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.
Not all colors are alike. How’s that for a tautological argument? But let me explain. I spend a considerable amount of my time on earth walking around cities searching for interesting photographic subjects. And while my somewhat optimistic searches don’t always prove fruitful (ok, some of it may have to do with my inherent photographic limitations), there is no denying that colors, or the lack of them, kind of influence what I look at, or at the very least, what I find interesting. They make objects stand out from their surroundings and dramatically influence the visual choices we make out there in the world.
So what is it about the color red that usually makes it stand out supreme from other colors? It’s not even my favorite color. But no matter where my eyes take me, red is a color I’ve found impossible to ignore. In its own silent way, it screams at me, demanding my visual attention like no other color out there (well, maybe with the exception of the neon oranges that some tourist groups wear so they won’t loose anyone). From a fashion perspective, you would not catch me dead wearing such a color. Perhaps because different to other colors, I don’t find red to be a passive color, or unassuming for that matter. It visually pokes you and demands not to be ignored. In its own convoluted way, it represents both passion and pain, smiles and tears. It can’t hide and cannot be missed. It pulls more than it pushes, and demands a photographer’s attention like no other. Resistance is futile, so it’s not even worth trying. Isn’t that wonderful?
As far as I’m concerned, imagination, or simple flights of fancy, are the stuff of life. I say this because no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to look at the world for what it is. No, not possible. Images, and the scenes I constantly see before me, are mere windows into an imaginary world. For some reason or another, I keep thinking of what I see as incomplete stories, almost begging for me to fill in the blanks with my imagination. A man standing at a corner is not just simply a man standing at a corner. This untamed imagination refuses to see just that. He must be waiting for someone, he has nowhere to go, time doesn’t matter to him, he is there because the events in his life, he seems to be in love, or appears to be totally devoid of it. Whatever. It just goes on and on, and there’s nothing I can do to control it. Imagination, like time, is simply impervious to boundaries.
And thus the photograph above. Is it just a picture of a man in a white uniform staring at passerby’s? Or a baker taking a break from the morning rush? I stood there for nearly ten minutes observing the ongoing scenes, and all that I could think of was the title of Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd.” What to make of this solitary man with his forlorn look, staring at a “madding crowd” of shoppers and consumers? Surely, more than twenty or so feet separate their world from his, and there is no doubt that he was being ignored by the very people who’s lives he was enriching by his labor. Did he envy these people? Or pity them? Did he aim to join them, or leave them? I wondered what his plans were for the holidays. Who would be waiting for him at home. Who misses him when he’s gone, while he quietly observes the crowds, not uttering a word to anyone and no one uttering a word to him. And so it goes, imagination trying to add context to the scene, something that photographer Duane Michals understood very well when he addressed the subject: “I believe in imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” I must agree, because therein, behind the raw data collected by our senses, lies the mystery, and the wonder of the things we see.
Who would’ve known, that in a city hardly ever associated with romance, you would find such a display of PDA (i.e., Public Display of Affection). That’s right, I’m talking about Washington, DC, the same place where sanguine bureaucrats like to play with your hard-earned money and where where sensitivity is not a word most locals would use when socially describing their ideal versions of themselves. But a few days back, there it was, out in the open for all to see. Love, affection, and obliviousness to the world around them. A cool day ushering in the short days of autumn, a lazy sun tired of its summer work, and a lover’s kiss. Who would’ve known, there’s hope for this city after all.
Speed. What a noble virtue. Its need is everywhere, from computers to transportation. It saves time, it shortens the undesirable, and it allows us to accomplish a lot more in the limited time we all have in our lives. It is an adrenaline rush too, quite dramatically illustrated in blockbuster movies like Top Gun and the myriad of action movies that inundate our daily consciousness. Smell the flowers? You kidding. Who has time for that?
Well, as it seems, a lot of people do. In the last few days I have been concentrating my photographic time on the number of people that I constantly see moving in what for lack of a better term I’ll refer to as “the slow lane of life.” To a large extent, this slow road exists in somewhat of a parallel universe in society, dictating its own rhythm, its own sense of urgency, and its own rewards. It is not characterized by what it manages to accomplish in a short period of time, but rather by what it manages not to do over a longer period of time. It is subtraction, not addition; forsaking, not gathering. It is finding time instead of lamenting not having any. It is admonishing Seneca’s observation that the lack of time has more to do with how much of it is wasted than with how little of it is available. It is a road as real as the busy one our lives travel on, and it is always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Interestingly, there was a time when I thought that the glorious “slowness” was only possible at life’s extreme ends. That is, when you were very old and financially comfortable (that is, whey you begin to talk about your days being numbered), or during your youth, when someone else took care of the bills and most of life’s worries (when we all believed we had all the time in the world ahead of us). In my mind, the middle was made for the fast lane, for the never-ending “too busy” lamentations, for the social fly-by’s, and for dreaming about that distant, slow lane. The rose garden? Nope. No time to plant it. Need to get going. And so it went for far too many years. And why not? Everywhere I looked people were traveling at the same rate of speed, down the same rocky roads, and in the same general direction. This was normal, and everything else seemed, well, abnormal, or at the very least, too far out in the future. It was all an exciting, zero sum, high-speed journey that if left unattended could have culminated many years later in a place that no one really wants to arrive at: the valley of regrets.
One day, however, I dared to take my foot off the accelerator in order to experience the effects of deceleration on the trajectory I was riding on. I slowed down, took a detour, acted on one long-neglected dream, and surprised a loved one in the middle of the day. Deceleration made it all possible, and clarity, its inevitable result, did its part in dissipating the stubborn forces of obfuscation and neglect. No longer would I drive past that farmer’s produce stand in order to lament later of not having had the time to stop. No, that story was changed to the great time I had while shopping at that very own farmer’s stand during my busy day. I also made it a point to never talk about that abstract walk in the park everyone talks about, but never takes. No, my story changed to how incredible it was to find the time to walk along the the carpet of fallen, yellow leaves that infuse such a bright, golden hue to a cold, autumn morning. Moreover, I made time for my friends so we could spend long hours at the dinner table solving the problems of the world over multiple bottles of wine. And without a doubt, it was a lot more meaningful to say “I love you” to the one I love while staring at her eyes rather than texting the words, Emoji in tow, over an impersonal data network of bits and bytes.
Time. Speed. Contemplation. Obfuscation. Neglect. Love. They all do battle in our busy lives. Some of their challenges will be conquered by speed, others by simply slowing down. And just as it seems impossible to always travel at high speed down the proverbial road, it appears just as unrealistic to spend a lifetime on that slow, off-the-beaten-path lane. The secret in dealing with this dilemma may lie on both sides of the spectrum–on the adoption of a “variable speed” approach to life. Never accelerating without a well-developed plan for deceleration. Never decelerating without accepting that in life, even the good things often require a little acceleration on our part. The concepts are not, and should never be, mutually exclusive. Perhaps, and this may be mankind’s eternal hope, meaning and happiness will be found somewhere along that continuum. And at every one of those critical junctures along the way, changes in speed, and the detours we dare to take, will dramatically increase our chances of finding the cherished moments that will weave the incredible stories of our lives.
It was the very talented Indian writer Faraaz Kazi who authored the words that introduce today’s blog. Recently, I just happened to come across a reference to this author, and upon digging a little on the Internet, I stumbled upon his full quote, which goes like this: “I inhale loneliness like it is the sweet smell of virgin earth conquered by fiery rain drops. Within me, I’m a thousand others.” Suffice it to say that I suddenly smitten when I read that last sentence. Six words, but within them one of the best depictions of the power of our imaginations that I’ve ever encountered. Moreover, I realized that these words were very applicable to some of my recent photos. For some reason or another, I found myself taking photos of people who in the middle of a buzzing city, appeared to be alone, or alone with their thoughts for that matter. Immediately after reading Kazi’s quote I started thinking of these photos and how his words seemed to apply to the scenes I had captured with my camera. Detachment, solitude, disengagement, and perhaps a thousand other realities becoming active in people’s imaginations. In those brief moments when I pressed the shutter, endless flights of imagination could have been taking place, hidden from the world and unencumbered by its limitations. At some level, the photos were merely an attempt to depict the kind of “me” time that only solitude can deliver, and where anyone can become anything they dare to imagine, even if that means a thousand other versions of themselves. Maybe this was not what was happening inside the minds of my photographic subjects at the time, but the romantic in me cannot hold back from wishing it was so.
You know those days when no matter how hard you try, it is virtually impossible to come up with any great idea for a photographic project? Well, today was one of those days. Nothing there. So as I have done so many times in the past when I am in desperate need of some photographic therapy, I grabbed my camera and out I went. I figured that a little street photography would do me some good by clearing up the Friday photographic fog. No plans, just random walking for as long as my feet could stand it. I’m glad I went out, thought, because everyone seemed to be in a good mood in this otherwise grumpy city. No doubt the Friday “I’m out of here” thing was beginning to sink in or something, but more likely it was the effect of a perfect spring day before a long holiday weekend. Whatever it was, it was definitely contagious. Over six miles of walking with my camera, a very enjoyable culinary visit to several of the local food trucks, and a quick stop for some liquid therapy at the bar in Jaleo, and everything was well with the universe once more. A great day after all.
I have long been fascinated by the notion of capturing urban serenity in my photos. Not that I’ve always been successful in doing so, but rather that I enjoy looking for these types of scenes as if with the devotion of an astronomer looking for a new star. I know these scenes are out there, but my eyes don’t always see them. This is not for lack of trying,mind you, but rather that in the visually oversaturated environments of our modern cities, it is not easy to avoid visual distractions. Sort of like trying to write the next, great American novel in a room full of people who insist on constantly talking to you. Not easy, to say the least.
The challenge of capturing an image depicting urban serenity is compounded by the fact that most of these scenes can only be found in a portion of our natural field of view. That is, they hide in parts of what we see, not in all we see. Sometimes they may not amount to more than 10-20 percent of what’s in front of us, off to a corner and easily overshadowed by the more visually-demanding center of the scene. From the photographer (or the creative), these hidden gems demand a certain level of visual cropping–the ability to segment a scene into smaller micro-scenes that could stand visually on their own. It is the proverbial needle in the haystack challenge, and it’s never an easy one.
There is also a certain calm in those scenes. Like the quiet person in a busy room, they can’t help but attract your attention in spite of their best effort to be ignored. They attract us because they engage us, they make us think, or at the very least, imagine. And even if for a brief, but precious moment, what better place to live than in our imaginations.
If I ever were going to attempt to write romantic novels for a living (don’t worry, I’m not), there is no doubt in my mind that I would do so from a place like Como in Italy. This sleepy, little town by the shores of the lake that takes its name, Lake Como, is everything you can imagine of the romanticism of a bygone era, and then some. What is it with these northern lake regions in Italy and southern Switzerland? To say they are beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe them, because they are so much more than that. In fact, I had once heard a Swiss actress in America say that she returned to her small village in the area every year in order to recharge her spirit. And now that I have had some time to wander in the area from Locarno in Lago Maggiore to Como, I now fully understand what this actress was talking about. Life at a slower pace, natural beauty beyond description, and some of the most wonderful food in the world combine to form the perfect antidote to all that ails us in our busy, chaotic lives. I may not know how many places in the world possess such wonderful potion, but Como definitely has its share of it.
Como the town is not a big place, but three main areas seem to dominate the region. For starters, there’s Lake Como with its postcard-perfect landscape. This southernmost part of the lake is quite a busy place, with ferries taking passengers to other famous towns around the lake and lovers slowly strolling down Lungolago Mafalda di Savoia as if oblivious to the world. The lake and its indescribable scenery are nothing short of visual candy, and sitting by that shore on a perfect spring day will be all the proof you’ll ever need that it is possible to be happy in this life.
The other two main areas in town are the city-center square, Piazza Alessandro Volta, and the imposing Cattedrale di Como at Piazza Duomo. Both extremely impressive and surrounded by small shops and quaint restaurants where you could easily pass the hours away with total disregard to time. In between these two, an old-world paradise for the senses makes sure that you never move at a fast pace while you are in town (which the many cafes in the area would’ve guaranteed anyway). Stopping every few steps to gawk at some window display while stopping yourself from spending your retirement money becomes virtually impossible in Como. This is what Italy does to you, and we love her for it.
On the train back to Milan I couldn’t stop thinking of how beautiful this country is. Sitting in that train longingly looking out the window to the passing countryside before me, I couldn’t help but think that I had just been to one of the most wonderful places on this planet. And as the train got farther and farther away from Como, the famous words of composer Giuseppe Verdi kept replaying in my head: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” My sentiments exactly.
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.
Recently, I bumped into a local photographer friend of mine who happened to be hanging around an icy puddle of slush on a Washington, DC downtown corner. Noticing that he was kind of hovering around the area with his Leica rangefinder at the ready, it was obvious that he was waiting for something to happen, so I asked him how it was going. Without taking his eyes away from that puddle of slush for more than a second, he told me that he was waiting for the “decisive moment” when someone would hop over the puddle so he could capture it a la Cartier-Bresson. To say he was working the scene would be an understatement. Dodging people and nature while constantly shifting his position, he appeared to be moving with the grace of a Mohamed Ali within the confined amount of space allowed by a busy sidewalk. I don’t know if he ever got his picture, but if he didn’t, it was certainly not for lack of trying.
Working a scene is what appears to be at the root of any great photograph. When we look at some of the unbelievable photographs made by National Geographic photographers, what makes these photographs so special to a large extent is the unique perspective from which they were captured. Composition, angle of view, and masterly handling of light are not things that happen by chance. At that level, lots of considerations go into a photographer’s choices before that shutter is finally pressed, and luck, while always welcomed, has nothing to do with it in the vast majority of cases. It is visual decision-making at its best: when to hang tight, when to move, when to aim, when to shift left or right, when to squat, or climb a building–they are all the product of intense observation and quick reaction, even if the end result is to stand still and wait. While not perfect in any way, every single photo on this blog today was made possible by the simple act of waiting. Waiting for the cigar-smoking gentleman to look at me, waiting for the couples to show some tenderness, waiting for the grandfather to strike a teaching pose at the museum, and waiting for the waiter to approach the window. Waiting, and anticipating. Some may call this luck, and no doubt there’s some truth to the fact that the subjects could have acted otherwise, but the old saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get,” may also have something to do with it. Learning to see, combined with the patience that so often rewards anticipation, will pay great visual dividends after the shutter is pressed. So after hanging around two downtown blocks for an entire afternoon on a very cold day, here’s the photographic lesson that was reinforced in my mind: that it is OK to run when you have to, but when you don’t, then don’t. Great things may happen when you allow your eyes the time to do what they do best: to see.
Just about every street photographer you talk to these days is in pursuit of that elusive, candid moment when people are just being themselves, oblivious to anyone around them. The less romantic interpretation of this search has been equated by some to a “hunt,” which I guess alludes to a photographer’s self-perception as a chaser of some sort, always at the ready with a camera and with the index finger on the trigger (or shutter release in this case). Conversely, there is also a somewhat more romantic version of this street photography process. This particular version (which we will call romantic for lack of a better term) alludes to the search for endless, small moments of human expression which take place every day in every city around the world. At its core it refers to the desire to look for these fleeting moments in order to capture them in a photograph for all humanity to experience. These different artistic approaches have lately left me wondering whether they are nothing but mere “distinctions without a difference,” or whether the street photographers who fall in either one of these categories are indeed different creatures practicing different forms of photography.
Arguably, a hunt conjures notions of finality, of a limited lifespan with a discernible beginning and an end. At some level it implies that the relationship between the photographer and the subject is that of a pursuer and prey, with the final moment of capture crowning a day’s achievement by the mere act of having completed the capture. What’s more, it would appear as if any talk of a hunt places the photographer at a different playing field as that of the subject of the hunt, as if referring to different realities that by definition have produced two very different, and distinct characters. One is a chaser, the other the object of a chase.
In contrast, the romantic photographer doesn’t see the world this way. For him or her it’s all about evoking human emotion in perpetuity, a desire to share what unfolded before his or her eyes for only a brief moment in the endless continuum of time. These special moments are as random as they are unique, with only a split second decision standing as a stoic arbiter between moments that will be forgotten by history and moments that will be frozen for eternity. That incredible visual zenith in an unfolding scene is what they live for. For them, that “moment” like no other–the never-again visual second standing between immortality and oblivion. It’s dramatic briefness renders it almost impossible to record on a regular basis, but the seemingly impossible odds will never stop the romantic street photographer. On the contrary, they are the source of his or her passion–a passion which most will define by a handful of incredible “moments” captured over the course of a year out of the tens of thousands of photographs taken and thousands of miles walked during that year. Crazy? Perhaps, but not for that incurable romantic with a camera.
So next time you go out with your camera in search of those special, human moments that will visually reward you for the rest of your life, consider whether you will approach them as a hunter or as a romantic. Will you just watch a scene unfold before you from a distant, vantage point, or will you make yourself part of that scene in order to feel the pulse and rhythm of the human drama taking place right before your very eyes. Whatever you do, it bears remembering that you, the photographer, is what matters. The camera is merely the equivalent of a painter’s brush, an instrument by which to translate your creativity onto a canvas that others can see. In the end, it all boils down to the tireless pursuit of that short-lived moment in a scene when your eyes, your camera, and the strumming beatings of your heart line up in perfect harmony. It is as rare as seeing a comet, but just as rewarding.