This will be another of those “photographers are weird people” kinds of post. Its origin started with a recent realization at the Hirshhorn Museum downtown Washington, DC. I love museums, and that is why during one of the coldest days of this winter, I decided to visit (ok, if you really need to know, I needed a warm place) this eclectic museum to see their new exhibits. If you know the Hirshhorn, you’ll know that it is the kind of museum that challenges that strange part of your brain that is not used very much, but which when engaged, turns your reality into something that takes some getting used to. Translation: I love the place. But there’s where this sort of epiphany took place. You see, like the museum’s split reality, I too possess a kind of split view of the world: one with camera on hand, the other sans camera. With a camera, it seems I only visit museums to observe other people observing the museum art. People, all of them, become part of the ongoing exhibit, with one lacking any meaning without the other. Take that camera away from me and suddenly I become Joe the art critic, with eyes only for the inanimate objects (excuse me, art) found therein. Weird? Perhaps a little, but it is what it is. The camera, like a window for a writer, transforms you somehow. It pulls something from within you that affects your vision of the world around you. It makes you see the human ecosystem as if you were wearing X-Ray glasses. See deeper, see more. A walk through a magnificent visual door that will allow you to hold on to that saw forever.
Let’s face it, in 2017 the world will continue to be as dangerous and exciting as it ever was. Read any news site these days and pretty much all you will read about is about the calamity that humanity has become. Crime, terrorism, corruption, betrayals, and all sorts of negative punditry appears to be competing to overwhelm our senses. Fair enough, all these seem to be happening in one place or another. But not everywhere, and that is the point of this blog today. You see, as eagerly as some people are working to ruin our enjoyment of life, others are working equally hard to preserve and promote our enjoyment of the world. Our burden (or challenge, if you will), is precisely to chart a road ahead along the positive route while avoiding the pitfalls of the negative one. But don’t misinterpret this encouragement as some sort of advocacy to burry our collective heads in the sand. Quite the contrary. It is just a reminder that for every part of the world where conflict and misery are spreading havoc, there are other parts of the world where happiness and the safe enjoyment of life are an integral part of daily life.
Nowhere is this more evident these days than in the vast European landmass. While tensions in major cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Istanbul appear to be off-the-charts these days, this is not the case throughout most of Europe. Sure, these are the type of famous cities where tourists flock to during their holidays, but anyone willing to expand their horizons a bit will be rewarded with a more peaceful ancient continent where people go about their daily lives as if the rest of the world existed in another galaxy. Basically, getting off the proverbial “tourist” path in Europe is where you find the continent that seems to have fallen off the front pages of our tragic newspapers. Thinking of going to Paris because everyone goes there? Why not try Fontainebleau or Chartres instead. Berlin on your radar? Why not Quedlinburg or Halle in its stead. Istanbul anyone? Perhaps Bucharest and the beaches of Constanta are a quieter, and safer, choice these days. The point I’m trying to get at is that all of us, as travelers, still have lots of choices as to what to do with our time and money, not to mention our safety. Somewhere along those less traveled roads is perhaps where we will find the true pulse of a country and its people. That these places are not always easy to get to is no doubt a blessing in disguise, for the endless social and political problems afflicting large, popular cities across continental Europe will find it equally problematic getting there. So, in case anyone is keeping scores, go ahead and score one for the road less traveled.
As it happens every year during the last days of December, I find myself unwittingly drifting down the introspective channels of my subconscious. I say unwittingly because such meditations are not the result of conscious efforts to sort things out in my life, but rather because without warning or intention, the cold, dreary days in December carry me there like a Pharaoh being carried to the temple. At first I thought this was a case of repressed nostalgia, or something to that effect. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that, different from any other time in the year, the last few days of December form some sort of chronological bridge in our lives. Like an unmarked threshold, they seem to separate the historical “us” from the “us” that has yet to emerge and be realized. It is an offer that presents us with the kind of challenges and opportunities that only change can bring in order to give life to the idea of us that constantly roams inside our heads. But this happens every year, you would say, and I would have to agree. Nevertheless, like a full moon over a dark, endless horizon, the recurrent and cyclical nature of this phenomena does nothing to dampen the excitement of its arrival.
One such idea inside my head is that of an insatiable world traveler. Don’t get me wrong, I do get to visit some wonderful places from time to time, but the life of a visitor is dramatically different to the life of a traveler. One flies by while the other lands and lingers. One visits countries with populations of 40+ million people and leaves without being able to call a single one of them a friend, while the other takes the time to forge friendships that may last a lifetime. Those in one group tend to miss more the places they’ve been, while those on the other group will miss more the people they’ve met. And on that line between those two divides is where I find myself on this gray December morning, a witness to the vanishing December days of another year gone by. Far into the distance I can see the silhouette of a magnificent bridge whose beautiful arches and ancient wooden structure beckons travelers to cross the rumbling river below. We’ve all seen this bridge before, but seldom have we decided to cross it. Perhaps now, before a new year dawns into our lives, is the time to dare cross that bridge so we can live more in tune with the self that only dwells in our imaginations. After all, self actualization would me meaningless without the self. Such crossings are deeply personal in nature, but as for myself, the aspiring insatiable traveler, I think I’ll start hastily walking toward that arched bridge on the horizon. After all, that feeling of December will not last forever.
The more time I spend with my cameras, the more I realize that the true magic of photography happens when a photo conveys such emotions as to render words unnecessary.
Ever had the feeling that you were standing on top of a volcano? Then welcome to the club. Of all places in the world, I just happened to find myself in a place that everyone seems to have heard of, but few have ever visited. Mount Vesuvius? Nope. Mount Fuji? No. The infamous Mount Pinatubo? Not quite. In fact, nothing that dramatic, even if at times it did feel that way. The place I’m talking about is none other than Hot Springs, Arkansas. Yawn. Ok, no lava running down the streets or anything like that, but if you’ve ever imagined what it would be like to stand at a garden on top of a pressure cooker, then you’ll understand what being in Hot Springs feels like. Something is definitely happening under your feet, and the flesh-burning water coming out of the rocks, accompanied by ominous plumes of smoke spouting out of most city street drainage covers, is the stuff they make Hollywood movies about.
But just as in the valley adjacent to Mount Vesuvius in Italy, a wonderful existence takes place oblivious to the cauldron below. Steam, magna, sulfur, and who knows what? No worries, mate. On the contrary, health tourism appears to be booming, and to tell you the truth, I too felt my lungs happily expanding while getting a facial from all that steam. Well, it seems like they were expanding, but I better check with my provider just in case. But the point is that in some strange way, what takes place on the surface appears to be somewhat at odds with what’s taking place under the surface. Central Avenue downtown is downright wonderful, with the kind of great hangouts that once attracted the likes of Al Capone and friends. The bathhouses (of which yours truly did not partake), with their imposing structures, give the town a certain grandeur that makes you think of places frequented by royalty with their elaborate carriages. An outpost of health and beauty, but one apparently sitting on top of a boiling pot.
Some things take a while, but if the result makes the wait worth it, then everyone is happy. Such is the case with the recently completed renovation of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. No wonder those who inhabit this most Federal of cities consider themselves privileged to live in the same city the Smithsonian Institution calls home. The new gallery pretty much took the place of the now-closed Corcoran Museum, but in doing so it acquired the same modernistic vibe that made the Corcoran unique amongst the many galleries in the city. Did I like it? Absolutely, even though I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of some of those single-color canvases and abstract works that dot the museum walls. Not their fault, mind you, for my somewhat superficial knowledge of art history would not even allow me to pretend erudition at the corner bar. The point is that the art scene in our nation’s capital continues to get better and more varied every day, and that is something worth celebrating. And unlike so many museums in Europe and elsewhere, admission is totally free. Score one for America.
Photographers are an unhappy lot. Or so it would seem from the amount of time they spend discussing equipment, projects, and the apparent success of others in the trade. See some great photos of the Amalfi coast with a golden sunset as a backdrop? Within seconds that sinking feeling of “what am I doing sitting here instead,” begins to take over like the morning fog along the California coast. These understandable worries seem to have their roots in the competitive nature of everything we do these days. It is the feeling that from the moment we wake up each day, we are in a constant race, with too many people seemingly sprinting past us in order to increase the gap that separates us by the end of the day. To a large extent, it has become increasingly more difficult to measure how far we have all come by simply looking at where we started. No, in the spirit of constant competition, the measurement of how far we have all come is growingly dominated by a comparison with others, irrelevant of the reality that not everyone started this so-called race from different starting points. It is the mentality of finite glory, of feeling so far from that Amalfi Coast scenery for us to find any sort of meaning and success on our own coast.
This professional anxiety may be taking its toll on us. At the very least, it stifles creativity by its very nature, and by leading too many people to what I will refer to as an “imitative state” of mind that focuses too much on the emulation of someone else’s success rather than on the development of a personal brand of success. It is the exact opposite of Robert Frost’s advice in The Road Not Taken, with all of the psychological dependencies that accompany the relentless pursuit of the imitative life. This is not to say, though, that the adoption of creative blinders is the answer to that which worries us. Rather, the distinction that I’m alluding to points to the difference between observing and learning from the creative genius of others, and the unaware psychological need of trying to emulate that which is the unique product of someone else’s creativity and genius. The perceived gap of the imitative life is where you will most likely find the roots of all our worries. The popular photographer Zack Arias referred to all these perceptions in our heads as “noise” standing in the way of our own creative actualization. Getting rid of this noise is not easy, for there is so much of it being bombarded into our heads every day. But perhaps the key of getting rid of all those worries and dependencies lies precisely on our ability to suppress that noise, or simply overcome it by singing our own voices louder above their level of disruption. We just have to grow comfortable with our own song and realize that it is as sweet a melody as anyone else has ever produced.
Why is it that we search for more meaning in a photo after we have taken it than at the time the photo is being captured? I’m sure that there are many explanations for this, but for me, it all has to do with frame counts. Let me explain. In the process of acquiring a particular photo, we observe the world as a continuous video, a sequence of fast-moving frames that get processed inside our brains with a refresh rate that mimics the speed of light (or so it seems). If we watch a person walking, we don’t particularly remember the uniqueness of any particular step, or gesture, or scene complexity. It just flows from one side to the other in a perpetual motion, and at the end we kind of remember the overall occurrence of having seen someone walking. It is a factual story that in all its generosity, allows our imaginations to rest without bother.
Photographs, on the other hand, disrupt our imagination’s slumber and literally compel us to “fill in the blanks” of the story. In true Sherlock Holmes fashion, it makes us leap from that frozen fraction of a second into all sorts of directions and plots. A delayed reaction from the moment of capture, for sure, but perhaps the essence of why we capture images in the first place. That is not to say that seeing life as a moving video is any less rewarding, but rather that just like we tend to remember particular scenes in a movie, photographs are the particular scenes of our visual movies. They anchor us to a place and time like no moving object can, and feed that which is the essence of us all: our imaginations. That is why in the photo above I simply do not want to know more about this couple, for it is more fun to “imagine” lovers on a sunny day reading from her latest writings and oblivious to the passing of time. Reality? Perhaps not, but as long as I look at that photo, I’ll pretend that it is.
Location, location, location. We have all heard this a million times with regards to retail businesses, but over the years I have become convinced that the same mantra applies to photography. The concept of location is really absurdly simple, as if you cannot take a photo if you are not there. But the simplicity of this notion hides a lot more under its skin, so to speak. That is because location is also inspiration. It brings out the desire to create, to compose, and to see with new eyes all things around us. That first time we set eyes on the Eiffel Tower from the courtyard in Palais de Chaillot in Trocadéro, or the morning when with the first light of the day we emerge from the Via del Corso onto Piazza del Popolo in Rome, are the stuff that feed our creative souls like nothing else can. It is as if such places pull some dormant creative energy from inside of us that for some reason or another, never managed to come out during our more routine lives. Call it creative adrenaline or whatever, but it is real, and some places just reach into us and pull it out. Which places? Well, that’s really a personal thing, and no one but ourselves can tell us where that is. But you’ll know it when you get there because you will feel that uncontrollable creative pull suddenly overwhelming you. And that, my friend, is why our feet take us where they take us.
Have you noticed the changes taking place all around you? It happens every year, and about the same time each year. Days get shorter, leaves begin to turn, and our attitudes get a little better. Our entire ecosystem changes, and with it, so do we. Walking around with your camera becomes fun again, if merely because the raging summer heat finally goes away until next year. Color is everywhere in the northern hemisphere, and we suddenly feel the urge to go out, to wander, and to live a little. In contrast to a mere month ago, streets and parks are no longer empty, and lingering has become fun again. Fall, that most wonderful time of the year, is upon us, so it’s time for a dramatic change in attitude to match the incredible scenery around us. Time to live outside, fetch that food truck, have lunch at a park bench, listen to an outdoor concert, dream a little, and proclaim our new, autumn personas. I shall be this or that, it doesn’t matter, for the the new pursuit will drive us. And we better hurry, because the infamous “winter blues” are more than a myth. So, I’ll see you out on the road then. You can’t miss me, for I’ll be the guy with the camera around my neck, and a smile on my face.
Some things we just cannot have enough of in our lives, and for yours truly, one of those things is the Alpine culture of Europe. I’m not talking about mountain climbing here, although there’s plenty of that going on along the mountain chain. Rather, I’m referring to that overall feeling that immediately hits you the moment you come in contact with those mountains and the endless villages that dot its lower elevations. I’m talking clean air, transparent rivers, green vegetation, breathtaking scenery, and a much slower pace of life than anything we Americans are accustomed to. But wait, did I forget the food? Well add that too to the mix. I’m sure that those used to seeing such places in a regular basis may feel a bit different about them, but for a traveler whose life only provides such sustenance in small, occasional dosages, such sights serve as emotional antibiotics to the many routines that consume most of our existence.
And that is precisely why a traveler should not travel all the time. How else to avoid the disenchanted effect of the routine life? Travel, if done in excess, could have the same soporific effect as not traveling. It will suffer from its own excesses, just like eating a sumptuous meal every hour of the day for the simple reason that you happen to love food. Too much of it, and it looses some of the magic that resides in its absence, in the lack of, and the longing. That is why my extended absence from the beautiful European alpine region has such a dramatic effect on my travel life. Many years ago, and somewhere along those clear, mountain rivers lined with small villages and pine trees, I discovered a sense of serenity that only shows its face when confronted with such beauty. It never lasts long enough, or comes around often enough, but its scarcity is no doubt part of its wonder. The other part lies within us, for as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us so many years ago, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
It is often said that we go where our feet take us. No doubt, there’s a lot of truth to that, as all travelers seek something in their journeys. It is as if the world were a blank canvas and each one of us were given a brush to paint on it. What we paint will say a lot about us, and the choices we make of colors, strokes, and form. The same with travel. Do we choose to climb mountains when we can, or do we choose to navigate down silent rivers? Choices. We all make them, and oftentimes because that just happens to be how we were feeling at the time.
So what to make about my choice to spend some of my September time in Alsace, France when there were so many other choices available at the time. The title of one of my previous blogs pretty much gives it away. It was simply the pursuit of solace that let me to Alsace. Rolling, green hills filled with blooming vineyards. Blue skies. Absence of major cities. The rural lifestyle. The Vosges mountains dotted with sleepy villages. Fantastic wine and food. Empty, undulating trails. Narrow, country roads lined with trees. Quiet. The list could go on and on. For me, Alsace is just one of those places where your mind is free to roam, where the oppressive nature of large cities simply does not exist, and where every hour of the day appears to strike a balance with your long breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. The region’s beauty and easygoing flow totally transforms your days from a high-energy break dance into a Viennese waltz. Time to think, time to live, and time to be. Who would’ve known. Driving away from the area down the enchanting Rue de Vin country road, I couldn’t help but think that making a yearly trip to this part of the world would be the best therapy any human can enjoy. As Alsace drifted away in my rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but think that I was leaving much sooner than I was willing to let go of the place. And like a sailor going out to sea, all I could do was look at that receding horizon and hope that I would get to see those shores once again in my future. No doubt I will. No doubt I must.
There are areas of the world that no matter how many times you visit, you never cease to be enchanted by their beauty and atmosphere. For me, the wine region of Alsace, France is such a place. From its undulating hills covered with luscious vineyards, to the quaint, ancient villages that dot the countryside, the entire region comprising the Rue de Vin is the stuff of fairytales, and romance. At its heart, the picturesque village of Ribeauville, with its easy vibe and postcard-perfect setting, is the kind of place you never heard about, but can’t imagine leaving once you set foot on it. The great Alsatian food and wines alone will keep you there longer than what your credit line would consider prudent. Walking its narrow, cobblestone streets under the spell of freshly baked bread and just-out-of-the-oven macaroons is enough to transport you to a world that only existed in your imagination. No use resisting, though. The village of Ribeauville alone is one of those reminders that life is a wonderful thing and that it’s worth living to the fullest. And if you add copious amounts of local wines, macaroons, and Alsatian baked tarts to your visit, you’ll immediately understand what I’m talking about. One day at the place is enough to make you forget the problems of the world, even if for a brief, yet wonderful, moment. I just added a second day just to be sure.
Deafening tranquility. That is how I would describe the simple abode I happen to be staying at for a few days at the foot of the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. Green apples strewn around the orchard floor, grapes on the September vines waiting for pickers to arrive, and a sweet morning fog enveloping a valley that has yet to wake up. Serenity, a blooming garden, a slow moving tractor reminding you that you are amongst farmers. Morning coffee, soft pastries from the village bakery, and the melodic sound of a common, but never tiring, Bonjour. Morning dew over the herb garden, a butterfly, a drop of rain. Silence. The first touch of a morning breeze. Peacefulness. The simple life. Happiness.
Like just about every day, I went walking today with my camera. When I do this, I typically bury my cell phone somewhere in my camera bag where it is very hard to access. I do this because I’ve come to realize that the whole purpose of being outside is to see and feel what’s going on around me. I want to disconnect from electronics and connect with the world that keeps on moving in spite of our interest in joining it. Perhaps this is a photographer thing, but I don’t think so. More than that, it is a fascination with a world that is alive and in motion, a world where glances still hold unspeakable mystery, and where human energy continues to create all things wonderful and all things bad. Humans, in all their shapes, forms, and behaviors are the stuff of life.
That is why it is so hard to positive spin on the modern phenomena of the connected disconnected. The being there in society, but not there at the same time. Like the young man in the photo above, to be actively linked to the faraway world via a cell phone, but totally uninterested in the the world that sits just a few feet away. Connected, but disconnected. A statement about our modern digital generation, I guess. But perhaps, if he would have only glanced up from the screen for a moment like she did to make eye contact, a whole new world connections would have been possible. They shall never know, for at no time did he raise his eyes in her direction. Connected, disconnected. A new form of normal.