I find very few things as satisfying as walking around neighborhoods in Europe to find out what people are really like away from the tourist spots and the hustle and bustle of city center. I’m talking about those neighborhoods that never make it to travel brochures, but which are teaming with ordinary life like the one I leave behind every time I embark on a journey. Interestingly, I travel thousands of miles, spend more money that is prudent to spend, and put my joints through grueling day walks, just to observe and experience the lives of ordinary people like myself living ordinary lives like mine. Now, I grant you that this is not everyone’s cup of tea, or that it ranks up there with what most people would choose to do with their limited time and money, but for me, this relentless pursuit of “distinctive sameness” (how’s that for confusion?) is what has fueled more than 40 years of travel around the world. You could say that I am simply fascinated by all that is the common amongst the people of the world, but at the same time different. A narrow line marking the distinction between cultures and people, but for me, a demarcation zone that has fueled the pursuit of a lifetime.
In absolute terms, human behavior and culture, are rather similar. We all eat, enjoy art, labor, love, pursue happiness, experience sadness, etc., etc, etc. We just go about it differently, and that is where my insatiable interest lies: on the “unique” ways we all experience all these common traits of humanity as a result of history, culture, and geography. The Japanese people bow deeply with tears flowing down their cheeks upon seeing someone dear to their hearts after years of separation, while the Italians hug incessantly as if trying to fuse two people into one. Same feeling, different expressions. And it’s the same wherever you look, be it in what people eat, or what they do with their free time. A beautiful river with incredible landscapes invites contemplation and romance. An industrial city replete of square, concrete buildings, perhaps not as much. Thus, the factors affecting our adopted behaviors are indeed many and varied, and there’s no better place to discover these behavioral distinctions than in the neighborhoods where people disarmingly engage in them without a care in the world. In the process, I learn a lot about them, and without a doubt, a little about myself.
I’m always fascinated by bookstores. Never mind that long ago I made the transition to e-readers, though, because no matter this surrender to the modern era, I still can’t resist the lingering nostalgia that comes from having been part of the pre-Internet generation. Not that my memory of simpler times leads to any sale during my visits (carrying a camera all day seems enough for me these days), but rather that in the process of transitioning to the digital age, all sorts of things were admittedly lost in the process. The physical sensation that comes from walking between rows and rows of books, the orderly lack of uniformity and topics on the shelves, and the childish satisfaction that accompanied the process of purchasing a book. All great things, but perhaps more relevant to an era when physical access to a whole slew of bookstores was more the norm rather than an exception. Notwithstanding this reality, bookstores out there are not giving up without a fight and seem to have figured something out by concentrating in neighborhoods that do away with the need for anyone to get into a car to reach them. This is good news. But is this a last stand or the wave of the future? Hard to say. What I know is that bookstores are still out there, and that just in case, we must all enjoy them while we can.
I have walked by Fire Station #201 in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia many times before. After all, Prince Street is somewhat of a well-known street in Old Town, specially during spring when some of the best looking tulip plantings in the area can be seen barely a block away. Never had I seen the station doors open, though, or seen any of its personnel hanging out outside like they do in the movies. I guess this is a good thing when you think about it, because when firefighters are not busy putting out fires it means that some level of human and property suffering is being avoided. But today, as I decided at the last minute (and for no particular reason) to take the long way to where I was headed, I was pleasantly rewarded with the opportunity to visit the #201 Station by some of the nicest people I’ve met in a long time. The folks at the station were extremely friendly, informative, and obviously very proud of the work they are doing to keep the rest of us safe. For this roving photographer, what started as a quick walk on a sunny Sunday morning turned out to be a lesson in history, a walk of discovery, and a realization of how thankful we all must be for the professionalism and sacrifice of our great firefighters (of which my brother-in-law is one). I guess no day, no matter how ordinary it may look, is really ordinary. I met some great Americans today at a place that is both part of America’s past and of its present, and I am glad to report that we could not be in better hands when it comes to our safety and wellbeing. So, a big thank you goes out to the great folks of Fire Station #201 for their generosity and the great work they do together with firefighters from other stations to keep the rest of us safe and secure.
These days workers appear to be clamoring for a little space away from their overcrowded, communal offices. What’s more, it appears that in order to find a little peace and quiet, any space will do, even if it means planting themselves behind a column, or on a chair that is totally out of place with its surroundings. It doesn’t seem to matter, as long as the result is that level of temporary solitude that today’s office environment seems to deny them on a daily basis. As most of you know by now, modern office design, with its overemphasis on team work, is typically designed to promote constant human interaction and contact. While noble, this traditional approach has led to an interruption-driven ecosystem where most forms of solitude and introspection have become virtually impossible, if not outright frowned upon. Luckily, people are not totally surrendering to the always-on office syndrome, as my most recent lunchtime stroll with my camera revealed. So, I am pleased to report that escapism, even if mostly limited to lunchtime hours, is alive and well in today’s office jungle environment.
A few days back I came across this scene at the National Mall by the Capitol Building and it got me thinking about that moment when the light comes on and it’s your time to say something, or do something for that matter. What was significant for me was that this solitary crew was out there doing their job in the open and on a bitterly-cold day when most sane mortals wouldn’t be caught dead in such open spaces (so much for the glamour of journalism). Even when no one was looking, the weather was crappy, and nothing of any consequence appeared to be happening around them, there they were getting the job done. No posse, no trumpet section, no crowds, no adoring fans. I guess none of that matters when you are passionate about what you do.
I will admit that I love new things and that if you ever saw where I live, you would be hard pressed to find anything old. Modern Italian design? Count me in. Modern fusion food? Hey, I’m there. But give me a choice to pick up whatever camera I want and hit the streets to record everyday life, and a metamorphosis takes place inside my head. Out with the new, and bring in the old. Yes, I can already feel what you’re thinking. This may indeed take a whole team of psychiatrists to explain, but the old nostalgia for days gone by inevitably veer my photographic interests to the past–to the distant past. Perhaps this is because of some subliminal feeling that all of us who are here, right now, can see what’s out there in front of us. The present, in some strange way, appears as too common when viewed through the lens of a Leica camera. For some of us who have been around for a while, old things are the stuff of memories, our memories, and not the stuff of curiosity. To photograph them is to connect once more, and however briefly, with some of the happy moments of our youth. Street markets, old records, funky hats, street musicians, period clothes, and paying in cash at the street level are all part of that nostalgia. Like the underlying premise of the novel Crabwalk, written by the famous German writer Günther Grass, life sometimes simulates the walk of your average crab: it moves forward by walking backwards. You know, it does make some sense when you think about it.
Today I thought I’d do a little old-fashioned street photography. If you follow this photographic genre you’d know that this is one area of photography where pixel perfection is not the objective. In fact, too much perfection tends to detract from the photographs depicting everyday life out there on the street. No, this is all about the moment; the living moment, that is. Because of this, the photographs tend to be slightly rustic, if I can use that word to describe them. I think this has to do with the fact that when engaging in street photography you need to get rather close to your subject, and in doing so you tend to take your pictures as quick as possible without attracting too much attention, or risk, for that matter. People stare at you, scream at you not to take their photos even if you have yet to aim your camera at them, and take all sorts of evading action when they even spot you with a camera in their vecinity. I realize that it is not always like this everywhere, but when you walk the streets of Washington, DC, paranoia about being photographed seems to be a somewhat common trait amongst the locals. The thing is, though, that just as we enjoy seeing old, faded photographs of a bygone era in our major cities, so too will the photographs taken by today’s street photographers form the historical record of the lives we are currently living. Future generations will no doubt be as grateful of today’s photographers as we are of those that came before us. And that is pretty cool.
I love Nikon cameras and have been using them for longer than I can remember, but the allure of the relatively new Leica M9 camera was simply too much to resist. Of course, considering that you could pretty much buy a good used car with what it would take to acquire one of those German wonders, acquiring one of these cameras is not a decision to be made lightly. But if you take the plunge and do get one of these magnificent cameras, you will undoubtedly be well on your way to becoming a Leica evangelist. Of course, the many reviews on the Internet warning that this is not a camera for everyone are absolutely right. Like a restrictive speed zone, the Leica M9 forces you to slow down, but with the promise that in slowing down you will enrich your photographic experience. Leica’s world is not the world of mindless automation. Yes, there are a bunch of automated functions on this camera (like Aperture priority metering), but the real fun is found when experimenting with the camera’s perfect manual settings. It had been a couple of decades since I had experienced a completely manual photography world, but frankly, all this time I didn’t realize what I was missing. All aspects of light and composition were suddenly thrown front-and-centered, and the mundane activity of taking photos was immediately transformed into the art of photography. Such is the photographic metamorphosis that a Leica M9 with its array of exceptional lenses will bring into your art. In today’s jammed-packed DSLR world, this camera stands as living proof that the concept of “less is more” is alive and well. Let’s hope that this will be the case for a very long time.