Everything is too complicated. Really. Or should I say, we make things too complicated for our own good. Here as I seat pondering a new year, I can’t help but wonder whether my expectations for 2018 will be any different from those I conceived of for the year 2017. After all, what difference does a year make, or should make? I would like to think that with every passing year we become a somewhat better, refined version of ourselves. As our vision narrows with time, the complicated expectations of fame, fortune, and endless adventure are gradually fined tuned to a more personalized set of intentions. This focus was perhaps where our vision should have been all along, but when life is enjoying its boisterous spring time, it surely must be allowed some leeway for its blessed recklessness and exuberance. With time, however, we manage to gradually squeeze the essence of things, just like the concentrated extract of a fine perfume. What really matters gains in potency by the process of discarding the superfluous. During this process, slowness becomes a virtue, and simplicity a much-cherished objective.
And so it goes with my approach to 2018. No need to visit a hundred countries when spending a lot more time in a few would do. No need to live it up in fancy, über-expensive hotels when a quaint b&b in the French countryside would do. No need obsessing over eternal money pursuits, when loved ones are starving for a little more time with us. It is far too easy to become a slave to the constructs in our heads, to that complicated notion of who we should be that always comes at the expense of who we are. Less, with simplicity as its accomplice, may well be secret passage to a life of happiness and bliss. That scarcity, strange as it may sound, may just be the sweet fuel of our dreams and expectations. A new year, a new approach to living and traveling. And if anyone out there, like me, comes to the realization that it would be virtually impossible to see all the stars in the universe, then we all should just pick one, and give it all we’ve got. The journey will be equally rewarding.
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.
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.
Like happiness, it never last very long. That’s just the way it is, but while it lasts, it is nothing short of heaven. I’m obviously referring to the yearly spectacle that is the Cherry Blossoms blooming season around the Tidal Basin area downtown Washington, DC. That’s right, the same town where politicians have given new meaning to the word hate, but where nature, in spite of their attempt to spoil it, explodes in all its beauty for a few days in March every year. Around the grassy meadows of the Washington Mall, the eternal fights just a few blocks away seem as in a different galaxy. The beautiful bloom of these bendy trees remains as oblivious of the politicians as the politicians remain of their delicate flowers. In fact, the Cherry Blossoms are a happy zone, a zone where smiles and enjoyment of what life has to offer are potent enough to exclude any feeling of unhappiness and dejection. A zone where “public demonstrations of affection” are not only evident everywhere you look, but where they are impossible to repress amongst so much beauty. It is a yearly ritual that only lasts three or four days, but one that that is the clearest symbol of spring and of the beauty, happiness, and hope that still exists in the world. Nature, and people, at their best. The world could use a little bit more of both.
It was a cliffhanger, but the famous Tidal Basin Cherry Blossoms did manage to show up after all. A bit subdued mind you, but there they are along with the crowds. And while the cold, rainy season is kind of putting a damper on people’s mood, it is virtually impossible to walk amongst these wonderful trees and not feel some sort of uplifting, positive force that could can turn any sour Washington bureaucrat into a happy person. And believe me, that is saying a lot. Every year, this beautiful gift of nature appears to remind us that not everything is gloom and doom in this world. In fact, it is a reminder that the dark, cold days of winter don’t last forever, and that there will always be a spring, and flowers blooming, and lovers moved by nature’s spectacle. Life as an eternal cycle, with endless springs to come.
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.
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…”
Don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, there is no more perfect season than autumn. Sure, it’s wet, days are shorter, and you definitely need to bundle up a bit before going out. But that’s precisely what makes it so perfect. Nature’s colors at their best, sidewalks covered with fallen leaves, and chilly temperatures that elevate every quiet moment to the level of supreme enjoyment. The heat is gone, and so is the colorless haze that unmercifully mutes the summer colors. The sounds of life’s constant drums are reduced a decibel or two, and nature’s lights are dimmed a bit as if to force us to slow down and take in the transformation that is going on all around us. So here’s a salute to the perfect season: bring out the port wine, dust off the scarfs, put logs on the fireplace, and watch the reluctant sun barely raise over the horizon. Walk out, let the morning dew caress your face, count the colors of the leaves, and breathe the clear, chilly air of a perfect autumn day. Worry less, live more, sit on a bench, hold someone’s hand, and stare at the magnificent spectacle that lies before our very eyes. Let go, let in, and just be. Let nature remind you that every year is different, that you are different, and that in spite of the changes (or because of them), life will still be as colorful as the golden trees adorning the autumn countryside.
Today I’m concerned with the notion of visual context. Yes, while the world goes to pieces, I’m worrying about context, and the lack of it. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about the rest of the world (because I do), but rather that after taking this photograph a few days ago, I came to the realization that everything around it, or external to it, only detracted from what I deemed to be unique on that lonely leaf. The environment in which this leaf existed seemed irrelevant at best, and obstructive at worst. I simply didn’t care about that environment because my eyes were so fixated on what I was seeing, that everything else was, at best, irrelevant. If nature had a standing before our courts, I would’ve considered filing scene trespassing charges against it. The leaf was visual melody, the rest was simply noise.
I think our parents were up to something when they hauled the entire family into their vintage cars for the purpose of doing a little road tripping. And as rare as it sounds today, the habit of going out for a family ride in those old cars was one of the things some of us remember fondly from our youth. No agenda, no plans, and no particular destination in mind. Cruising around to check out what was happening in town had its own rewards. It was pure automobile zen. Right turns, left turns, slow down here and speed up over there, an unchoreographed dance where everyone’s performance became the stuff of family legends.
This sort of nostalgia is what led me recently to get in my car and hit the road, so to speak. All I knew was that I would drive down Virginia’s Route 50 for as long as I felt like it and that at some point I would perform a Forrest Gump-like turnaround and come back home. So along I went, music playing on the radio, windows down, and no destination. With my camera sitting next to me, I did tell myself that I would stop at whatever site caught my attention, even if it took all day to complete my journey. I knew this would be a problem because Route 50 is one of the most scenic country roads you’ll encounter anywhere in the US. But here was a unique opportunity to try out some of that “slow travel” concept that the Europeans have mastered so well over the years. Would it really be possible to do away with all notions of time while driving into the sunset of our minds? Well, the short answer seems to be no, but if it’s impossible to do away with that old torturer time, it is definitely possible to ignore it for a while.
Route 50 may just be the perfect place for this. And while I’ve written about this area before, the sheer beauty of this American landmark makes it the place you keep coming back to, over and over again. Hard to think of a better place in the area for a road trip, although admittedly, Route 211 past the town of Warrenton comes close. BBQ’s and horse farms are big in the area, as well as quaint, little towns where you can find everything from Amish patio furniture to Alpaca socks. But it’s the landscape that will make you forget all notions of time for a while. The green meadows just seem to go on forever until they reach the distant Blue Ridge Mountains, while happy horses graze on grass so green that it looks as if it has been painted recently. It is easy to loose yourself in this scenery and the delicate touch of a morning breeze. Who knows, perhaps it is possible to make time stand still after all, even if for that brief moment when nothing else mattered but what was in front our my eyes.
It is a yearly ritual, but it never ceases to amaze. The annual spring blooming of the Cherry Blossom trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC is one of those unique gifts of nature that no matter how many times you have experienced it in the past, the sheer beauty of this blooming spectacle is something not to be missed. Sure, the photos by now have all started to look the same, and the crowds will always descend on the place as pilgrims on a pilgrimage, but it really doesn’t matter. Has anyone ever tired of looking at a pretty face? Or has anyone ever wished for less happiness in their lives? Impossible. In the early morning hours of a perfect spring day, the blossoming cherry trees along the undulating shores of the Tidal Basin are the stuff of fantasies. The pink and white colors of the blooming flowers appear to fight for everyone’s attention, while the cool, misty fog along the water’s surface gradually gives way to the lazy, yellow light of a morning sun. It is a spectacle like no other, and year after year, it will bring us back to see and feel the coming of a new spring. A reminder of how beautiful life can be, and how great it is to be alive.
Out of nowhere, magic. That is perhaps the best description of my recent trip to a place I barely knew existed less than a week ago. But all that changed thanks to a phone call from my photographer friend Mark, who during the course of our recent conversation, casually asked whether I would be interested in joining a group of local photographers during a Bald Eagle photography outing. Now, I am not a nature photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but the thought of observing Bald Eagles at their James River winter habitat while cruising down the river on an old pontoon boat before the sun even came out, was simply too much for me to resist. So, away I went at 4:00 AM to meet the group of photographers at the Deep Bottom Park boat ramp, which appropriately enough lies at the end of the Deep Bottom Road to the south-east of Richmond, Virginia.
Little did I know that by the end of this otherwise normal morning I was to experience one of the most magical spectacles nature has to offer anywhere in the world. It is far too easy for those of us who live in an urban environment where concrete and shopping malls rule the day, to forget that day after day, moment after moment, and in spite of mankind’s ingratitude towards it, nature continues to remind us of the simple beauty of our planet and the irreplaceable feeling of being alive. The pale, orange light of a morning sun, the gentle flow of a mighty river, and the first, hesitant sounds of nature’s first hours on a new day. And all under the watchful eye of ospreys and eagles sitting majestically above the tree tops waiting their turn to glide as in a choreographed dance in search of prey near the surface of the mighty river down below. Life begins and ends in rivers like the James. In between these two realities, a great spectacle always takes place. Battles are won and lost, the sun rises and the sun sets, there is silence and there is sound, and above all, there is life. I may never become a nature photographer, but this short trip down the James River surely made me understand why these photographers would not have it any other way. It is indeed food for the soul.
You know those days when nothing much seems to be going on? Well, yesterday was one of those days. The whole city seemed to have entered the New Year’s hangover stage and everywhere you went there seemed to be an eerily quiet atmosphere with only a few, slow-moving folks trickling about. This is actually pretty normal during these first days of the year, as people psychologically gear themselves for the inevitable return to the daily grind. After all, all those postponed projects and tasks from last year didn’t quite disappear with the champagne on New Year’s eve.
However, the absence of crowds is also a great opportunity for some unique photography. Empty space can be accentuated, serenity can dominate a scene, and the proverbial “photo bomb” can be eliminated from the frame. Hoping to capture a little of that that empty, serene space, I headed down to the Alexandria waterside to take a long walk along its quiet, rocky shore. Bereft of crowds and the never-ending sound of human activity, the place was like a scene right out of some small European village along the French Mediterranean shore. The mighty Potomac river was so calm that it appeared to be sleeping after a night of celebration. Couples moved at glacier speeds before coming to a halt in order to linger and take in the beauty of an empty landscape. Young girls danced with seaguls as if in a choreographed performance on a vast, outdoor stage. In the quiet humm of a morning breeze, nature and the human spirit appeared to still be dancing the night away. A new year, hesitantly taking its first steps while shining its soft, morning light on us to remind us of the beauty that life can be. What a day. What a life.
I am convinced that driving along country backroads is a sure way of discovering all sorts of photographic wonders. Not that this sort of observation will lead to a Nobel Prize any time soon, but rather that in today’s busy world, driving for pleasure has become a rarity for too many people. If you are old enough to remember the family Sunday ride, you’ll know what I mean. It was all about the ride, and about looking around. A visual journey where time and speed were always subordinated to the thrill of discovering something new (or different) along the way. The rides were fun, unstructured, and rewarding. Sort of like sitting behind a glass window in a coffee shop watching the world go by, but with wheels. These photos were the product of one such ride along the Virginia countryside. Amazing what you find when your eyes insist on seeing.