Let’s face it, winter time in the Washington, DC area could be a very dreary time indeed. Politicians take lots of time off, and with them, whole armies of lobbyists and contractors who have carved an impressive symbiotic relationship with them. They don’t stay away for long, mind you, but that precious period of low tide in the city is both wonderfully quiet and a great opportunity for exploring the many world-class museums and galleries that dot the area. No need to stand in line for an hour to see an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum or at any other venue in town. And the often-ignored Freer Gallery of Art (pictured above) becomes even more magnificent in its undisturbed silence. To walk those empty, silent grand hallways and emerging into a room full of historical treasures is nothing short of bliss. The sound of slow-moving, tapping footsteps at a distance reverberating through those empty hallways, nothing short of music to our ears. This is more the case if you happen to find yourself at the museums the moment they open, when that feeling of having the whole place to yourself transports you into a world of ancient Chinese scrolls and golden figurines from centuries gone by. It is all wonderful stuff, and about as close as you can get to losing track of time, and of yourself.
It’s been a long time, and yet, upon my return to the wonderfully busy city of Tokyo after many decades, I have found the city as enchanting as the day I left, if not more so. Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is packed with people and activity, with pedestrians crisscrossing each other with the grace and precision of professional ballerinas. I had read some recent travel articles describing the city as a monument to organized chaos, and perhaps that is an apt initial description of what a traveler encounters when taking the first foray into its busy streets. But once you get the hang of the city, you will just marvel at how precise and organized everything is. Even the seemingly intractable metro system is easy to navigate and quite logical in its layout. The smooth and on-time rides to anywhere in the city is something that people back home can only dream about.
But what makes Tokyo so special above everything else is the diversity of its neighborhoods. From classy, elegant Ginza to rowdy, loud Akihabara, the vibrant neighborhood scenes are a marvelous study in contrasts. Need more excitement, then head on to Shibuya with its world-famous intersection crossing and incredible array of restaurants. Camera and tech shopping? Then it is Shinjuku you want to visit, with the imposing Yodobashi mega store right outside the metro station and Bic Camera not far down the street. Not sure if there is such a thing as a technology center of the earth, but if there is, it surely has to be right here in Tokyo.
And then there is the more quiet, sedate part of Tokyo. Strolling along the Imperial Gardens and the forest grounds surrounding the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya you would be forgiven for thinking that you were in another world, a sudden feeling of solitude taking over your senses. This shifting landscape character, and the gentleness of its everyday people, are what make Tokyo such a wonderful city. Drumbeats followed by poetry. Like the silk in its famous kimonos, the city flows in a constant, rhythmic movement that is both captivating and disarming. A city not to be missed in a lifetime.
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.
Something is happening in Washington, DC these days, and it has nothing to do with politics. Well, not completely. It is as if the city is going through one of those TV makeovers where a person’s scruffy looks are dramatically turned into a glamorous, check-me-out kind of look. Neglected city areas are suddenly being converted into smart neighborhoods full of trendy new restaurants and livable urban spaces demanding a second look from those accustomed to fly by at high speeds. In the heart of DC, it is the area referred to as City Center, just off the less glamorous Chinatown neighborhood, that is setting the pace. The place is so glamorous that anyone coming down from New York’s 5th Avenue for the weekend would feel right at home. And it was about time, for in a city where money is literally being printed every day, there appeared to be a serious need for some glamour. Who would’ve known, chic and greasy joints just a few blocks from each other, and both apparently doing quite well. That is a definite sign of a great country.
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.
Sitting high above the city of Ljublana as a majestic ruler is the imposing Ljubljanski grad, or more commonly known to us mortals as the Ljubljana Castle. A structure that has watched over the city for more than five centuries, it is the perfect place to take in the fantastic valley city surrounded by mountains and morning fog. The castle is reachable by cable car or the old-fashioned way, by simply walking up the hill along a lusciously green country road. Mind you, that the cable car is perhaps the easiest way to make the short trip, but not necessarily the most satisfying for a photographer. So up the hill it was, and I couldn’t have been happier with the decision. The castle has a varied history, to say the least, and throughout its five century existence, it has housed everything from local rulers to a prison. It’s present use as a museum and tourist destination are the perfect place to spend a morning. But whatever you do, you shouldn’t even think of leaving the place before lunch or dinner, for to do so would mean to miss out on an incredible Slovenian meal washed down with local wines at the elegant Na Gradu restaurant.
The views from the castle tower are the best in the city. It takes a little bit of climbing to get to the top of the tower, but as you can see in one of the photos above, the stairwell alone is worth the effort of going up. Obviously, a lot of renovation has taken place at the castle, but there are plenty of original hallways and chambers throughout the structure to enjoy the historical flavor of the place. Best of all, once you pay the small entry fee, you are free to roam throughout the castle without anyone hurrying you along. On the way down from the castle, there are several trails to follow leading to another part of town and to another fantastic coffee shop. In one carless morning, a walk in the woods, a tour of a castle, a sumptuous meal at a beautiful restaurant, and a Macchiato to die for. I may not be certain, but I think that this is how you begin to fall in love with a place.
If there is a secret in the travel world, that secret must be called Slovenia. Granted, that recent world events have brought some much-deserved attention to this Alpine wonder, but if you ask anyone around you, you’ll find out that Slovenia has yet to make it to most people’s bucket list. That’s a shame, because as I recently discovered, it is not until you get there that you realize what you’re been missing all this time. Incredible natural beauty, a hiker’s paradise, castles, crystal clear lakes, fantastic food, and the rich history that accompanies a country that sits on the crossroads between Europe and distant lands in the East. Don’t get me wrong, Slovenia is as European as they come, with its feet firmly planted in the west. But there is a freshness to it that is reminiscent of an Europe from long ago, from a time when mass tourism and globalization had not yet arrived with the intensity of a tsunami to transform the local atmosphere in most European capitals. And believe me, that lack of overwhelming feeling is indeed a good thing.
I only spent a week in this wonderful country, but judging from the “I’m not ready to leave” feeling I had at the airport, I know that I’ll be back someday soon. The rain in the mountain region did change my hiking plans a bit, but perhaps it was for the best, for I had a chance to spend more time at Ljubljana, the wonderfully romantic capital bordering the Ljubljanica river. To the traveler, it appears that everything in Ljubljana emanates from the Prešernov trg square and the adjacent Triple Bridge. Every visitor to Ljubljana find his or her way here, and for good reason. The number of restaurants and coffee shops along the banks of the Ljubljanica river will put most capital cities to shame. And did I mention that Ljubljana was named the Green Capital of Europe for 2016? Sitting under the green canopy of one of its luscious trees by the river enjoying a leisurely afternoon Macchiato and a flaky croissant would make it almost impossible to argue with that. Add to that the friendliest, most approachable people I’ve met in Europe in a long time, and you can see why this country has made such an impact on this tired traveler. Slovenia is simply a refreshing take on Europe, and as such, it is a place that rekindles your appetite for wanderlust and those feelings that only take form when we travel to distant places and are moved by all that appears before us. I only regret that it took me this long to visit, but I can assure you, that it won’t take me as long to go back.
The road less traveled. We’ve all heard of it and would like to think that our lives are spent down that unmarked, desolate trail where everything is discovery and excitement. I know this because I’m one of those dreamers, constantly looking for the entrance to that road everywhere I travel. In fact, in the few instances where I have actually found that entrance, I have been rewarded with great photographs and incredible experiences. The effect is so uplifting, that no matter how many times you experience it, you just can’t have enough of it. So there we go every chance we get, down backstreets and narrow alleyways in faraway lands looking for that something to recharge our lives and fill them with the wonderment that very few daily experiences can match.
This constant pursuit, however, could easily make us miss the wonders that lie right before our eyes on that well traveled road. I have to admit that my frequent sojourn down the well traveled road has more to do with limitation of funds and time, but whether by design or imposition, I have come to discover that the familiar always holds a mystery or two for the visually creative types. That is because on different days and times of year, the backdrop changes, as does the light and the intensity of the colors. And thus the photo above, which shows a place I have photographed a million times from just about every angle imaginable over the years. Notwithstanding this level of photographic attention, this is the first time I publish a photo of the fountain at the Smithsonian Institution’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. Not that I believe that this is a perfect photo, but rather that for the first time, there was blue in the sky, the light was about right, and the eternal crowds were nonexistent. It is the same place I’ve visited far too many times in the past, but one that chose to reveal itself in a complete new manner simply because I stayed away from that road less traveled. I guess the familiar, when seen with fresh eyes, will never cease to surprise us. So as we look for those roads less traveled, perhaps it bears remembering that sometimes the wonders we’re looking for can also be found along those familiar roads.
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.
Who would’ve know. Mention the Spanish Steps to anyone who enjoys travel, and immediately romantic images of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome with its fountain and multitude of lovers peering down the busy Via dei Condotti come rushing in. A stroll with your lover down the narrow Via del Babuino in late afternoon to the imposing Piazza del Papolo before catching a romantic dinner along the undulating Tiber River. The stuff dreams are made of. So, it is time to get those tickets and head on out to the Bella Italia and Old Rome in search of the Spanish Steps? Perhaps. But guess what? Just yesterday I discovered that right here in good old Washington, DC, we too have Spanish Steps, and you can get there by metro! Steps? Check. Lovers? Check. Views? Check. Tiber River? Well, would you settle for the off-color Potomac River? If yes, then check. Romantic dinner? There’s plenty of romance a few steps away at Dupont Circle, so check. Antiquity and beautiful architecture with narrow, cobblestone streets? Highly overrated.
So, yes, there you have it. Hidden away between S St NW and Decatur Pl NW a bit north of Dupont Circle, and sitting amongst a slew of foreign Embassies, lies our lilliputian version of the famous Italian landmark. And you know what, they’re kind of nice. Small, but offering the kind of privacy that sometimes makes all the difference. Very few people seem to know about this place, specially if they don’t live close by and have to traverse the area out of necessity. Beautifully out of sight in plain view. Brilliant. And while somewhat lacking the grandiose magnitude of its Italian distant relative, it didn’t seem to lack any of the romance for lovers occupying its steps. There were giggles. There were stares. There was a kiss, and a lover’s hand. When you already have all that, who needs Rome after all.
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.
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.
Ever wonder about what it takes to make a great photograph? Well, join the club. There is no question that photographers, at their core, are shameless dreamers. They constantly dream of that photograph, the one that will set them apart from others, the one that will surely bring recognition for hours of tireless devotion to their craft. Countless times a day the topic so expertly depicted by Émile Zola in his 1886 novel “The Masterpiece,” is played in the minds of photographers all over the world. In his work, Zola presented us with an artist who, in his own mind, found it impossible to live up to his own imagined potential. Nothing he did was good enough to be called great, or lead to the immortality he so desperately envisioned. That the artist drove a few people crazy in the process (not to mention himself) was a given, and no matter how good his work was in the eyes of critics and observers, the artist always found it lacking. Something, something impossible to ascertain with any degree of certainty, was missing. Frustration reigned, and professional emptiness was right there by its side.
But Zola, in his genius, also provided us with the other side of the coin. That is, with the life of an artist who very early in his career created his greatest work and who went to live a long, unhappy life trying to unsuccessfully reproduce his early achievement. Critical greatness visited him before he felt he had achieved the pinnacle of his art; his sudden, and early acclaim condemning him to a life of denied recognition past his initial masterpiece. Nothing he did was to be as good, or memorable, as that earlier work, and the voices in his head never ceased to remind him of his lifelong descent from that early, momentary glory. It speaks to Zola’s greatness that he was able to represent so vividly the many, and often conflicting emotions that live inside an artist’s mind.
And so it seems to be the case today with photographers and their work. The Internet is full of tales of photographers stating that they went out on a project and took thousands of photographs, but at best, they only liked a handful of them. The rest? Just not good enough, or memorable enough. Ask any photographer to pick a photo that they would consider to be their masterpiece (apart from Steve McCurry and his Afghan Girl), and you will witness human contortions that would put Cirque du Soleil to shame. No, we’re not a happy lot, or to put it better, we’re not a very satisfied lot. That great photo is out there, and if it takes a lifetime to find it, that’s OK with us. And what about that magnificent photo you took that everyone seems to like so much? Sure, it was good, but not the best. The best is still out there, hidden in plain sight, and there’s no time to waste in our never-ending chase. In the 1964 words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when describing how he could tell something had crossed the threshold into the seedy, we tell ourselves that “I’ll know it when I see it.” And even when our eyes have seen so much over the years, the idea that we will recognize our masterpiece when we see it continues to dominate our photographic minds. Like Zola’s protagonists, we convince ourselves that this is a decision for us to make, when all along, and in keeping with the nature of any art, it is always a decision for the audience to make. Like Justice Stewart, they will know it when they see it, and there’s not much an artist can do aside from trying to create the best work possible everyday of his or her life. I guess Zola figured this out almost 130 years ago.