Talk about hiding in plain sight. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have walked by and photographed the grounds of the Hirshhorn Museum downtown Washington. In fact, the museum area and the sunken sculpture garden just across the street are some of my favorite places to capture unique people photos during the warm summer months. Yesterday, however, with temperatures dipping into the low 30’s and winds gusting to 30 mph, was not one of those days. Very few daring souls were out in the open, and those who ventured the elements were scurrying from one building to another as if training for the Olympics race-walking competition. I know this because camera in hand, I was one of them. Originally headed to a different museum, I was compelled by the frigid temperatures to find refuge in the nearest public (and heated) building to the metro station. That oasis of warmth was the Hirshhorn Museum, and much to my surprise, I found myself discovering a gem of contemporary modern art that had been sitting under my nose for longer than I care to admit.
You can’t miss this museum when visiting the National Mall in DC. With its multi-layered, circular design (I wonder if Steve Jobs was inspired by the design for his new Apple headquarters) and open ground floor, the museum structure sticks out like nothing else at the National Mall. Sort of the same could be said of the inside, where some of the sculptures and structures lining its circular halls will leave you scratching your head for meaning (as much as it pains me to say it, I have to admit that I am somewhat artistically primitive). But amongst its massively eclectic collections, incredible displays of human creativity and talent are also evident everywhere you look. In particular, the outstanding “Days of Endless Time” exhibit (open until April 12, 2015) was simply mindblowing.
The official description of the exhibit says it best:
In a world conditioned by the frantic, 24/7 flow of information and the ephemerality of digital media, many artists are countering thie dynamic with workd that emphasize slower, more meditative forms of perception… Selected as alternatives to the pace of contemporary life, these works provide a poetic refuge–a reflective realm where one drifts as if through days of endless time.
My favorite work in the series was a short film appropriately called “Travel.” To say that this slow-moving, ode to movement and perception was simply out of this world would be a gross understatement. The venue could not have been more perfect either. An oversized, dark room devoid of structures, where the rythmic, heart-grabbing musical score gradually induced a deep, meditative state on the audience. This was great stuff in a small package. More than that, it was another reminder that sometimes, great things happen when we dare to veer off those intended paths well-worn out by familiarity and routine.
My time in Switzerland came to an end at the cosmopolitan city of Geneva. Had the weather cooperated a bit more, this would have been a great finale to a most wonderful journey to what has become one of my favorite countries in the world. And while it does take more than three days (and hopefully, sunny days) to visit this wonderful city, its compact city centre and incredible transportation system are a great help in getting the most out of a limited visit, even in the non-stop rain. Walking, however, is perhaps the most rewarding activity for visitors. Venture out along the ritzy Quai du Mont-Blanc from the Pont du Mont-Blanc, with its magnificent hotels catering to a high-flying clientele, and then head on back via the more down-to-earth Rue Philippe-Plantamour (also home to some very good restaurants). Cross the metallic Ponte de la Machine and spend some of those Swiss Francs along the shopping heaven that is the Rue du Marché (it changes names various times as it goes along). And when you’ve had enough of people and crowds, get lost in old town and find one of those small cafés that hide along one of the many narrow, cobblestone streets. Your feet may get tired, but you will hardly notice. What you will surely notice, though, is that the time you’ve got in this incredible city will never be enough. Befitting one of the most international cities in the world, there are a myriad of incredible museums, sights, and restaurants that will require more than a single visit to even scratch the surface of this city. But don’t despair, because the good news is that no one will ever need a reason to visit Switzerland. Great food, great people, and some of the most incredible scenery you will ever see in a lifetime. Good enough for me, and I can’t wait to go back.
Here’s one place that most likely very few of you (if any) has ever visited: the Jones Point Lighthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Don’t blame you, though, because admittedly, I recently discovered the place myself. Well, discovered in the sense that someone else led me there during this year’s Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photowalk (read rainy, cold day). Not having had much time that day to photograph the place, I decided that I would come back to this somewhat isolated spot along the Potomac River when I didn’t have to fight a multitude of photographers for position, or the weather for that matter. But once I set out to find the place, I began to realize why the lighthouse is somewhat of a desolate, albeit beautiful, place. The lighthouse is just not easy to find, let alone bump into, even when millions of people drive by it everyday as they cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge linking Virginia to Maryland. Getting there, though, is half the fun, specially during the fall season when the park seems to be celebrating a festival of colors, with reds, orange, and yellow leaves shinning bright against the deep blue sky of autumn. Considering that downtown Washington, DC lies only a few miles away, you would think that the Jones Point park and lighthouse would be on people’s radars when visiting the area, but the opposite seems to be true. Quiet, isolated, and only reachable by foot, it sits majestically and alone by the water’s edge, with its occasional visitors enjoying the zen-like experience the place seems to induce.
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.
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.
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.
These days workers appear to be clamoring for a little space away from their overcrowded, communal offices. What’s more, it appears that in order to find a little peace and quiet, any space will do, even if it means planting themselves behind a column, or on a chair that is totally out of place with its surroundings. It doesn’t seem to matter, as long as the result is that level of temporary solitude that today’s office environment seems to deny them on a daily basis. As most of you know by now, modern office design, with its overemphasis on team work, is typically designed to promote constant human interaction and contact. While noble, this traditional approach has led to an interruption-driven ecosystem where most forms of solitude and introspection have become virtually impossible, if not outright frowned upon. Luckily, people are not totally surrendering to the always-on office syndrome, as my most recent lunchtime stroll with my camera revealed. So, I am pleased to report that escapism, even if mostly limited to lunchtime hours, is alive and well in today’s office jungle environment.
Amsterdam is a city of contrasts. On the one side there is the city of great art and imposing architecture, while on the other there is a somewhat more earthy side, to put it mildly. What’s even more interesting about the city, though, is the fact that so much of what makes Amsterdam what it is seems to lie inside its somewhat uniform buildings. Sure, there are the marvelous canals crisscrossed by beautifully undulating bridges packed with bicycles of all kinds, but enter some of those building lining the canals and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find inside.
Such is the case with two of Amsterdam’s most famous attractions: the Van Gogh Museum at Stadhouderskade 55 and the old Heineken factory at Stadhouderskade 78. From the outside, the buildings housing these two local landmarks are a bit industrial in character, but what lies inside is quite remarkable and more than worth the time you have to spend in line before getting inside (which on a rainy, cold day made the Van Gogh Museum line to get inside a bit of a challenge for the hundreds of people inching their way to the ticket booth). But once inside, you are treated to some of the most creative art you’ll ever see anywhere. The four-story museum was divided according to the different stages in Van Gogh’s short creative life (about ten years total), from the days when he was perfecting his style in Paris to his mental asylum days in Arles and Saint-Rémy. A definitely troubled life, but an incredible creative one.
About a quarter mile from the Museum Quarter park, a somewhat different experience can be found at the old Heineken factory (which moved its production to a new location in 1988). What is now termed the Heineken Experience will set you back about 18 Euros, but it will be some of the best money spent in Amsterdam. The old equipment is still there, to include the still-in-use stables with the black Heineken horses. They even “turn you into beer” in a small theater where the audience is put through the beer-production process as if it were the liquid itself with a vibrating stage that is at various points subjected to heat lamps simulating the fermentation process. And to top it all off, there is the tasting room followed by an incredibly slick bar where you get the two beers that were included with the admission price (which also include a free canal ride aboard the Heineken boat and a souvenir at their downtown store). Not too shabby, and quite educational to boot. This city is definitely growing on me.
Ah, don’t you wish that this type of building, with its beautiful gardens and undulating brick trails were part of your everyday life? Come to think of it, how do you like your everyday scenery? Are you moved by the landscape you normally come in contact with? Does the architecture in your town or city fills you with wonderment and dreams of faraway places? I frankly don’t know what has happened to architectural design these days, but if you make your world in suburbia these days, chances are that you have not been surprised by any architectural wonder lately. That doesn’t mean that creative architecture is dead at all, as evidenced by Apple’s projected new building in Cupertino, CA. Rather, it means that your average suburbia landscape could use a little TLC when it comes to beautiful buildings and pedestrian-friendly landscape. Less strip malls and a few more landscaped parks would be a start, not to mention getting away from designing boxes and referring to them as architecture. Of course, in some parts of the country this would be tantamount to defying gravity, but who knows, it may be as catchy as the trend started by the Levitt family back in 1946. Remember Levittown? It could happen.
Don’t you love people? No question that art evokes many emotions from people, and not all of them revolve around deep introspection. Yes, there’s that, but I have to admit that there’s something refreshing in seeing a different type of reaction from visitors to an art exhibit. Like many other visitors to the National Gallery of Art East Building this weekend, I was totally fascinated by this simple sculpture of four young women dancing. I must have gone around it ten times with my camera trying to find the right angle for my shot, but considering that I was shooting with with 50mm lens, finding the right place proved to be harder than I though. My primary interest was to capture people’s reactions to the sculpture, but this also proved to be quite challenging because most people simply stood there next to the art piece looking as if in some sort of a trance. After a while, I gave up and walked away, only to return later to give luck another opportunity to show its kindness to a struggling photographer.
Fast-forward a few poker faces and a few minutes later, and there was the photo I was waiting for all along. Two young women not yet affected by the sclerotic effect of time, suddenly became one with the joyous scene before us. With disarming innocence and cheer, they broke into dance as if to join the celebration that was taking place before they arrived at the scene. The whole thing didn’t last more than 30 seconds, but I was glad I stuck around waiting for something to happen. In some way, what the camera captured had to do with much more than the recording of a simple photograph. The scene revealed the endless wonder of youth, the disarming effect of a moment of happiness, and the sheer beauty of unencumbered spontaneity. Who knows, maybe that’s what the sculpture was all about.
Let’s face it, not everyone can live in Paris. Sure, come can, but this post is for the rest of us mortals who sometimes need to struggle with our familiar surroundings in order to overcome photographic paralysis. For the creative in all of us, the numbing effect of the familiar can easily lead to a condition where the sights that are right there in front of us have become transparent to us. We just don’t see things any more. Think back and retrace everywhere you’ve been this week and you’ll know what I mean. Most of us will simply not be able to describe everyone we met or everywhere we went. To a large extent, the familiar has become transparent and has stopped registering in our consciousness.
The same with our attitude towards photography. It is very easy to convince ourselves that there’s nothing new to photograph in the neighborhoods, towns, or cities where we have lived for so long. It all looks the same, and probably ceased to inspire us a long time ago. In fact, the thought of prepping your gear to go photograph something you’ve photographed many times before can be outright debilitating. Too familiar. Too transparent. Ever been there? Well, I have, and nothing good photographically comes out of it. However, it really doesn’t have to be this way. With a little effort on our part, we can easily overcome the negative effect of the familiar. Convince yourself that the world around you is nothing but a huge photographic opportunity waiting for someone like you to find those photos. Make it a point to stop and visit a place that caught your eye at some point, but which you never took the time to explore. Find the new in the old by walking around a building instead of in front of it, by sitting in a garden and observing, and by looking all around you as if you were expecting a Mafia hit at any time. Slow down, use your feet, dare to walk into empty spaces, and imagine. If anything, you’ll have lots of fun in the process.
You know what I like about visiting art galleries? Basically, that just about everyone there insists on slowing down. Of course, this could be nerve-wracking in-of-itself for those Type-A personalities out there, but slow down they do. In some sense, it is like seeing humans in a way that we are not accustomed to. Holding hands, lingering, deep in thought, and oblivious to time. It makes for great photography, if I may add. So why is it that we don’t engage more in these types of pulse-lowering activities? Is it the old “I don’t have time to save time” kind of thing? Perhaps. Maybe it is that abstract activities like contemplation never appear in any of those list of the things we should all be doing to live longer. I certainly have not seen it added to all that advice about living longer by eating a Mediterranean diet. But a more plausible explanation lies in the fact that we as a society simply never think much about it. Isn’t all that contemplative stuff something we do in vacations after all, if we had the time? I guess. But staring at the photograph above, I can’t help but wonder about the wisdom of how we allocate and value our time these days. I may be wrong, but it appears to me that this couple has figured it out.
Over the years I have grown convinced that the magic of photography has more to do with perspective and composition than with pixel perfection. Of course, you wouldn’t know this from the thousands of photo blogs on the Internet that dedicate most of their real estate to elaborate technical discussions of sharpness charts, extreme high ISO grain differences, and shutter burst speeds. Not that talking about any of this is a bad thing, or that such considerations are irrelevant to good photography. However, the point is that for the consumer (and we are all consumers), what makes a good photo is not its technical perfection, but rather the feelings that it evokes. That is why we still like grainy street photography so much, or why we can’t stop looking at the human condition as captured by photojournalists all around the world. For the general public to enjoy what they see on a photograph, they must connect with the photo in some very personal way. Solitude. Loneliness. Pity. Anger. Disgust. Happiness. Love. Surprise. You name it, but it has to be there. It is the reaction that comes from observing what is happening within that “human stage” depicted on the photo, rather than the photo’s technical perfection, that will determine the value of the photograph for the consumer. So, less worrying about perfection and more worrying about great composition is a great start to producing great photographs.