Quick, think of Washington, DC and what is the first thing that comes to mind? No doubt, images of politicians, government, and power brokers galore. Below that layer most people will probably think of lobbyists, spies, embassies, and huge governmental businesses. Keep the conversation going for an hour or more, and perhaps, but only perhaps, someone will think of the incredible art scene that has made the area one of the leading arts centers in the country, despite all the more “serious” stuff that constantly goes around it. Really, dig in and you will find some of the best companies in the world, with local talent that would rival the best of New York. What’s even better is that most theaters in the area sit right next to some of the best restaurants you’ll encounter anywhere. These are not usually the kind where you have to dish out a thousand dollars for a meal for two, but rather the kind of trendy, modern, type that populate most travel magazines. At the risk of leaving some out, I would much rather not start naming them here, but check out here, and here, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s actually a lot of fun to be had in the city, provided there’s not a politician within a thousand feet from you.
During the hot summer months, I tend to hang out around the great museums in Washington, DC. Not only do they have some of the best art collections in the world, but they are also the perfect places to try some creative photographic techniques. And did I mention the air conditioner? Well, that too. But no matter what my photographic intentions are during these wanderings, I never seem to take too many photos. I’m just too distracted. You see, I continue to be fascinated by the creativity of the artists, old and contemporary, whose work dot these galleries and who’s incredible talents generally make me feel like some sort of artistic anti-matter. So mostly walk and look, camera hanging from my neck like a heavy adornment, and all the while gawking at the simple genius of those who have seen form and color in ways that I can only dream of.
On this particular day, my fascination was all with the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and his current exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum downtown. Now, I had heard a lot about this “dissident” artist and his head-butting with the Chinese government through news reports and documentaries, but this is the first time I had a real chance of seeing his work in person. What’s more, it all consisted of Legos. Yeap, the kind of plastic pieces we buy for our children. Mind you, though, that these were not ordinary Legos, as they are better described as portrait mosaics that happen to be made of colorful plastic squares. And on the floor, which forced you to look down as if lowering your stare before the authorities. Absolute genius. But it all left me with somewhat of a sore neck. Not from looking down, but rather from the weight of that rock attached to a strap around my neck which barely got any use during the exhibit. It figures. Once again, I was too busy seeing to worry about my camera.
Who buys paper books these days? Certainly, not me. I’ve gone purely electronic, for an Amazon Kindle with ten books fits nicely in your jacket pocket, but try to do that with paper books. It just won’t work. Paper books are chunky, unruly, lack build-in dictionaries, and demand a separate bag for storage. So, why not declare them dead once and for all and be done with it? Well, not so fast. From what I can see during my photographic roamings around major cities, paper books seem to be alive and well, and for one reason or another, lately I’ve begun to miss them. Looking through my photos I also discovered that while I tend to photograph lots of people reading books, I have yet to take a photo of anyone reading an electronic book reader. Why is that?
For starters, nothing beats the tactile feeling of holding a book. Their physical presence, while usually cumbersome, is also what keeps us engaged with its contents. We feel its weight on our hands, we see it, we judge it by its thickness, and we must actively secure it with one hand while the other gently waves its pages with a sweeping motion reminiscent of a professional harpist. And when we open a book, we experience that unmistakable exhilaration that comes from opening a window into a great view, a quickening of the senses driven by anticipation. The sweet perfume of a freshly printed book, a lonely title sitting prominently by itself on on a main page, and a first sentence to prepare us for the story that’s about to come. Yes, that first sentence that author Jhumpa Lahiri aptly described as “… a handshake, perhaps an embrace.” All of this I miss when holding my electronic reader. And every now and then, when nostalgia becomes too hard to bear, I too go out and buy a paper book, if anything to experience that warm embrace that never left my imagination. A feeling that has become collateral damage in a world consumed by technology, but one that hopefully will never die.
For some reason or another, yesterday I started my day wondering why I kept going out with my camera to endlessly roam city streets in search of photographs. What is the purpose when you are not really earning any money from it, and fame is something that is surely something for someone else to enjoy. Tired feet, too much sun, dehydration, and lots of bad photos on top of it. Really, what’s the purpose of this obsession? The endless search for a masterpiece? Boredom? What? After all, I plan to do nothing with most of the photos I take day in and day out. They will lie dormant forever in my computer, hidden from the world in order to save me some well-deserved photographic embarrassment. Why then?
The answer may be depicted on the photo above. That is because no matter how tired I am, or the number of photographic disappointment awaiting me, or all the negative energy being generated in the world each day, there will still be an endless amount of wonder left for us to discover. It may not be the stuff of our every day, but in your heart, yes, very deep inside your heart, you know that nature, and human creation will still surprise you with their incredible creations. I know this because after having spent a life traveling with a camera on hand, I still look at the world around me with the same sense of awe as the lady in the photograph above. The search for that feeling is why we travel, because no matter how good photography is these days, nothing can substitute for the feeling experienced when standing in front of a natural or artistic masterpiece. Photography merely allows us to record that moment, to remember, and to thirst for more. As photographers, then, we really don’t invent anything, but rather freeze, in a fraction of a second, the beauty and wonder that was already there.
Chances are that you have never set foot inside the Smithsonian’s imposing Arts and Industries Building. Not that the building is hidden away somewhere where no one can find it. It rather sits in plain view of us all, right next to the Smithsonian Castle and smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. The building is incredible large and a beautiful architectural masterpiece, not to mention that it borders what many consider to be the most beautiful garden in DC, the Enid A. Haupt Garden. But not too many people have been inside, as it has been in constant renovation for a while now (translation: empty and closed to the public). I have lived in the area for nearly two decades and have never set foot inside, and have grown accustomed to seeing the plain-paper “closed” sign taped to its magnificent doors. That is, until today, when by chance I happened to walk by and some great folks conducting a demo along Jefferson Dr SW who thought that I was a tourist and told me to check out the inside of the building. At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out to be that they were not.
From inside, the structure is nothing short of spectacular. A throwback to another era with the finesse and class of an old Parisian covered market. The metal ceiling and beam-supported upper deck reminded me of the central market in Budapest, but without the people and the cheerfulness that is typical in those markets. Empty, underutilized, and unseen by most of us, this Arts and Industries Building, like a queen in exile, sits royally at the heart of the nation’s capital in total silence. And that is a pity. Perhaps one day it will be yet another museum at the Mall, but if it were up to me, I would create a food market to rival some of the best food markets in the world. Sadly, this will never happen. Most likely, and in true local fashion, a city full of museums will gain another museum in the end, and another place where you are expected to be quiet. Oh, well. I guess once I set eyes on the place, it was more of a “laugh out loud” kind of vision that wedged itself inside my head.
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.