Is it possible to find happiness inside a commercial shipping container? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on a whole slew of factors. But be that as it may, my interest remains on those who would actually answer “yes” to this sort of question. This is specially the case in big cities like Washington, DC where long, sour faces have become the modern Venetian masks of the average worker. Ever ride the metro during the rush morning or afternoon hours? You would be forgiven for thinking that smiling has been officially banned in the city. More than that, you could also be forgiven for thinking that you have become invisible, or transparent at the very least. No eye contact, no acknowledgement of your presence, and definitely no smiling. Strangers doing their best to ignore each other while sharing the same space, the same direction, and the same universe.
But then, when you least expect it and are about to give up on humanity, something different happens. Right there in the middle of grumpy city, and inside a hot metal shipping container, the very meaning of happiness and friendliness. No suits, no high-paying job, no ideal working conditions, and no high-flying college diploma on the wall. Just the mere presence of a photographer looking into the container was enough to do away with invisibility. As if being transported into another Second World galaxy, I was suddenly blinded by the toothy smile of an alien DC character and his incredible good attitude. An unsolicited display of friendship immediately followed, ending in a gladiators’ duel of who could express the most effusive “great talking to you” goodby. Walking away with my camera, I couldn’t help but think of the words uttered by the late Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh: “There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” A chance encounter, a lifted spirit, and a much needed shot of faith in humanity. Away I went with a little more bounce on my steps and a much needed reminder of the power of good attitude.
Why take in the sights when you can be staring at your mobile phone? That should have been the title of this post, for the epidemic of small screen fixation has by now reached astronomical levels. The day I took this photo, I had to literally move out of the way because a young woman went right through the space I was occupying a mere fraction of a second before, while her eyes were glued to her mobile’s tiny screen. Don’t think she ever saw me, or cared for the shadow that jumped out of her way so she could barrel through without a concern in the world. And as to the gentleman in the photo above, I stood next to him with my camera for nearly ten minutes, never to see him raise his eyes from his phone, or care for a second to anything that was going on around him, which obviously was plenty enough.
So what to make of this collective obfuscation that has enveloped our society? From a photographer’s point of view, it kind of makes our lives a little easier, as no one even notices you unless you appear digitally within their screens. But even this is a double-edged sword, so to speak, because as it becomes easier to photograph the phone zombies out there, the activities in which they engage while we click away are becoming a lot more boring. For too many people, the big picture has lost too much ground to the small picture. Life around them seems to have become too boring, specially when compared to the constant refresh of their mobile screens. People just don’t go away with the click of a button, and conversations will always require more words than texting. That small screen sure sounds a lot more convenient, not to mention less time consuming. The problem is that you just can’t fit enough of life into one of those tiny screens, and no matter what you do, those small screen will never love you back for that matter. It glows without shining a light on you, and for a price. A temporary necessity transformed into a constant one. A window to all but what surrounds you. And there’s always a lot going on around us.
Ah, to be a gentleman. There are not many words in the English language that are mere doors into a larger context than the word “gentleman.” Not that the term holds as much connotation in the modern world as it did a century ago, but rather than its mere use gives rise to all sorts of controversial interpretations of its meaning. For some it is merely descriptive, or at the very least, representative of an era when well-dressed men with impeccable manners and taste, roamed the earth. For others, its mere use is the functional equivalent of a war song, a remnant of an era when men with all sorts of predatory faults dominated the earth at the expense of just about everyone else. The word just seems to flatter some while insulting others. Such are the times in which we live.
Are we to conclude, then, that the whole notion of a “gentleman” is being rendered irrelevant in a world consumed with informality and industrial-size social conflict? My first reaction is to say no, but I’m afraid that my opinion may be wrong, or at the very least, outdated. As a nostalgic compromise, then, I would like to say that while the concept may not be totally dead, it may have been pushed underground, so to speak (I guess wearing a jacket while carrying a dog residue bag isn’t helping matters much either). Whatever the case, the word is quite controversial in modern times, and it may have to do to a large extent in our ability to achieve a commonly-accepted notion of what a gentleman is, or should be. But even if we strived for a common definition, I’m not sure that the attempt would find much agreement amongst folks out there. In some sense, we all kind have an image in our heads of what a gentleman is, or how should he act (a milder version of James Bond perhaps?), but these thoughts may be heavily infused with heavy doses of nostalgia, movie characters, or some self-created misconceptions. So, what are we to conclude about a gentleman today? I’m not sure, and will have to admit that I rarely see anything approximating such a species. The closest I’ve ever gotten was this person who I recently photographed in Georgetown, but that bag he’s holding may just put him slightly short of the threshold. Or does it? I hate to admit it, but these days I’m not sure where that threshold is.
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.
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.
I roam the streets a lot. I mean roam in the sense that together with my camera I’m always looking for that great moment when the time and effort spent in the search is rewarded by some great photographic scene. This is the case in pretty much every city I visit, but more so than most, in the area where I happen to live, which is a stone throw away from downtown Washington, DC. Looking at the thousands of photos I’ve taken over the past few years, however, has revealed some key information about my photographic taste, but more than that, about the places I seem to prefer when out with my camera. From this data, it appears that photographically speaking, my favorite place in the city is the Georgetown neighborhood. And no, it has nothing to do with the Georgetown Cupcake store, that pilgrimage destination for sugar lovers everywhere. Well, at least not entirely. Let me explain.
Georgetown could be a city in its own right. An expensive one, mind you, but kind of in the way that Rodeo Drive has its own identify that sets it apart from other places in LA. It kind of pulls you in, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the balance on your credit cards. The reason has to do with atmosphere, with je ne sais quoi, and with the undefinable vibe. Charm? Well, there’s plenty of that too. Ok, if you need to know, with endless coffee shops, slick restaurants, plenty of bars, boutiques, and great city views too. It’s all there. Toss in a never-ending parade of beautiful and disheveled people, and the unique neighborhood brew is completed. A photographer’s dream, even if most people there would rather you never photograph them. But if it is your glam side you want to strut in the city, Georgetown, with its swanky shops and riverside promenade is the place to do it. Just watch out for those sneaky photographers trying to take your picture.
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.
I love to travel. Yes, I do, and the pages of this blog can attest to that in more ways than one. But I also love to look around my neighborhood, which in my case happens to be the greater Washington, DC area. I couldn’t begin to tell you the many hours I’ve logged walking the streets of DC and the northern Virginia neighborhoods with my camera in search of visually interesting scenes. It’s kind of visual grunt work, and more often than not all I have to show at the end of the day are sore feet and a few, if any, possible keepers. But sometimes, and I say this with a bit of creative emotion if that’s even possible, you are rewarded for being in the right place at the right time. A few seconds in a long day, a man alone, and a sunset in the most unlikely of places for such a spectacle by mother nature. Nobody comes to Washington, DC to watch sunsets, but on this particular day, in a place where thousands of people live, work, and roam the busy streets of Rosslyn, a single, pensive man stood there enjoying one of the rarest, and most wonderful gifts of nature. It was nature at its best; it was glorious solitude at its best. One click. The man walked away, and a moment in time captured forever. I guess it is true, that if we care to see, we will find photographs all around us, regardless of where we’re at.
Where is winter? I know that not everyone around America is asking this questions at the end of January, but for the folks here in the Washington, DC area, winter is mostly something that has yet to happen. Sure, temperatures are kind of low and most trees are devoid of leaves, but the real stuff (you know, the white thing that fall from up above) has yet to show up in any meaningful way. Yesterday, folks were jogging in shorts around the local monuments, while other sat at park benches or the grassy sections of the Washington Mall. Did anyone cancel winter and didn’t tell the rest of us? Whatever. But one thing I do know for sure: old winter has a nasty habit of visiting the area with the same subtleness as the Katrina hurricane. First nothing, then all hell brakes loose. And just as unpredictable as the local weather is during these months of the year, so will be the forecasts. A few inches could turn out to be a few feet, mild temperatures could translate into frostbite and hypothermia. And if Trump … OK, none of that. I guess we will all have to sit tight and just wait for our uninvited, and unpredictable, winter guest to arrive. It always does.
The more time I spend with my cameras, the more I realize that the true magic of photography happens when a photo conveys such emotions as to render words unnecessary.
Why is it that we search for more meaning in a photo after we have taken it than at the time the photo is being captured? I’m sure that there are many explanations for this, but for me, it all has to do with frame counts. Let me explain. In the process of acquiring a particular photo, we observe the world as a continuous video, a sequence of fast-moving frames that get processed inside our brains with a refresh rate that mimics the speed of light (or so it seems). If we watch a person walking, we don’t particularly remember the uniqueness of any particular step, or gesture, or scene complexity. It just flows from one side to the other in a perpetual motion, and at the end we kind of remember the overall occurrence of having seen someone walking. It is a factual story that in all its generosity, allows our imaginations to rest without bother.
Photographs, on the other hand, disrupt our imagination’s slumber and literally compel us to “fill in the blanks” of the story. In true Sherlock Holmes fashion, it makes us leap from that frozen fraction of a second into all sorts of directions and plots. A delayed reaction from the moment of capture, for sure, but perhaps the essence of why we capture images in the first place. That is not to say that seeing life as a moving video is any less rewarding, but rather that just like we tend to remember particular scenes in a movie, photographs are the particular scenes of our visual movies. They anchor us to a place and time like no moving object can, and feed that which is the essence of us all: our imaginations. That is why in the photo above I simply do not want to know more about this couple, for it is more fun to “imagine” lovers on a sunny day reading from her latest writings and oblivious to the passing of time. Reality? Perhaps not, but as long as I look at that photo, I’ll pretend that it is.
Like just about every day, I went walking today with my camera. When I do this, I typically bury my cell phone somewhere in my camera bag where it is very hard to access. I do this because I’ve come to realize that the whole purpose of being outside is to see and feel what’s going on around me. I want to disconnect from electronics and connect with the world that keeps on moving in spite of our interest in joining it. Perhaps this is a photographer thing, but I don’t think so. More than that, it is a fascination with a world that is alive and in motion, a world where glances still hold unspeakable mystery, and where human energy continues to create all things wonderful and all things bad. Humans, in all their shapes, forms, and behaviors are the stuff of life.
That is why it is so hard to positive spin on the modern phenomena of the connected disconnected. The being there in society, but not there at the same time. Like the young man in the photo above, to be actively linked to the faraway world via a cell phone, but totally uninterested in the the world that sits just a few feet away. Connected, but disconnected. A statement about our modern digital generation, I guess. But perhaps, if he would have only glanced up from the screen for a moment like she did to make eye contact, a whole new world connections would have been possible. They shall never know, for at no time did he raise his eyes in her direction. Connected, disconnected. A new form of normal.
Like most photographers out there, I too spend endless hours looking for that perfect shot. And when I say perfect, I don’t mean that literally, but rather in the context of being able to stand out a little from the crowd of shots we regularly find in places like Instagram and Flickr. The sad thing is that no matter how much I try (and perhaps I’m speaking here for most wandering photographers), those photographs that elicit comments of the “you should take more pictures like this,” are very hard to find indeed. No doubt this is the result of multiple factors, from your timing as a photographer, your choice of venue, or the simple fact that not much is really happening around you. Whatever the case, the point is that while personal photographic and geographic choices have a lot to do with it, luck (yes, that same old variable) has a lot to do with it too. That is why photographers out there (myself included) look like human versions of 360-degree radars. We look right, left, behind us, up, down, and everywhere. We do this while crossing the streets, walking by a construction site, while drinking coffee, wherever. You can imagine the thoughts that cross people’s minds in a city like Washington, DC that is replete with intrigue and spies everywhere. Who is this person with a camera checking everything out and taking photos from weird angles? He looks Russian to me. Yes, that’s pretty much the thought pattern, but in reality what we photographers are after is that quick shot, that unique moment in time that make all those walked miles worthwhile. And that is the story of the shot above. Many hours and sore feet later, this scene revealed itself to me as I was headed for the metro and the comforts of home. My last shot of the day, and like they say in golf, the one that keeps you coming back, again and again, to the unpredictable streets of your city.
I am a people’s person. No, really, I am. But it just also happens that as much as I love people, I also happen to love being alone just as much. This may sound like the beginning of another esoteric discussion on the differences between loneliness and solitude, but I assure you that it is not, as these differences have been amply documented by many others much more qualified to do so. Suffice it to say that my desire to be alone is directly related to the state of mind that comes with contemplation and creativity. Put another way, it is directly related to the wonderful byproduct that results from moments of solitude and detachment from the “noise” of everyday life.
The wonderful thing is that being alone doesn’t necessarily mean to be distanced from other people. I’m talking about the state of being “mentally” alone, of being in the zone, or something akin to an out-of-body experience. The phenomena is not necessarily physical, but mental. It is being in that moment when your reality is only yours, whether you are walking in a crowded city with your camera in hand, writing your next great novel in a crowded library, or pondering your next direction in life. It leads to a place where creativity, meaning, and purpose live in seclusion until we all dare to open the door and free them from that dark place. A state of mental (and sometimes physical) blitz that is as precious as it is short. Eventually, what the world will see of us is nothing but the result of what happens in those precious moments of solitude.
I should start this post by saying that I have nothing against shortcuts. In fact, I’ve spent a good part of my life searching for them, only to discover that there are very few alternatives to old-fashioned hard work available to us all. And yes, there’s the winning the lottery thing, but since that is about as probable as surviving a free fall without a parachute, I’ll disregard that particular shortcut for now. What I’m talking about is our human proclivity to try to find a shorter way to our destination, to compact time so that whatever it is that we’re engaged in, takes a lot less time than what life has already established as necessary. After all, this is the 21st Century, so why should be believe Henri Cartier-Bresson when he said that, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Don’t we get lots of “likes” in Instagram and Flickr? Isn’t that proof enough of our artistic excellence? Well, unfortunately it is not.
But something has undoubtedly changed. And that is that, in the advent of the digital revolution, fame and success are no longer so intimately tied to competence in any particular field. Call it the democratization of opportunity or whatever, but what could be happening these days is that while Cartier-Bresson may still be right in his observation, it really wouldn’t matter for a modern audience. Ever heard of Tardar Sauce? That’s the name for the famous mixed-breed Grumpy Cat that took the Internet by storm and made both cat and owners instant celebrities. No 10,000 photos were needed before the owners started cashing in on the cat’s celebrity status, and while Cartier-Bresson may be turning in his grave as a result, the cat’s photographs and paraphernalia may have achieved about as much commercial success as Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl photograph ever did. I tell you, if it were not for the eternal feeling of hope in us all, it would be enough to make you want to throw your camera away and get a cat instead. But such artistic surrender would not do anything for art in the long run. And just like in the case of the now popular gastronomic farm-to-table movement, it is every creative’s hope that the artistic excellence that they so painstakingly strived to achieve over time in their particular fields, will be similarly valued and compensated. That, at least, is the hope. But I’m afraid to ask what Grumpy Cat has to say about that.