Sometimes I wonder if I was meant to live part of my life in an underpass under some road. Not that I would look forward to cuddling-up every night in such a place with all my possessions stacked in a shopping cart, but rather that I have developed this fascination with what lies underneath all those crossroads we mindlessly travel every day in our hurry to get somewhere. Let’s just say that the moment I see an underpass these days, I immediately start exploring its magnificent under-structure with the fascination of a structural engineer. Of course, my interest is somewhat more artistic in nature, but the surprises I keep finding under these metal and concrete monuments to modern engineering never cease to amaze me. It is like finding a painting inside a dusty cave in the middle of nowhere. I can’t stop wondering about the people who painted murals like these in such meticulous detail. Where they famous artists within the community? Does anyone remember them now? What message was being conveyed by the artistic choices made? Of course, some of these questions are easier to answer than others, or to imagine for that matter. But perhaps too much information is not what matters here. After all, don’t we enjoy museum masterpieces before we ever discover who painted them? Perhaps all that matters then is that some artist whom we shall never meet has managed to touch our lives in some incredible way, and in the most unlikely of places. And it doesn’t get much more “unlikely” than the I-695 underpass by 8th Street SE in our nation’s capital.
How do you know that spring is just around the corner? That is, besides peaking into whether Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow or not. I’m sure everyone has a personal way of presaging the arrival of spring, but for me, it is the appearance of music on city streets that unmistakably lets me know that it’s about time to start putting away those winter jackets. From violins to trashcan drums, I must admit I like it all and that I wait for those street sounds with the same level of fascination as the masses that assemble every year in Pennsylvania wait for that sage of a groundhog. To tell you the truth, I love street musicians, and I’m glad to see that traditions that were popularized in Europe have found their way into the streets of America. These performers give character to street corners and neighborhoods alike, and if you ever take the time to stop and listen (not to mention to drop a few bucks into their instrument box), you’d be surprised at how good they really are. So for now, I plan to enjoy their wonderful, musical contribution to our enjoyment of life, and some months from now, when the street music stops, I’ll know it is time to pull out that dreaded winter jacket again. Not particularly looking forward to it.
The National Book Festival put together by the great folks from the Smithsonian Institution took over the National Mall this past week. As always, this well-attended festival is kind of a national reminder of the value of books and the great benefits that come from reading. I will admit, though, that in the era of Tweeter, Google+, Instagram, and Facebook, book reading as a national activity is not what it used to be. Most of us can be considered “occasional” book readers at best, even when technologies like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad have made acquiring and reading book about as easy as it can be humanly made.
But having recently returned from Paris, something very interesting caught my attention during this book festival. This was the contrast between the French and the American attitudes to book reading. The French as a whole are considered some of the most prolific book readers in the world, and when I say books, I mean the hardbound, physical, nice-smelling books we grew up with a generation ago in America. Walking the streets of Paris, book readers were everywhere holding books of all sizes while sitting at outdoor cafes or at the local park benches. No doubt their “bookworms” reputation is well deserved. But what I did not see in Paris were electronic book readers. Not one. Nada. Zip. In contrast, if you removed the bare-bones Barnes & Noble tent from the National Book Festival, there wasn’t a physical book pile to be seen anywhere (at least that I could find while walking around). And here is where the contrast with France appeared most evident: in the reality that digital distribution and consumption of books in America is rapidly overtaking the tired, brick-and-mortar sales model that appears to be alive and well in France. Old world vs. new world? Not sure, but while this distinction doesn’t mean that Americans are reading any less lately, it surely seems to point to the fact that most of us are not going to be flipping pages a-la-France these days. For most of us today, a walk to the local bookstore these days involves logging in to a digital book seller online and never hearing the friendly “great book” comment from the bookstore employee. Maybe this sort of human interaction is not needed these days, or maybe online reviews are a good-enough substitute for the old bespectacled clerk. Who knows. All I know is that if they could replicate that great book smell that hits you the first time you open a brand-new book, then that would be something. Ahaaaa! Well, in the meantime, I’m not going to hold my breath.
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.
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.