleman” is being rendered irrelevant in a world consumed with informality and industrial-size social conflict? My first reaction is to say no, but I’m afraid that my opinion may be wrong, or at the very least, outdated. As a nostalgic compromise, then, I would like to say that while the concept may not be totally dead, it may have been pushed underground, so to speak (I guess wearing a jacket while carrying a dog residue bag isn’t helping matters much either). Whatever the case, the word is quite controversial in modern times, and it may have to do to a large extent in our ability to achieve a commonly-accepted notion of what a gentleman is, or should be. But even if we strived for a common definition, I’m not sure that the attempt would find much agreement amongst folks out there. In some sense, we all kind have an image in our heads of what a gentleman is, or how should he act (a milder version of James Bond perhaps?), but these thoughts may be heavily infused with heavy doses of nostalgia, movie characters, or some self-created misconceptions. So, what are we to conclude about a gentleman today? I’m not sure, and will have to admit that I rarely see anything approximating such a species. The closest I’ve ever gotten was this person who I recently photographed in Georgetown, but that bag he’s holding may just put him slightly short of the threshold. Or does it? I hate to admit it, but these days I’m not sure where that threshold is.
Some attractions never get the amount of publicity they deserve. That seems to be the case with American central markets. You see, I am convinced that food is culture, and you simply cannot experience the culture of any country unless you experience their food and the social interactions that takes place around the local tables and the people who make it all possible. And if there’s a place to experience the local culture, it has to be in those unique, historical markets that dot the landscape everywhere from Istanbul to the colorful street markets of Asia. That certainly includes the many farmer markets of America, of which the oldest in existence (dating back to the 1730’s) is the colorful Lancaster Central Market in Pennsylvania.
While not as large as the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, the somewhat reduced size gives the Lancaster Market a little less of a commercial feeling, which translates into a somewhat more personal experience. And yes, the Amish are there with their wonderful fruit and baked goods offerings, but to my surprise, so are the Puerto Ricans, with their pulled pork and rice and beans. Nevertheless, it is the proximity to what one local described as the “bionic soil” of the old Amish farmland that makes the Lancaster Market so special. Drive along the luscious, winding farm hills of such towns as Strasburg, Paradise, and Intercourse (it really exists) and you will soon realize what makes this part of the country such a natural treasure. Stop by a local farm and try their home made Root Beer and jams, and you will regret not living closer to the area. I’ve always associated the state of Pennsylvania with great food, but after visiting the Lancaster area, I am elevating the state a few notches on my scale of places to visit any time you can. After all, food is culture, and as a self-appointed culture seeker, it is high time I become more cultured, so here I go.
Who buys paper books these days? Certainly, not me. I’ve gone purely electronic, for an Amazon Kindle with ten books fits nicely in your jacket pocket, but try to do that with paper books. It just won’t work. Paper books are chunky, unruly, lack build-in dictionaries, and demand a separate bag for storage. So, why not declare them dead once and for all and be done with it? Well, not so fast. From what I can see during my photographic roamings around major cities, paper books seem to be alive and well, and for one reason or another, lately I’ve begun to miss them. Looking through my photos I also discovered that while I tend to photograph lots of people reading books, I have yet to take a photo of anyone reading an electronic book reader. Why is that?
For starters, nothing beats the tactile feeling of holding a book. Their physical presence, while usually cumbersome, is also what keeps us engaged with its contents. We feel its weight on our hands, we see it, we judge it by its thickness, and we must actively secure it with one hand while the other gently waves its pages with a sweeping motion reminiscent of a professional harpist. And when we open a book, we experience that unmistakable exhilaration that comes from opening a window into a great view, a quickening of the senses driven by anticipation. The sweet perfume of a freshly printed book, a lonely title sitting prominently by itself on on a main page, and a first sentence to prepare us for the story that’s about to come. Yes, that first sentence that author Jhumpa Lahiri aptly described as “… a handshake, perhaps an embrace.” All of this I miss when holding my electronic reader. And every now and then, when nostalgia becomes too hard to bear, I too go out and buy a paper book, if anything to experience that warm embrace that never left my imagination. A feeling that has become collateral damage in a world consumed by technology, but one that hopefully will never die.
Who doesn’t like a tall ship? I certainly do, and they are all the more pleasant if they happen to be Spanish Galleons of the swatch-buckling kind. Thanks to Spain’s Nao Victoria Foundation, which owns the ship, this marvel of the seas recently visited Alexandria, Virginia. Everyone (including yours truly) had a chance to walk on history, as this replica of the 17th Century tall ships graciously sat along the Alexandria shore as an apparition. Canons, Captain’s quarters, and heavily accented Valencian Spanish completed the picture. It was enough for your imagination to run away from you into a world of sea pirates and lost treasures at sea. The crew said that it took them about 30 days to cross the Atlantic from Spain, which compared to the less than nine hours it recently took me to fly back from Europe, sounds like a “no way” kind of trip. Then again, time, a little fresh air, and a sky full of stars, do have their virtue, provided you are not too seasick to enjoy them. There’s a thought. Well, I think I’ll stick to terra firma for now and leave the pirate thing to the pirates.
Something is happening in Washington, DC these days, and it has nothing to do with politics. Well, not completely. It is as if the city is going through one of those TV makeovers where a person’s scruffy looks are dramatically turned into a glamorous, check-me-out kind of look. Neglected city areas are suddenly being converted into smart neighborhoods full of trendy new restaurants and livable urban spaces demanding a second look from those accustomed to fly by at high speeds. In the heart of DC, it is the area referred to as City Center, just off the less glamorous Chinatown neighborhood, that is setting the pace. The place is so glamorous that anyone coming down from New York’s 5th Avenue for the weekend would feel right at home. And it was about time, for in a city where money is literally being printed every day, there appeared to be a serious need for some glamour. Who would’ve known, chic and greasy joints just a few blocks from each other, and both apparently doing quite well. That is a definite sign of a great country.
For some reason or another, yesterday I started my day wondering why I kept going out with my camera to endlessly roam city streets in search of photographs. What is the purpose when you are not really earning any money from it, and fame is something that is surely something for someone else to enjoy. Tired feet, too much sun, dehydration, and lots of bad photos on top of it. Really, what’s the purpose of this obsession? The endless search for a masterpiece? Boredom? What? After all, I plan to do nothing with most of the photos I take day in and day out. They will lie dormant forever in my computer, hidden from the world in order to save me some well-deserved photographic embarrassment. Why then?
The answer may be depicted on the photo above. That is because no matter how tired I am, or the number of photographic disappointment awaiting me, or all the negative energy being generated in the world each day, there will still be an endless amount of wonder left for us to discover. It may not be the stuff of our every day, but in your heart, yes, very deep inside your heart, you know that nature, and human creation will still surprise you with their incredible creations. I know this because after having spent a life traveling with a camera on hand, I still look at the world around me with the same sense of awe as the lady in the photograph above. The search for that feeling is why we travel, because no matter how good photography is these days, nothing can substitute for the feeling experienced when standing in front of a natural or artistic masterpiece. Photography merely allows us to record that moment, to remember, and to thirst for more. As photographers, then, we really don’t invent anything, but rather freeze, in a fraction of a second, the beauty and wonder that was already there.
Chances are that you have never set foot inside the Smithsonian’s imposing Arts and Industries Building. Not that the building is hidden away somewhere where no one can find it. It rather sits in plain view of us all, right next to the Smithsonian Castle and smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. The building is incredible large and a beautiful architectural masterpiece, not to mention that it borders what many consider to be the most beautiful garden in DC, the Enid A. Haupt Garden. But not too many people have been inside, as it has been in constant renovation for a while now (translation: empty and closed to the public). I have lived in the area for nearly two decades and have never set foot inside, and have grown accustomed to seeing the plain-paper “closed” sign taped to its magnificent doors. That is, until today, when by chance I happened to walk by and some great folks conducting a demo along Jefferson Dr SW who thought that I was a tourist and told me to check out the inside of the building. At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out to be that they were not.
From inside, the structure is nothing short of spectacular. A throwback to another era with the finesse and class of an old Parisian covered market. The metal ceiling and beam-supported upper deck reminded me of the central market in Budapest, but without the people and the cheerfulness that is typical in those markets. Empty, underutilized, and unseen by most of us, this Arts and Industries Building, like a queen in exile, sits royally at the heart of the nation’s capital in total silence. And that is a pity. Perhaps one day it will be yet another museum at the Mall, but if it were up to me, I would create a food market to rival some of the best food markets in the world. Sadly, this will never happen. Most likely, and in true local fashion, a city full of museums will gain another museum in the end, and another place where you are expected to be quiet. Oh, well. I guess once I set eyes on the place, it was more of a “laugh out loud” kind of vision that wedged itself inside my head.
It is a yearly ritual, and a loud one at that. The Rolling Thunder has rolled into town to once again honor our veterans during Memorial Day, and like in every previous year, there will be crowds cheering and crowds that can’t wait to get out of town when “them” people come rolling in with their unkept beards and noisy motorcycles. But whatever your attitudes towards this event are, there’s no denying that it is one of the most colorful and meaningful displays of patriotism you’ll see anywhere in America today. And if you are in the market for a motorcycle, there’s no better place in this town to check out your next, shinny purchase than at the Pentagon’s North Parking Lot. It is quite an incredible display, even if two-wheeled riding is not your thing (it certainly is not mine). Looking at all those wonderful machines, it was impossible not to see yourself riding freely into the sunset with your bandana firmly wrapped around your forehead and a pair of leather chaps flapping in the air along a desolate country road. Of course, there were also those less romantic thoughts of laying on a hospital bed in traction for six months that kept interfering with the riding into the sunset thing, but I guess it’s only natural to dream a little while your feet are firmly planted on the ground. Whatever the case, on this Memorial Day we join the thousands of riders descending on our nation’s capital in honoring the great men and women who gave their precious lives in the service of their country. Their ultimate sacrifice will never be forgotten.
“The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we — in a less final, less heroic way — be willing to give of ourselves.” … Ronald Reagan
I am not a macro photographer. Not by a long shot. In fact, with all the talented people in that field, I think it is a wise decision on my part to take my mediocrity somewhere else where it can be of greater use. But you can’t deny there’s something to those close shots that is kind of enticing. However, if you see me posting too many of them, then you can pretty much conclude that I wasn’t able to find enough interesting people doing interesting things out there to photograph. And lately, that seems to be the case. Don’t get me wrong, I love living where I live, but there’s no denying that people around here cannot be described as outdoorsy. In the metropolitan Washington, DC area things happen primarily indoors, and if it is Parisian lifestyle that you’re after photographically, well, then you need to get on a plane and go to Paris to find it.
Luckily, the absence of people doesn’t mean the end of photographic opportunities. There are plenty of shapes and colors to be had, specially during the spring and early summer. Local gardens are blooming like crazy, and the freshly painted doors in the area offer the perfect backdrop for all sorts of photo scenes (the best doors can be found in Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria). This kind of photography, however, almost begs for the tight shot, for the kind of subtraction that often distracts the viewer by creating visual noise. Easy, then? Well, not quite. For someone who normally looks for people in a scene, it takes a new way of looking, like substituting laser vision for the more generic pano vision most of us have been accustomed to. When we narrow our sight that way, we will never run out of photographic opportunities. And the best part? Plants and doors have never objected to you taking their picture, so there’s something to be said for that.