Not everyone enjoys empty spaces. I’m referring to those empty rooms where maybe a sole couch sits, or a sole print on the wall. Sort of a Japanese Zen kind of room, devoid from visual distractions, but perhaps with a single object in it to demand your total, and uncluttered attention. It is really incredible how the Japanese have turned the absence of something into a thing of beauty. If only we could do that in this part of the world, where people cannot have enough stuff to cram into whatever space they have. Kind of what we do with our time, where society feels compelled to fill every minute of it with some activity, like checking a cell phone for that constant stream of those “insignificant little nothings.”
But when we search for creativity, empty spaces do seem to take an importance out of proportion from their normal selves. Perhaps it has to do with the visual isolation they allow, or perhaps with the fact that the less taxing our visual reaction is, the more our minds can wonder and compose. Whatever the case, it is in that desolate, empty distance separating feelings from the subject of our attention, where I find the glorious sustenance that feeds my imagination. That gap, that clear path where nothing lives and where obstacles don’t exist, is precisely where inspiration dwells. Nothing stands in the way of our eyes, thoughts, and admiration. It is glorious emptiness, where unable to be seen by the naked eye, incredible amounts of energy bounces back-and-forth without obstacles between the admirer and the admired.
What makes music beautiful is the distance between one note and another. What makes speech eloquent is the appropriate pause between words. From time to time we should take a breath and notice the silence between sounds.
The absence of notes and words makes “noticing” possible, just as the absence of obstructing things make beauty noticeable. A pause in a conversation. The expectation of the next note. A lone painting on a wall. And the empty space between us. I couldn’t help but notice.
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.
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.
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.
Do you take the time to see? I mean, to really see. You alone can answer this question, but I have to guess that most of us in these time-starved days simply don’t have the opportunity, or willingness, to slow down enough to “smell the roses,” so to speak. After all, time, with all its virtues and detriments, plays games on us all. There’s simply too little of it available for creativity and inspiration after factoring in all the “must do’s” in life. Work, family, personal grooming, chores, wait time, you name it and we’ve all been there. In fact, and as much as it pains me to say it, I’ll go as far as to say that such demands on our time are simply unavoidable. They are an integral part of the weave of life, at once detracting from and enriching our short journeys on planet earth. But if these time demands are inevitable, how is it possible to find time for creativity and inspiration in this journey. Was Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) correct when he said in that it is not that we have so little of it, but rather than we waste so much of it?
Perhaps the answer lies not in the effort to create more free time than what we have (although this is always a good thing), but rather on increasing the “quality” of the time we have. And yes, I’m talking about he old “turn lemons into lemonade” argument (which admittedly Seneca described much better), but with a twist. This twist has to do with the difficult process of accepting that in this finite world, there are simply a lot of things we must choose to do without. Want to concentrate on truly discovering every intricacy of a work of art? Then you will have to consciously accept that you will not be able to get to other parts of the museum. Need a healthy amount of solitude to create your masterpiece? Then you will have to dispense with the company of others for long periods of time. Want to really get to know Croatia and the Croatian people, but only have two weeks of vacation? Then you must accept that Italy, Slovenia, and Switzerland are journeys for another day.
This sort of acceptance is primarily a mental one. And while there are spacial constraints there too, they only seem to play a minor role when compared with our willingness to “accept less in our pursuit of more.” Looked at it this way, the road to personal fulfillment could very well be paved by our individual abilities to do without. It is the feeling that comes from waiting for the sun to go past the horizon during an incredible sunset. Stillness and divestiture of worldly concerns and impositions, while short-lived, are the building blocks of indescribable joy. Call it “being in the moment,” or whatever, but they are moments when nothing else matters but what is in front of our eyes, immediately present in our reality. Fireworks on a moonless night. Forever in a minute. But what a minute it is.
Recently, I came across a quote by Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, that got me thinking about the things we say and the things we do. What made this quote even more puzzling for me was that it came in stark contrast with something I read in one of my favorite books of all times, “Cassanova In Bolzano,” by the famous Hungarian author Sándor Márai. The contrast between Carl Jung (a realist) and Cassanova (an idealist) could not be more stark.
Let’s start with Carl Jung. The quote I’m referring to goes as follows:
You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.
Jung could not be more blunt. A waiter, then, is just a waiter and not a writer. An office worker is an office worker, and there’s no use describing him or her as a painter. If you have a great voice, but don’t sing professionally, then you are definitely not a singer, according to Jung. No room for dreamers here, or for trying to convince anyone that you are really an artist trapped in the daily toil required to put food on the table. Plain and simple, no amount of talk, of dreaming, or wishful thinking will change what is obvious for everyone to see. A harsh reality indeed, but Jung obviously called them like he saw them.
And then, there was Sándor Márai, telling us through his character Cassanova that what you do does not necessarily defines who you are. That you, in your hearts of hearts, could be a painter even if you’ve never painted anything. That what defines a writer is not the product of his or her labor, but rather the poetry that forms inside his or her heart. What we think we are is what we are, not what the trappings of life and circumstance have forced upon us.
In his book, Cassanova is somewhat annoyed by his assistant (Balbi) questioning why he called himself a writer if he had never written anything, or gotten paid for it for that matter. For Cassanova, his life was, in a sense, his writing. It was just that he had yet to put it down to pen and paper:
… I am that rare creature, a writer with a life to write about! You asked me how much I have written? … Not much, I admit… I have been envoy, priest, soldier, fiddler, and doctor of civil and canonical law… But that’s not the point, it’s not the writing, it’s what I have done that matters. It is me, my life, that is the important thing. The point … is that being is much more difficult than doing… When I have lived, I shall want to write.
It would have been an event to remember to hear Carl Jung and Sándor Márai discussing this contrasting philosophies. I can’t help but think that at times I’ve found myself fervently ascribing to one of these camps or the other. That is why photographs like the ones above make me think so much about the nature of people, or at least, the nature of the people depicted on the photos. Who are these people? Are they what I see, or is there something more to them (perhaps their true nature) that is hidden from my eyes?
Unbeknownst to me, about a month ago I was standing precisely on the line of demarcation between these contrasting approaches. Upon visiting one of the major art galleries in Washington, DC (will not mention names here in the name of privacy) and walking down one of the empty, yet beautiful corridors, I came face-to-face with one of the security employees who hangs around the hallways making sure no harm comes to the artwork at the gallery. What my eyes saw was a security guard doing his job, and one that at first impression, did not look like a very exciting one. After a short conversation I discovered that he and his family had come to this country in search of the safety that they could not find back home in their African country. More than that, he confided that he had run for President back home and lost, but that it remained his dream to go back and try again when the conditions were right. He also gave me a short lesson in African economics and development, and all without me ever asking. Obviously, there was a longing in his heart and a vision of the role he felt he was meant to play in his life. I was just surprised at the trick my eyes had played on me. Now looking back at this experience, I can only wonder whether Jung and Márai, had they been in my position, would have seen the same man in front of them. The eyes, after all, can be quite deceiving.
Talk about hiding in plain sight. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have walked by and photographed the grounds of the Hirshhorn Museum downtown Washington. In fact, the museum area and the sunken sculpture garden just across the street are some of my favorite places to capture unique people photos during the warm summer months. Yesterday, however, with temperatures dipping into the low 30’s and winds gusting to 30 mph, was not one of those days. Very few daring souls were out in the open, and those who ventured the elements were scurrying from one building to another as if training for the Olympics race-walking competition. I know this because camera in hand, I was one of them. Originally headed to a different museum, I was compelled by the frigid temperatures to find refuge in the nearest public (and heated) building to the metro station. That oasis of warmth was the Hirshhorn Museum, and much to my surprise, I found myself discovering a gem of contemporary modern art that had been sitting under my nose for longer than I care to admit.
You can’t miss this museum when visiting the National Mall in DC. With its multi-layered, circular design (I wonder if Steve Jobs was inspired by the design for his new Apple headquarters) and open ground floor, the museum structure sticks out like nothing else at the National Mall. Sort of the same could be said of the inside, where some of the sculptures and structures lining its circular halls will leave you scratching your head for meaning (as much as it pains me to say it, I have to admit that I am somewhat artistically primitive). But amongst its massively eclectic collections, incredible displays of human creativity and talent are also evident everywhere you look. In particular, the outstanding “Days of Endless Time” exhibit (open until April 12, 2015) was simply mindblowing.
The official description of the exhibit says it best:
In a world conditioned by the frantic, 24/7 flow of information and the ephemerality of digital media, many artists are countering thie dynamic with workd that emphasize slower, more meditative forms of perception… Selected as alternatives to the pace of contemporary life, these works provide a poetic refuge–a reflective realm where one drifts as if through days of endless time.
My favorite work in the series was a short film appropriately called “Travel.” To say that this slow-moving, ode to movement and perception was simply out of this world would be a gross understatement. The venue could not have been more perfect either. An oversized, dark room devoid of structures, where the rythmic, heart-grabbing musical score gradually induced a deep, meditative state on the audience. This was great stuff in a small package. More than that, it was another reminder that sometimes, great things happen when we dare to veer off those intended paths well-worn out by familiarity and routine.
If there’s such a thing as understated greatness, the Buddy Holly memorial and Texas Walk of Fame in Lubbock, Texas must be such a place. Not that I traveled all the way to Lubbock with the purpose of visiting the Buddy Holly Memorial Park, but rather that it would have been inconceivable to travel to Lubbock and not visit the park sandwiched between Cricket Avenue (named in memory of this famous band) and the Buddy Holly Avenue. The classy, yet small, memorial to Lubbock’s prodigal son is actually quite impressive by its sheer simplicity. A statute and some plaques commemorating some of the area’s great artists is all you’ll find in the perfectly manicured park adjacent to the former train station that now houses the Buddy Holly Center. The somewhat isolated area at the edge of town seemed to receive an occasional trickle of visitors while I was there, but slowly and quietly they kept on coming to pay their respects to the musical legend. A humble tribute to a boy from Lubbock who died a premature death, but who’s music and artistic influence will no doubt live forever.
Ever come back from a photo outing and notice that there seems to be a pattern with your photographs? I did. After going over my photos after a trip to the Rosslyn area in Northern Virginia, I came to the realization that for whatever reason, I seemed to be fascinated with circular objects in the area. I grant you that this was a strange realization for me, but then again, I guess round objects and architecture do seem to break the linear mold that characterizes most modern, urban development in America. To tell you the truth, I never gave a lot of thought to the notion that our visual world is dominated by rectangles and straight lines. Well, not in Rosslyn, where folks do seem to have quite an artistic flare and love of round things. The neighborhood was already a favorite of mine because of the amazing reflections you see on the side of its tall, glass buildings. There’s simply nothing like it in the DC Metro area. And as far as I know, no one puts it on top of their list of priorities to go and spend a day wandering around Rosslyn, but I’m glad I did. The place never ceases to surprise me.
I never thought that the lonely, cutting sound of a small chisel would cause such a great impression on me. After all, this is something we don’t hear or see every day. A cold chisel being driven by gentle, patient hands into a granite wall with the methodical rhythm of someone who’s intent has more to do with achieving perfection than with worrying about time. As I watched this artist work the stone I couldn’t help but think that this is the same level of patience and precision that goes into the making of top-end Leica cameras (which just happens to be what I used to take this photo). For some people this is boring stuff, and no doubt watching an artisan’s slow, methodical work interspersed with numerous periods of silent observation is not everyone’s cup of tea. For others, it is like watching a chess match by Grand Masters, where the long, tense silence is suddenly disrupted by a stroke of genius involving the subtle move of a chess piece to an adjacent square on the board. Beauty lives in the very simplicity of the act.
I have started working out. Well, not working out as an olympic hopeful would work out, but rather something more like going for a walk with the intent of detecting any degree of perspiration. I even get to look the part, with my Pearl Izumi jacket, my New Balance walking shoes, my long-distance runner’s cap, and a great Timex triathlon sports watch. I’m definitely all decked-out, if you know what I mean. But while all of this is fine, what really makes my workouts so valuable is that I get to carry a camera with me to capture the unexpected photo. Of course, stoping to photograph every interesting scene I come up to does break my exercise rhythm (what rhythm?), but it is crucial that I try to avoid the post-exercise depression that could ensue if I miss the infamous photo every photographer misses when they don’t have a camera with them. My choice of camera for these cardio outings: the legendary Ricoh GR (read about this little wonder here). The problem is that even after a couple of times out on my way to becoming a mean, lean, fighting machine, I have kind of forgotten about the exercise part. Photography is just that enticing for me. Light, bracketing, composition, and all things photographic seem to conspire against muscle tone development. Definitely a tough going, but I guess no one ever said that this exercise thing would be easy.