Is It Ever Good Enough?

When it comes to deciding what makes a good photograph, the audience will always make that decision.
When it comes to deciding what makes a good photograph, the audience will always make that decision.

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.

 

A Summer Stop By The Windy City

 

One of the best things to do in the city is to take a walk down the Chicago River riverwalk downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
One of the best things to do in the city is to take a walk down the Chicago River riverwalk downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
The Theater District downtown allows for walking access to numerous Broadway productions.
The Theater District downtown allows for walking access to numerous Broadway productions.
Taking a break from their street performance, a couple remains in character even when relaxing.
Taking a break from their street performance, a couple remains in character even when relaxing.
The centerpiece structure at Dylan's Candy Bar will make sure you don't leave the store empty-handed.
The centerpiece structure at Dylan’s Candy Bar will make sure you don’t leave the store empty-handed.
Friends party down the Chicago River while fueling the trip with a couple bottles of champagne.
Friends party down the Chicago River while fueling the trip with a couple bottles of champagne.
While the Chicago River appears to be a big party venue, there are plenty of quiet spots still available along the riverwalk.
While the Chicago River appears to be a big party venue, there are plenty of quiet spots still available along the riverwalk.
While the city has plenty of formal dining establishments, informal hangouts remain the best places for enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
While the city has plenty of formal dining establishments, informal hangouts remain the best places for enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
The incredible cheese counter at the Eataly store is only one of the many wonders to be discovered at this Italian import.
The incredible cheese counter at the Eataly store is only one of the many wonders to be discovered at this Italian import.

The city of Chicago never ceases to surprise you. It seems that every time I visit (which, granted, is not too often), the place has significantly changed in one way or another. Unfortunately, these days, when we hear about Chicago in the news, the headlines have more to do with the escalating crime rate than with all the wonderful things that are happening in the city. That’s a pity, because without a doubt, this city has one of the most vibrant urban environments I’ve seen anywhere. Like in New York City, people are about at all hours of the day and night. Incredible restaurants dot just about every block downtown, and if you take the time to walk down the beautiful riverwalk promenade, you’ll be able to do some wine tasting while watching the never-ending boat procession sailing down the Chicago River. The negative headlines are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind in the beautiful downtown area, as the city simply takes your mind away from those concerns.

There’s also a lot more to the city than the famous Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile, even if that mile alone is worth a special trip to Chicago. After all, right smack in the middle of that mile you’ll find the out-of-this-world Dylan’s Candy Bar store, which is sure to induce a Pavlovian response from even the strongest mortal. But venture a few blocks west of this famous mile, and you’ll come face-to-face with such places as the incredible Italian import that is the Eataly food emporium. You could spend an entire week inside the place indulging in a joyous adventure of pure, unadulterated gluttony.

But with only a day-and-a-half to spare during this trip, I chose to spent most of my available photography time in a couple of areas: walking under the overhead Metro lines that shoot down N. Wabash Street and visiting the adjacent Theater District in the N. State Street area. These areas south of the Chicago River are perfect for street photography, and while not as busy as the famous mile north of the river, they provide ample elbow room for photographers to do their thing. Venture a few blocks east and you’ll bump right into the plush Grant Park, which also affords a whole slew of photographic opportunities. It is neighborhoods like these that make Chicago such a well-kept photographic secret. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if urban photography is your thing, then during the summer months Chicago has to be up there on your list of great cities to visit for great urban photography. The beautiful architecture alone merits its ranking on that list. Come winter, though, the Windy City will live up to its Arctic reputation, and perhaps you’ll be better off taking your precious self to a place where no one has ever suffered from frostbite. Fair-weather photography advice? Maybe, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

The Yards: An Old Neighborhood Reinvents Itself

The most prominent architecture at The Yards is its modern footbridge. [Click photos for larger versions]
The most prominent architecture at The Yards is its modern footbridge. [Click photos for larger versions]
The Yards are characterized by lots of open, quiet spaces where friends can hang out.
The Yards are characterized by lots of open, quiet spaces where friends can hang out.
While still somewhat urban, the views from The Yards are some of the best in the city.
While still somewhat urban, the views from The Yards are some of the best in the city.
Lost of places to sit and enjoy a quiet lunch while the rest of the world is going crazy.
Lost of places to sit and enjoy a quiet lunch while the rest of the world is going crazy.
Young, eager entrepreneurs have discovered the area's potential early on.
Young, eager entrepreneurs have discovered the area’s potential early on.
Creative urban planning has totally redefined the character of an old neighborhood.
Creative urban planning has totally redefined the character of an old neighborhood.
With the Federal Transportation Department in the background, The Yards are a great example of livable urban spaces.
With the Federal Transportation Department in the background, The Yards are a great example of livable urban spaces.

They often say that if you want to really get to know a city, that you must first familiarize yourself with its neighborhoods. I kind of agree with that and have made it a point to visit distinct neighborhoods whenever I travel. But sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to see how new neighborhoods transform the cities in which they sprout. As old continues to give way to new, places like The Yards in Washington, DC continue to redefine the city’s urban living landscape.  Sure, not everyone is happy to see an old way of life disappear, but shinny, new things also have their attraction.  And in a city that has experienced significant population outflows in the past, authorities are quite eager to attract those taxpayers back to the new neighborhoods.  The bait: open spaces, shinny new apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, and above all, quick access to the Metro. Oh, and should I mention that a Major League baseball park and a New York Trapeze School are within walking distance too? Well, that surely must help.

This recently-developed, waterside area of Washington, DC is sandwiched between the Navy Yard and the Washington Nationals baseball park. Major construction projects are still going on out there, so the place still has that “work in progress” feeling about it.  And if the area has not been totally discovered by locals yet, this probably has more to do with its somewhat off-the-beaten-path location than with anything else. Sure, you can get there via metro, but if you drive, prepare to pay at the few parking facilities there (and even on Sundays when most of DC does not charge for parking). Enough reason to stay away? I don’t think so. The Yards are one of the few places in the city where the lack of crowds, traffic, and noise allow for the perfect evening stroll, or for enough quiet to concentrate on that great book you’ve been meaning to spend some time with. Trendy restaurants, coffee shops, and an all-natural ice cream shop round up the good news about the place. Who knows, this may end up becoming one of the best kept secrets in the city after all.

 

Seeing Differently By Adjusting Your Visual Gyroscope

Sometimes all it takes to see things differently is to climb a set of stairs and look down.
Sometimes all it takes to see things differently is to climb a set of stairs and then proceed to look down.
Using a different lens could lead to new and creative ways of seeing in the urban environment.
Using a different lens could lead to new and creative ways of seeing in the urban environment.
Common urban scenes familiar to most folks can prove to be quite interesting if observed from a different perspective.
Common urban scenes familiar to most folks can prove to be quite interesting if observed from a different perspective.
Curved lines will always add a different architectural perspective to the landscape.
Curved lines will always add a different architectural perspective to the landscape.
A lone and otherwise insignificant street lamp acquires a new personality as a result of empty space.
A lone and otherwise insignificant street lamp acquires a new personality as a result of empty space.

There is something to be said for purposefully changing the way we see. Not that there’s anything wrong with the “panning field of view” approach that characterizes the way we see most things on a daily basis.  Rather, the point is that within all those daily panoramas there are endless opportunities to adjust our visual gyroscopes in order to add a little spark to our visual enjoyment of life.  This take on our visual world is nothing new. After all, most people already do this, albeit somewhat unconsciously.  It happens whenever they adjust their positions to “get a better view,” or when they take the elevator to an observation deck in order to see the world around them from a different vantage point. Something deep inside us all gives rise to the desire for visual adjustment, and whether it is the result of simple curiosity or much deeper emotions, it nevertheless represents a transition from a less-fulfilling state to a more fulfilling one. It is positive energy at its best, and we all know that we could use a lot more of that.

Seeing differently, however, does not come without some effort. Just like it is imperative to climb a set of stairs before enjoying a view, there are some stairs to climb when adjusting the way we see in that crazy world around us.  But what really matters in the end is that the rewards of such climbs are incredibly satisfying.  They just take a “change in latitude,” like the common saying says.  The few photographs on this week’s post are the result of some of those changes in latitude–simple attempts to see the familiar differently.  As if out of nowhere, the old became new, and the familiar revealed itself in a brand new light.  I immediately came to the realization that these scenes were there all the time for someone to see them, provided that someone took the time to look.

 

A Visually Chaotic Order

Friends enjoy the magnificent view out of the second floor at the National Portrait Gallery.
Friends enjoy the magnificent view out of the second floor at the National Portrait Gallery.
Service attendant at one of the many help desks inside the Washington, DC Convention Center.
Service attendant at one of the many help desks inside the Washington, DC Convention Center.
Man dines alone at the Ceviche bar at the trendy Oyamel restaurant downtown Washington, DC.
Man dines alone at the Ceviche bar at the trendy Oyamel restaurant downtown Washington, DC.
A bride appears to be running late for her photoshoot inside the National Portrait Gallery.
A bride appears to be running late for her photoshoot inside the National Portrait Gallery.

I will be the first to admit that today’s post has somewhat of a random quality to it. In fact, that’s precisely my goal. You see, I have come to believe that most of the beauty of life has to do precisely with this randomness concept–the multitude of seemingly disconnected activities that characterize our everyday living. For lack of a better term, I like to refer to this phenomena as the chaotic order of society. Everyone pursuing his or her own activities totally different from that of others, but in some strange way, in an orderly, life-synchronous way. Yes, it all kind of falls together quite nicely, even if at first impression these activities appear to be ricocheting all over the place. Contemplation, stress, joy, and pain all seem to come together as if by necessity and disorderly design.  For some, this sense of uncontrolled living is the root of all problems in society; for others, it is nothing but randomness beauty, a symphony orchestra tuning their instruments before the greatest performance of their lives.

Is this what fascinates so many street photographers out there? Perhaps, and while I wouldn’t dare pretend to be speaking for this community, there’s got to be something in this chaotic order of our human ecosystem that proves to be irresistible to so many of these photographers. That something is there, and it always is, in an endless succession of juxtaposing micro-events that is both chaotic and orchestrated. To be able to witness them is pure joy, a confirmation that whatever occupies us in our daily lives is intrinsically intertwined into a larger, colorful quilt that is more obvious when observed from a distance. Remember the last time you sat down to relax and to engage in a little “people watching?” I’m sure that the world around you acquired a somewhat different dimension, an unexplainable revelation that highlighted everything you’ve been missing when looking at life through a panoramic lens. Contrary to the old expression about the devil being in the details, for those who aim to feel the pulse of that chaotic order out there, heaven is what lies in the details. A bride’s hurried steps on her way to a museum photoshoot, a lonely man sitting at a restaurant, friends looking out of a window, and a lone public servant waiting for someone to ask her a question. Details. Different worlds. One fabric. Beauty.

 

Revisiting A Museum Dedicated To Building

The National Building Museum in Washington, DC is one of the most impressive, and less visited, landmarks in the nation's capital.
The National Building Museum in Washington, DC is one of the most impressive, and less visited, landmarks in the nation’s capital.
With its two sets of columns in the middle of its Great Hall, the museum boasts one of the most magnificent halls in DC.
With its two sets of columns in the middle of its Great Hall, the museum boasts one of the most magnificent halls in Washington, DC.
The stairs leading to the museum's upper levels, with their broad landings, have to be some of the best designed stairs in the world.
The stairs leading to the museum’s upper levels, with their broad landings, have to be some of the best designed stairs in the world.
A lone, but beautiful round fountain is all that occupies space at the Great Hall.
A lone, but beautiful round fountain is all that occupies space at the Great Hall.

Architectural photography is not something I practice with any degree of regularity.  In fact, I generally try to avoid it if I can, as the genre is really more difficult than it looks.  On rare occasions, though, I dabble a little in it more out of sheer curiosity than anything else.  This is specially the case during scorchingly hot days, when people avoid venturing outside and nothing much is happening on the street.  A few days ago, this was exactly the case.  In order to avoid the heat, , I headed out to find some good structures inside the many national museums in DC to photograph (get it, air-conditioned museums).  After visiting a few of them, my mind kept wandering back to the first time I visited the somewhat out-of-the-way National Building Museum, and before I knew it, my feet started moving in the direction of Judiciary Square where the museum unassumingly sits.

Not sure what it is about this place that attracts me so much (aside from the obvious architectural beauty of the place).  Compared to the traffic you see in other DC museums, this place is a ghost town.  Sure, in most normal days people kind of trickle in and kind of meander along its Great Hall, straining their necks to look up to its long, arched hallways and imposing, marbled columns in the center of the hall.  But most of the time the place is also a gem of a quiet space in the midst of a busy metropolis.  This silence is no doubt accentuated by the scale of the place, which dwarfs anyone who enters its carpeted Great Hall.  I can’t help but think that this grandiose scale is some sort of reminder that human creation is vastly more grandiose than the individual humans themselves.  Can’t quite put my photographic thumb on it, but for whatever reason, I keep coming back.  Hallucinations from the scorching heat or elevation of the human spirit when witnessing such incredible human creations?  I would much rather think it’s the latter, air-conditioner or not.

The Magic Of Great Halls

The majestic third floor hall at the National Portrait Gallery would give some castles in Europe a run for their money.
The majestic third floor hall at the National Portrait Gallery would give some castles in Europe a run for their money.

Don’t convince yourself that you need to travel to Old Europe to see some incredible architecture.  If you are curious enough, you can stick to some of your local attractions like this magnificent hall at the National Portrait Gallery.  Frankly, this photo doesn’t do the hallway justice, as the sheer magnitude and beauty of this colorful hall is simply stunning.  I guess when thinking about traveling is good to sometimes start thinking locally.

An Ode To Roundness

Gateway Park in Rosslyn, Virginia hardly sees any visitors, but the place pays homage to all sorts of curvy lines.
Gateway Park in Rosslyn, Virginia hardly sees any visitors, but the place pays homage to all sorts of curvy lines.
While people hardly notice any more, round designs do seem to play a big role in our enjoyment of the urban landscape.
While people hardly notice any more, round designs do seem to play a big role in our enjoyment of the urban landscape.
Local artists have embraced circular design options to decorate large corporate walls in the Rosslyn area.
Local artists have embraced circular design options to decorate large corporate walls in the Rosslyn area.
The round Rosslyn Artisphere is one of the key local attractions in the area.
The round Rosslyn Artisphere is one of the key local attractions in the area.

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.

Life At 18mm

The ceiling at the Freer Gallery in DC shows that sometimes it pays to look up upon entering a grand building.
The ceiling at the Freer Gallery in DC shows that sometimes it pays to look up upon entering a grand building.
Shooting with an ultra-wide 18mm lens will provide a greater sense of location than narrower lenses.
Shooting with an ultra-wide 18mm lens will provide a greater sense of location than narrower lenses.
The north corridor at the Freer Gallery is the type of narrow place where an 18mm lens shines.
The north corridor at the Freer Gallery is the type of narrow place where an 18mm lens shines.
The round Hirshhorn Museum bears an uncanny resemblance to Apple's new campus in Cupertino.
The round Hirshhorn Museum bears an uncanny resemblance to Apple’s new campus in Cupertino.

Ever heard of the idea of going out shopping as a form of therapy?  Well, just recently I subjected myself to a little of this therapy.  Don’t know about you, but as a photographer, I sometimes need a little change from seeing the world at 50mm, or 35mm for that matter.  Not that there’s anything wrong with sticking to a single focal length (after all, some of the great photographers out there do exactly that), but rather than mixing things up sometimes does have the therapeudic effect that we photographer may need from time to time.  With that in mind, and not knowing whether I would ever really use an 18mm lens much in the future to justify the expense on a much more expensive Leica lens, I went out and grabbed a Zeiss Distagon T* 4/18 ZM for my Leica M Type 240.  A few of the results from my first outing with this lens appear above.  How did I feel shooting with this lens?  Actually, pretty good.  It is indeed very wide, so it takes a little getting used to having so much real estate in your viewfinder.  However, the wide coverage does allow you to get in close to your subjects, or capture the whole scene in tight places where a 28mm or a 35mm would simply not work.  So, will I use this lens on a regular basis in the future?  Perhaps not, but knowing that this compact 18mm lens is within arms reach for those rare occasions when I have to go really wide, is indeed a comforting feeling.  For all other occasions, that Leica glass will be firmly attached to my M.