As I walk around Washington, DC these days in search of interesting places to photograph, one of the things that has impressed me the most are the number of old-fashioned shoe repair shops in the city. I take it that when you are hanging around the corridors of power, it does pay to have that extra sparkle on the old Bostonians or Clarks. One such place can be found around the Capitol Hill neighborhood, specifically around 8th St. SE. Head on down to the Vibran Cleaners at the corner of 8th & I Streets and you will think that you have just walked back to the America of the 1950’s. Of course, if you are familiar with 8th & I Streets you would know that this is the famous location of the oldest military post on our Nation’s Capital, the spit-ad-polish Marine Barracks. And if you have never been to the area, you are definitely missing out. All the way from the Eastern Market Metro Station down 8th Street to the Marine Barracks you’ll find some of the most creative food establishments in the city, from beer-fueled oyster bars to the absolutely decadent French pastry shop, Sweet Lobby. This entire neighborhood doesn’t just deserve a visit, it deserves to be explored in some detail. I’m definitely going back.
September is a great time for street festivals in our nation’s capital, and if you haven’t taken the time to hit the street to enjoy some great food while listening to local bands, you may be in some serious need of some “latitude” adjustment. These festivals are a lot of fun and present you with a much-needed excuse to get out of your comfort zone to visit some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the area. You know, the ones you read about in the papers, but never take the time to visit. During the month of September, the streets of the Adams Morgan and H Street neighborhoods are some of the best places to be in the whole DC area, as these neighborhoods come alive with music, ethnic food, and plenty of libations to make sure you add some spice to your life. All the restaurants and watering holes lining the streets are open to the wandering public, and frankly, it is near impossible not to have a good time. For photographers, these festivals are great venues, as people are in serious “party mode” and don’t seem to mind having cameras pointed in their direction like they do the rest of the year.
Of the two festivals I had a chance to visit this month, I will have to say that the party at H Street was the best of them all. Maybe it had to do with the five music stages along the street, or the live fashion show, or the characters that descended on the street for the day, but whatever it was, H Street simply rocked this weekend. There was music everywhere and the beer flowed like water next to some great local eateries. This may have something to do with Oktoberfest celebrations, but whatever the case, it worked. It wasn’t exactly Munich, but the folks from the authentic Biergarten Haus restaurant with their great German brew did manage to transport us to the great Bavarian city while we consumed some great German-styled sausages with sauerkraut. Without a doubt, one of the best neighborhood scenes in the metro area and a “must visit” for anyone interested in getting to know the real DC.
Having not visited Paris in more than ten years could lead you to forget how beautiful this city really is. Of course, the hot summer days could easily temper your enthusiasm, but nevertheless, once you begging to get acclimatized to the soft Parisian light, you will begin to tell yourself that it has been too long since your last visit. For me it has certainly been too long, but during my short stay it will be my intention to find the real Paris away from the world-famous attractions. My goal it to wander the neighborhoods most tourists never visit and to try to feel what it feels like to spend days mingling with the common folk in this great city. First stop: the 6th Arrondissement and the area of Montparnasse with the beautiful Luxembourg Palace at its very heart. Not a bad place to start.
Is it possible to inhabit two distinct worlds at the same time? Well, for me this seemed to be the case when on Saturday I headed out to the preview event at the soon-to-be-opened Union Market at 1309 5th Street NE in Washington, DC. Just a couple of blocks off Florida Avenue in NE DC, and between 4th and 6th streets in the old warehouse market district, the simple act of crossing the street will take you from the hustle and bustle of dark meat markets where the constant sounds of meat cutters and banging cleavers compete for dominance with the multilingual cacophony of the working class clientele, to the gentile atmosphere of gourmet wine pairings and and delicately-prepared artisinal confections. Two worlds, only one block away.
But what perhaps caught my attention more than anything else this day was the fact that with one single exception, people in these two worlds didn’t seem to cross that invisible divide between them. As I wondered the dark retail and butcher shops in the old market, I never saw any of the folks from the upscale Union Market in any of them. And in case you were wondering, the reverse was also true. For all practical purposes, 5th Street NE acted as the functional equivalent of the Berlin Wall, with folks from each side looking over the wall while seemingly incapable of walking across it. The only exception: the famous A. Litteri. Never been there? Well, you are truly missing out. The cramped, floor-to-ceiling Italian products behind an always-shut front door are nothing short of amazing. It is perhaps the closest you’ll get to Italy in Washington, DC. And if you are looking for some of the best sandwiches in the area, navigate yourself to the back of the store where a large chalkboard with the day’s offerings are sure to induce uncontrollable Pavlovian responses from you. No wonder I like this diverse, crazy neighborhood so much. Just don’t go there at night.
Continuing with my theme of recording everyday life around our nation’s capital, I ventured today to the Georgetown neighborhood across the Potomac River to see what people were up to on this warm, summer day. The thing that struck me the most was how sedate Washington, DC is on a Sunday morning. To tell you the truth, not much was happening, and the only church in the area seemed to be suffering from a lack of customers. Admittedly, though, the people who were out and about seemed to be the friendliest I’ve seen in a long time, with one bicycle rider even offering to turn around and retrace his route so that I could compose my photograph better the second time around. Considering that yesterday a gentleman had offered to do things to me with my camera that could get him 30 years in prison, this bicyclist’s generosity definitely restored my faith in humanity. This sort of interaction is what keeps street photographers out there with their cameras, and while recording everyday life in the city is a big part of what we do, so is the great interaction with unique people who are out there living their lives and enjoying a warm, summer day with a smile in their faces. They are what makes going out there with a camera every day such a rewarding experience.
It’s been a while since I visited a local food festival in the Washington, DC area, but this Sunday I grabbed by Nikon camera and headed to the very popular Taste of Arlington celebration in Ballston. I am glad I did. This particular event is relatively small in comparison with other similar food events in the area, but what it lacked in size it more than made up in quality. The reason: the number of great restaurants in the Clarendon-Ballston corridor that took the time to show up. The food was great and the atmosphere could not have been more energized as a result of the predominantly young crowd that showed up (Ballston and Clarendon are magnet communities for young professionals). And while you could find everything from Indian food to your classical sliders, it was Mediterranean cuisine that appeared to be at the center of the festival. From Lebanese lamb treats to huge Spanish paellas, the flavors of that part of world appeared to draw the largest lines throughout the day. After standing on some of those lines myself, I could understand why. We definitely need more of these festivals in the area.
By now it should not be a mystery that just about every big city in America is enjoying a proliferation of farmers’ markets, and to the local consumer’s delight. I’m not sure whether this food “renaissance” is the direct result of the Slow Food Movement or not, but the fact that most local organic farmers have seemed to embrace the philosophy of this international movement is great news for local consumers across America. You won’t find any mass-produced product at these markets, of fancy packaging for that matter. In fact, these local markets may be some of the few places across the nation where consumers are quite happy to see some crusty farmer’s hands with dirt on them handling the farm products they are about to buy. No doubt looking too well-kept behind a stack of onions, asparagus, or mushrooms may not be too good for business. Urban folks seem to want someone who looks like a farm hand behind those counters, or at the very least, that doesn’t look like their BMW-driving selves. For most of them this may be the closest they will ever come to a farm, so the visual connection to the soil has to be there somehow. Whatever the case, farmers’ markets are one of the best things in America these days. And even though people are not yet flocking to them in the numbers that flock to say, your average BBQ pit competition, the steadily growing number of people discovering them bodes well for the future. Count me in.
I had just climbed a set of stairs coming from the direction of the Georgetown canal in Washington, DC when I was suddenly confronted with this photo opportunity. Now, I am not saying that this is National Geographic material, but when you are shooting with a Leica M9, this is the type of photograph your eyes are always looking for. In fact, my experience continues to be that the Leica M9 remains unrivaled in producing the sort of photograph where the background appears to softly melt in the background. Call it the Leica look or whatever (and I know that every Leica shooter out there knows exactly what I am talking about), but the subtle bokeh that comes out of the Leica Summicron lenses is reason enough to justify having sold a kidney to get this camera rig.
In this particular instance what fascinated me about this scene was the serenity with which this gentleman went about his work without ever lifting his head to glance at the people who kept criss-crossing his little part of the world. Maybe he was a master at concentration, or maybe he was just uninterested in those around him. In a crowded neighborhood in a crowded city, he just sat there as if he were in his own private studio. For me, the scene was a quintessential Leica moment: a lone figure with his back turned to the rest of the world while sitting alone on a cobblestone alley. I couldn’t have asked for more.
It’s been a while since I last visited the most picturesque fish market in our nation’s capital, but notwithstanding the 26 degree temperatures this past weekend, I decided to check it out to “see what I see,” as they say. Of course, the bitter morning cold was keeping the crowds away, but those hardened fish salesmen were out in force, albeit shaking a bit from the cold behind the submerged fish displays. I say submerged because for the first time ever I witnessed the effect of low tide on this entire fish operation. In fact, since I had only visited this place during high tide, I never realized that most of the structures were actually floating on the Potomac. The sad part was that being lower to the water was not doing these crusty guys any favors either. Every time I approached a stall I could hear some comment about the cold, but not before getting the intensive sales pitch that inevitably comes with a slow sales day. Couldn’t help but feel a little sympathy for them, especially when I saw them handling buckets of ice that didn’t seem necessary on a day like this.
During my conversations with one of the attendants there I also discovered that not all the fish being sold there comes from local waters (which, if you have taken a look at the Potomac River lately, may be a good thing). This particular crew was complaining that the fish truck was late and that the delay was cutting into the time they had to adequately handle the fish before displaying it. And where was this infamous fish truck coming from, you may ask? Florida! I have to admit that this was the last thing I expected to come out of this attendant’s mouth. I’ve never driven to Florida, but from what they tell me, it takes something like 19 non-stop hours to get there. Not being a fish expert, I kept wondering whether this little delay would be reason enough to do away with the “fresh fish” designation for whatever came out of that truck. Oh well, I guess the old “caveat emptor” warning (let the buyer beware) will always be in effect.
One of the things you readily notice when visiting Georgetown in Washington, DC are the many clothing stores that cater to the young and stylish university population next door. I mean, the place is one boutique store after another down M Street. What’s more, when everyone goes to Georgetown the rule seems to be that you have to look great because everyone is noticing you (even if they don’t seem to be looking at you). And yet, what struck me is that in this town we do not seem to have a local version of the famous Sartorialist in New York city capturing street fashion for all of us to see. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the FBI and CIA are local residents or something, but whatever it is, the recording of local glamor seems to go relatively unnoticed. I would think that between Georgetown and Dupont Circle there would be plenty of material for an aspiring fashion/street photographer to capture some much-needed fame. After all, when you get all decked-up to go out and look “fabulous,” there is no question that you want someone to notice. I hope more photographers do.
I really don’t know what it is that I like so much about the Penn Quarters district of Washington, DC, but I think that it has something to do with the split personality that seems to characterize the place. I realize that I have written about this before, but the place just keeps pulling me to its streets. The photographs above (both taken with with a Leica M9 and a Summicrom-M 28mm f/2 ASPH lens) pretty much capture the duality of this neighborhood, where the busy and sometimes crazy streets coexist in sharp contrast with the serene atmosphere that lies just one doorway away from all the activity. Matched only by Dupont Circle in terms of diversity, Penn Quarters is where you want to go if your intention is to get as far away from the homogeneity that characterizes the suburban enclaves around DC. And if you follow this blog from time to time, you’ll see that I will keep on coming back to the area, because from a photographic point of view, these are the streets that just keep on giving.
The Chinese Year of the Dragon is upon us, and judging from the celebratory spirit of the local Chinese population in Washington, DC, it should be an interesting one. This Sunday I had a chance to hang around what’s left of the local Chinatown section of town and to observe most of the parade atmosphere that accompanied the local Chinese New Year celebrations (the actual date for the New Year was 23 January). I have to admit that this was the liveliest that I have ever seen Chinatown in DC, which by now has been reduced to one block on H Street NW and a few scattered establishments on the adjacent 6th Street. I couldn’t help but notice that while there seemed to be a lot of young Chinese people donning celebratory costumes to take part in the parade, the elderly Chinese were dramatically underrepresented. No doubt most of them have already left the area, as evidenced by a neighborhood that has dwindled to a mere shadow of its former self. That’s a pity, but perhaps inevitable when you consider how expensive this city has become over years. But hey, this is the Year of the Dragon, and if that doesn’t make you hopeful that this neighborhood will someday return to its former glory, then the smiling faces of the young people twirling dragons and tiger masks into the air will readily convince you that the energy is there to make this happen. Now we just have to hope that the will to do so is not too far behind.
What to do on a cold, Sunday afternoon after we have had the first snow in the Washington, DC area? For me the answer was to head on out with my Leica M9 to see what was happening in the city, even if my premonition that most people would be indoors on a day like this proved to be true. Nevertheless, for a street photographer there’s always something interesting going on out there, and this also proved to be true, specially around the Penn Quarters neighborhood in DC. I have written before that Pen Quarters is an incredible mixed neighborhood anchored around the dwindling Chinatown district. Yes, there are all sorts of shady characters walking its streets and the place is not always the cleanest part of town, but what it lacks in high-brow gentility it more than makes up in character. From the noodle-makers at Chinatown to the corner ticket scalping operations around the Verizon Center, there is always something going on in this place. And for yours truly, this is good enough on a wintry Sunday afternoon.
When you read about Dorsoduro in travel books, what jumps at you are all those references to a working-class district in Venice. I guess in a sense it is that, but in another sense it is so much more than that. Yes, its working-class roots are evident everywhere (more so on the western part), but as you move east down the narrow streets bordering the Academia, the wealth that has descended to this part of Venice becomes readily obvious. Like in most of the rest of Venice, that wealth lies behind the old front walls of mansions, hidden from the rest of us mere mortals. Only when you enter the masters-filled halls of the Accademia gallery or the tranquil gardens where Peggy Guggenheim once entertained famous lovers and friends alike, do you fully realize how rich and wonderful hidden Dorsoduro must be.
More than in any other section of Venice, Dorsoduro plays with your imagination. This is perhaps because from what I could see, the area presents the most vivid social class contrast in Venice. Of course, this is not a scientific observation, but rather the views of a photographer who spent a day meandering through its streets. Most of these streets didn’t seem to be packed with tourists (or at least were not when I was there), which kind of explains some of the reactions from locals when I suddenly appeared around a corner with a hefty zoom lens. No doubt they would much prefer for people with cameras to stay away. However, this being the photographic paradise that is Venice, that would simply be too much to ask.
I’m always surprised by the variety of scenes I find in cities around America. These are simple scenes that for some reason meant something to me as I endlessly walk about town “to see what I see.” Generally, though, I don’t go around photographing other photographers, but coming upon this scene I couldn’t help but think about the wonders of the fall season and its effect on people. After the scorching months of July and August in Washington, DC, the cool days of fall bring a certain energy to the city that is truly palpable. And as soon as the trees begin to change, photographers and their subject are out finding the brightest colors and the perfect backdrops. For a city of dark suits and serious faces, the magnificent colors of the season seem to bring a brief respite from the daily grind and the opportunity to let loose. It won’t last forever, so best enjoy it while you can.