There are some things you just can’t have enough in life. For me, that’s traveling through Europe. That is because no matter how much I visit that continent, there’s something new to discover and experience. The fact that you can find a completely different language and culture by just driving the equivalent of crossing an US state line, just adds to the experience every time. But today’s Europe is not the same as the one I experienced during the days of the Cold War and before globalization. Today, it is a much-changed cultural landscape, where the old, great architecture is still there, but goods and services are pretty much the same as in any US major city. Of course, I’m referring to the large cities in the continent, because once you get to the countryside, the Europe of your imagination is still hanging on to culture and mores. Of course, this is not to say that the large cities have lost all manners of cultural identity (because they have not), but rather that the forces of globalization are a lot more evident in the great capitals than anywhere else in the continent.
But whatever the changed landscape, return to Europe I must. And just like every time before, what I found was quite incredible and left me (as always before) wanting to return as soon as possible. In true “slow travel” mode, I once more discovered that slowing down, venturing off-the-beaten-path at odd hours of the day, and taking time to absorb everything around me, made all the difference in the world. From the royal architecture of Vienna, to the cobblestone streets and towers of Prague, it is all fascinating to me. The quiet, precious moments at daybreak, when the majestic, war-scared buildings of Dresden were drenched in the lazy, yellow light of a new day ricocheting off the mighty Elbe, inevitably transported you to another century long the stuff of history books. And then, there were the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen in Hannover. You could spend an entire day enjoying what has to be one of the great, and most romantic gardens of the world. New and old, coexisting for centuries. In Berlin while wrapping up this never-long-enough European tour, I couldn’t help but think of the incredible talent that centuries past created such works of beauty, and the incredible hatred that so often tried to destroy them in equal time. Human frailty and the human spirit, battling it out throughout history. We can only hope that the spirit continues to help preserve such gems for future generations.
The city of Berlin never disappoints, and seeing it again after a few years, I find it continues to be an energetic and dynamic metropolis. If you believe everything you read in some publications, you would be forgiven for believing that the city has lost most of its mojo, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The city remains as vibrant as before, if not more. Great stores, historical sites, and lively neighborhoods keep the city on the move, with streets packed with people at all hours of the day. Hang around the Kurfürstendamm, Friedrichstrasse, and the Gendarmenmarkt and you’ll soon know what I’m talking about. No doubt that when the time comes time to leave, I will once again regret my departure from such a great city.
I am here today to defend the proposition that there is no better part of the day than the early morning hours of a day. That’s right, I am taking a stand. And yes, this is a subject that is much ignored by most folks, but in the name of the pursuit of happiness, I feel that it is my duty to openly declare that those fleeting hours when the sun begins to appear over the horizon are about as close to heaven as we will get on this earth. They are poetry incarnate, manifesting a choreographed rhythm replete with rituals, lights, beginnings, and discovery. When we wake up (and no matter our speed of movement), we tend to do the same things every day, even if during the rest of the day we proudly profess not to be the victims of routine. It is those little things we do without fail that make morning so special. Eyes opening with the first light, setting those same eyes on a loved one, laboring in the kitchen, and going through our mental checklist for the day. It is busy time, but busy with new beginnings and the hope that today will be better than yesterday. So there you have it: I’m officially issuing the “morning is best” edict, so we all better start enjoying them a little bit more. Still skeptical? Just ask the fella sitting at that bench.
There is perhaps no better place to be in America during Memorial Day that in Washington, DC where a grateful nation pays tribute to so many fallen heroes in such a honorable way. The annual pilgrimage is really something to see. What are otherwise empty streets on weekends are now overwhelmed with the rumbling sounds of motorcycles and visitors making their way to the countless ceremonies taking place at memorials all over town. They come from just about every part of the country with a sense of pride and patriotism that you only wish you could bottle it and sell it to those who could use a little dosage of both. But what I like above all is that these are ordinary Americans, the ones who have built a great nation through personal sacrifice and ingenuity. Even better, their yearly arrival at the capital they own happens to coincide with the hasty exodus by professional politicians from the city, as well as local elites going into lockdown at their pricey downtown condos (God forbid that they had to mingle with “them” people). Am I digging this? Maybe a little. But it sure is nice to know that a great nation full of incredible folks stills exists beyond the walls of Minas Tirith.
Something feels a bit different when you step into a library these days. The first thing you notice is that these great places of wisdom have ceased to be the meeting places of yesteryears. These days the level of activity within these ancient temples can be best described as a trickle. Long gone are the days when the library was central to our thirst for knowledge, or to our social lives. The Internet and the digital revolution rendered them pretty much irrelevant for most people, and it all happened seemingly at the speed of light. The digitization of knowledge meant that we no longer had to physically travel to find it. Rather, knowledge would now come to us through a few, simple strokes on a keyboard. Ditto for our social interaction. Handshakes? That’s so yesterday. Today we just click on a “like” and be done with it. Catching a potential partner’s eye across the library table? You kidding? Just make sure your online dating profile is up to snuff and that your photoshopped photo looks great on the dating site. Click. Send. Done.
But no matter how much some of us appear to be grieving for the passing of the old-fashioned library, I still think that its total demise remains a thing of the future. Sure, the books in those buildings appear to be more decoration than references (when I visited not one person had a book in front of them, but everyone was at a computer terminal or sitting with a laptop), but some of the traditional attributes of libraries remain as needed today as they were decades ago when we all used to hang out around such places. Quiet. Silence. Solitude. A sense of space. A time for introspection and learning ( and yes, on account of propriety I’m leaving out some of the shenanigans that made libraries famous for different reasons way back then). Today, there are simply not too many places available in cities and communities for people to enjoy those somewhat passive pursuits. Noise pollution and endless visual demands have taken a serious toll on all of us. But in a library, the moment people set foot in them, silence and quiet take over just like magic, and a sense of “do-not-disturb” immediately becomes the norm, rather than the exception. Social detox at its best. Bastions of peace and quiet in a world bent on denying us those simple pleasures. And while such musings could easily be interpreted as excessive nostalgia or some equally forlorn feeling, I can only hope that such places never cease to exist, even if the betting is heavily stacked against them.
Today I would like to spend a little time praising the virtues of aimless wandering. I say aimless in the sense that such wandering is not constrained by any particular pattern of the type that leads to predictability of your course. No, the type of wandering I’m referring to has to do with selecting a general geographic area and then letting your feet (and curiosity) take you wherever they want to take you. Not for a moment, but rather for hours on end, and even full days in some occasions. It is the joy of day-after-day discovery, and a constant reminder that there’s a world out there that is both dynamic and exciting, not to mention the source of endless visions that will last a lifetime.
It was wandering that led me through a beautiful, ancient door and into a magnificent courtyard in Milan where lovers lazily embraced on a sunny summer day. It is wandering that has led me to discover the everyday lives of people in cities and neighborhoods that practically don’t exist in most people’s radar consciousness. Life reduced to a lover’s embrace, to a smile from a stranger, or to the asynchronous rhythm of a city coming alive in the mornings. There, between the silence which makes its last stand in the mornings and the inevitable noise of humanity mercilessly charging forward at the break of dawn, is where I find the tumultuous nature (and beauty) of living. Wandering, in small or large quantities, makes such discoveries possible. Drive or walk to work? Try taking a different route on a regular basis. Going shopping? How about trying that Korean store, or a farmer’s market for a change. Ditch the car and walk sometime, enter a restaurant where most people don’t speak your language, or hang around people who are not like you for a while. Visit a new city just because and get lost on foot for a few days. Travel and linger. Wander with a purpose, or without one, as places have a funny way of guiding your steps sometimes. Who knows, you may even discover that most people are alright after all.
When it comes to restaurants, it doesn’t get much simpler than the great American diner. And while restaurants come and go, all those magnificent diners that dot our great land are nothing but the rough diamonds of our culinary landscape. Too greasy? Yes. Too many calories? Sure. Cholesterol bombs? Definitely. Delicious? Absolutely. This culinary dichotomy (eyes raised to the heavens while placing one foot on the grave) is what makes these places a must while we spend time on this earth. Gravy on the biscuits? Must you ask.
But what is it that attracts so many people to the simple American diner? To a large extent, it is a large degree of nostalgia. Diners remind us of simple days, of small town America, of long-gone family time when you could dress casually while enjoying food that at some level helped to bind us as a people. What’s more, when go to a diner, we really don’t care much about how the food tastes. We already know how it’s going to taste. After all, how may permutations of eggs and hash browns can there be. No, going to a diner will always be about feeling differently when we’re there; about unpretentious servers who greet you as if they’ve known you forever. It is about the sweet “seat yourself” melody resonating in our ears, and about not being able to decide what to order because everything looks too good to pass. Heaven on earth, if you ask me. A place to be who you truly are and not the promotional version of yourself. I only wish I could turn back the clock a few decades or so, to a time when I could have added a couple of pancakes to my order. Next time, my friend, next time.
No matter how many times I visit the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC, there’s always something fascinating to be found amongst its many art chambers. And while I too admire its world-class exhibits, I would have to admit that it is the pursuit of the elusive perfect photographic scene that keeps me coming back to this wonderful place. Sadly, I haven’t found it yet, but sometimes I can’t help to think that I am so close to it, that I can feel it in the next chamber. Along I go, heart beating with the expectation of a 15-year old, and always hopeful that this time will be the lucky one. Mysteriously, and no matter the amount or level of disappointment, I never cease my quest. I know it has to be there, that perfect scene just waiting for me around the corner, with the backdrop of canvases and the magic strokes of long-gone masters of the arts. Yes, it has to be there, and no matter how much my feet hurt, or how tired I am, I can’t bring myself to stop looking, for to do so would amount to voluntarily extinguish the spark that lit the search flame in the first place.
The thing is, that no matter how hard I look, I really don’t want to find that perfect photograph. This may render my quest somewhat illusory, but in reality it is a case of enjoying the search (i.e., the journey) more than the idea of getting to what I’m after. It may not sound unique, but it really keep those aching feet taking one more step along the way. I will grant you that this whole notion resides somewhere deep in my mind, but after all, don’t we all live inside our heads? Photographers do, and that is why they wrestle all the time with the concept of visual meaning, or value for that matter. One minute they are happy with their work, the next they are not. The emotional and artistic yo-yo effect constantly pulling in one direction or the other. And all driven by the notion that next time, yes, next time, they can do better than yesterday. Self-dilusion or unbridled optimism? Take your pick, but I think I’ll stick with the optimism part for a while longer.
Here is yet another one of those “hiding in plain sight” stories. Ever heard of the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, DC? Well, neither had I. That is, until the last 48 hours or so. In fact, I wasn’t even looking for it, as I was driving along Georgetown’s Q Street on my way to the eccentricities of Dupont Circle, my photography destination for the day. Considering how enchanting this Dumbarton House is, I am kind of glad that I never made it to Dupont that morning, even if my discovery soon led to disappointment when I discovered that the House itself did not open its doors until 11:00 AM for inside-the-house tours. Thus, the early bird did not catch the proverbial worm this particular morning.
Like other houses built around 1800 in the area (almost all of them private properties closed to the general public), the simple elegance of the mansion bespeaks to a world that is almost unimaginable by today’s standards. It is described as a fine example of Federal Period architecture of the type that began dotting the Washington area during the early days of the capital. And while the attached East Park and Herb Garden are beautifully serene, the gem of the outdoors has to be the section right behind the house itself, were blooming flowers perfume the morning air with the soft embrace of a morning sun. A quiet, little-known hamlet surrounded by busy streets and busy people, and a reminder of how rewarding it can be to take a detour from our charted journeys in order to see where our tired, wandering feet will take us.
Think most politicians dream of spending time in the White House? Then think again. It just so happens that high up on a hill barely three miles north of the White House, a simple cottage next to a civil war cemetery was the preferred dwelling of none other than Abraham Lincoln himself. During the Civil War years, when more than your usual number of shady characters walked the power hallways of our nation’s capital, old Abe managed to spend around one-forth of his presidency conducting business from the quieter government quarters a short walk away from the Soldier’s Home in the District. And after spending a few hour recently touring this little-known Washington attraction, I can definitely see why he chose to spend his summers there. He may not have been able to avoid the raging civil war, but he was able to put some distance between himself and the grinding politics of Washington during these troubled times.
The Cottage is a bit out-of-the-beaten-path for most people. You pretty much have to drive there, although you could get there by bus if you have unlimited patience reserves, or by Metro if you if long walks are your thing when you travel. However you get there, the Cottage is well worth a visit for anyone interested in history and the personalities of the Civil War era. Be mindful, though, that the place is not what I would call photography-friendly. The DC area as a whole is a bit paranoid about photographers, but at this restricted installation you would think that you just entered Area 51 or something like it. No photographs inside any building, severely restricted movement around the Cottage, and security personnel on you like a cheap suit. You would certainly be forgiven for thinking that President Lincoln was still there. But the place is part of the rich history of our country, and well worth enduring the minor photographic and movement inconveniences that come with visiting.
Oh, spring. It comes every year as a refreshing breeze that renews our spirits in ways that are hard to describe. With the emergence of those wonderful first flower buds from their winter slumber, we can’t help but think that life continues its yearly ritual of offering us a new beginning, and a much-needed momentary antidote to all that the gloom accumulated during the winter months. And as we take those first, hesitant steps into the warm sunshine infused with the subtle perfume of those first blooms, we realize once more that in spite of all the challenges in our lives, there is still plenty of beauty out there for us to enjoy.
And strange as it may sound, one of the most wonderful places in the wold to enjoy the glory of a new spring is none other than our nation’s capital, Washington, DC. From the incomparable beauty of the Cherry Blossoms at the Tidal Basin, to the dreamlike magnolia trees at the Smithsonian Parterre and Moongate gardens, this city of massive concrete buildings and long faces suddenly cheers up as it transforms into one of the greatest gardens in the world. Bureaucrats don’t seem to hurry as much, passerby’s actually smile a lot more, and lo-and-behold, the city experiences a dramatic increase in “public displays of affection.” And if the spring flowering ritual can infuse such transformation on hardened DC bureaucrats, just imagine the effect that it has on the rest of us. Without a doubt, a magic potion for all that afflicts us.
Very few things fascinate me as much as when I observe a stranger in a state of utter contemplation. Can’t quite say why, but I assume it has to do with what such scenes do to the power of the imagination. Contemplation is perhaps the ultimate form of freedom, as it gives birth to who we truly are, stripped from the the cacophony of sounds that demand so much of our senses, but deliver so little to out souls. Of course, many would argue that such musings are nothing but signs of mental illness on the part of photo blogger, but I have to believe that there’s something to it. When we loose ourselves into ourselves, something transformative seems to happen. We connect dots, we make sense of us, and above all, we come to know the self in ways that are so deeply personal that it is impossible for others to see. That is precisely what this simple scene along the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris reminded me of. Silence, contemplation, and a journey that only eyes that had seen so much more than mine, could see. No doubt that scenes like these led Percy Bysshe Shelley, the famous British romantic poet from the early 19th Century, to perfectly capture the deep feelings generated by such moments:
There is eloquence in the tongueless wind, and a melody in the flowing brooks and the rustling of the reeds beside them, which by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul, awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes, like the enthusiasm of patriotic success, or the voice of one beloved singing to you alone.
But why do we allow so very few of these moments in our lives? Fear of what we may discover? Or could it be that they would require us to give less to others as we pursue more of ourselves? I’m sure that there are as many explanations are there are pebbles on a beach. Such a pity, for I’m sure we could all benefit from heeding Shelly’s wise advice to “… awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture…”
Over the past few days it has dawned on me that photographers, together with many other artists out there, may well be some of the greatest linguists in the world. I kid you not, they really are. Think about it. What language is the Mona Lisa? Or the photo above? It really doesn’t matter whether I snapped this photo myself or someone from Botswana took it. Does it? Photography, like so many other artistic forms, truly enjoys the virtue of universality. It speaks not in a single language, but in a way that anyone from any part of the world can understand. A single voice, a single moment. It renders language barriers irrelevant and elicits those simple feelings that are common in us all. It makes us aware of the fact that while we are all rather unique creatures, in the end, we are also so very much alike.
Not all colors are alike. How’s that for a tautological argument? But let me explain. I spend a considerable amount of my time on earth walking around cities searching for interesting photographic subjects. And while my somewhat optimistic searches don’t always prove fruitful (ok, some of it may have to do with my inherent photographic limitations), there is no denying that colors, or the lack of them, kind of influence what I look at, or at the very least, what I find interesting. They make objects stand out from their surroundings and dramatically influence the visual choices we make out there in the world.
So what is it about the color red that usually makes it stand out supreme from other colors? It’s not even my favorite color. But no matter where my eyes take me, red is a color I’ve found impossible to ignore. In its own silent way, it screams at me, demanding my visual attention like no other color out there (well, maybe with the exception of the neon oranges that some tourist groups wear so they won’t loose anyone). From a fashion perspective, you would not catch me dead wearing such a color. Perhaps because different to other colors, I don’t find red to be a passive color, or unassuming for that matter. It visually pokes you and demands not to be ignored. In its own convoluted way, it represents both passion and pain, smiles and tears. It can’t hide and cannot be missed. It pulls more than it pushes, and demands a photographer’s attention like no other. Resistance is futile, so it’s not even worth trying. Isn’t that wonderful?
As far as I’m concerned, imagination, or simple flights of fancy, are the stuff of life. I say this because no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to look at the world for what it is. No, not possible. Images, and the scenes I constantly see before me, are mere windows into an imaginary world. For some reason or another, I keep thinking of what I see as incomplete stories, almost begging for me to fill in the blanks with my imagination. A man standing at a corner is not just simply a man standing at a corner. This untamed imagination refuses to see just that. He must be waiting for someone, he has nowhere to go, time doesn’t matter to him, he is there because the events in his life, he seems to be in love, or appears to be totally devoid of it. Whatever. It just goes on and on, and there’s nothing I can do to control it. Imagination, like time, is simply impervious to boundaries.
And thus the photograph above. Is it just a picture of a man in a white uniform staring at passerby’s? Or a baker taking a break from the morning rush? I stood there for nearly ten minutes observing the ongoing scenes, and all that I could think of was the title of Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd.” What to make of this solitary man with his forlorn look, staring at a “madding crowd” of shoppers and consumers? Surely, more than twenty or so feet separate their world from his, and there is no doubt that he was being ignored by the very people who’s lives he was enriching by his labor. Did he envy these people? Or pity them? Did he aim to join them, or leave them? I wondered what his plans were for the holidays. Who would be waiting for him at home. Who misses him when he’s gone, while he quietly observes the crowds, not uttering a word to anyone and no one uttering a word to him. And so it goes, imagination trying to add context to the scene, something that photographer Duane Michals understood very well when he addressed the subject: “I believe in imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” I must agree, because therein, behind the raw data collected by our senses, lies the mystery, and the wonder of the things we see.