I don’t think I’m alone when I say that we’ve had enough of this winter. Not that the DC Metro area can compare with the likes of Norway or Hokkaido, but rather that we are just not used to this long, wintry seasons any more. Sure, they show up every three or four years, but this lack of consistency is not enough for anyone to justify those big winter purchases, if you know what I mean. Proof of this is the fact that a single inch of snow is enough to close all area schools and the Federal government (do they still get paid if they stay home?). Small businesses are affected as well when area customers gravitate to shopping malls and large retailers in order to stay warm while overcoming cabin fever syndrome. So, if by any chance Pope Francis happens to be reading this blog (I know, a long shot, but I’m going to take it anyway), I would like to ask him to do a little lobbying above his pay grade to see if this endless winter can finally be put to rest. And just in case, a million thank-you’s in advance.
Photographers are constantly reminding each other that taking pictures in public places is generally a legally-protected right. Like anything else, there are limits, and many cases where photographers have been arrested for exercising this right have been documented in the press. Bottom line: it’s a risky business no matter how you look at it. Of course, most people taking photographs out in the open are innocently recording everyday life, with their photos destined for their personal blog (like the case here). But to fully ignore, or disreguard for that matter, privacy and propriety considerations out there could be a risky business. The law is somewhat murky and perhaps designed so that a visit to the local courthouse is all but inevitable if you are not careful. This also gets a lot more complicated when you travel abroad, as different countries have different interpretations of what is permissible and what is not. Bottom line: best to do a little research and never leave common sense behind when stepping out with a camera. And when in doubt, don’t. Then again, that may take all the fun out of photography.
Something good always happens in our national capital region when a snow storms forces most of the government to shut down for a few days. For starters, the entire region’s stress level comes down a notch or two. Bureaucrats get to enjoy a paid day off courtesy of the taxpayers and the environment gets a bit cleaner thanks to tens of thousands of commuters staying home for the day. What’s more, a sort of calm sets into the area with the falling snow, giving people a chance to reconnect with themselves and the place where they live. It may not be quite enough for advocates of the Slow Movement to label Washington, DC as a Slow City, but it’s nice to experience for a day or two what all that slow stuff is all about. I’m digging it.
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.
Ever come to the realization that there are just some things that only the young can do? Or should do? Well, I have. And while I would prefer to think of it in terms of growing older and wiser, I hate to admit that this jumping over trash cans and concrete steps was never “my thing.” Not that I could not think of the mechanics involved in such daredevil acts, mind you, but rather that pain (or the possibility of pain) has never been something I willingly accepted as part of growing up. These folks downtown Washington, DC didn’t seem to be too concerned with such mundane things as crashing, smashing your face against a trash can, breaking bones, or painting some of the pavement with their epidermis. Nope, all they seemed to care about was speed and landing on that skateboard after soaring in the sky for a few seconds. And they were pretty good at it too. That they gave me the opportunity to try out a manual-focus camera on a fast-moving sport like skateboarding was even better. Thank you guys!
You wouldn’t know from the young, vibrant faces of a new generation of Chinese Americans that this past weekend they were actually celebrating 4711 years of Chinese cultural history. As the Year of the Horse dawned on us all, a small but proud Chinese American community in the Penn Quarters district of Washington, DC took to the streets to celebrate the cultural traditions that the elders surely experienced back in the old country many years ago. In spite of the fact that DC’s Chinatown is a mere shadow of what it once was (the 2010 DC census shows 24.84% of the local Asian population as ethnic Chinese), year-after-year the dwindling community goes through great efforts to keep this colorful event alive. With the relentless encroachment of the business community in the area, it is hard to say what the future holds for these types of events, specially as the ranks of the older generation continue to dwindle and a new generation looks to the suburbs to plant their roots. Even local newspapers have a tendency to point you in the direction of the Virginia suburbs and Maryland if authentic Chinese food is what you are after. That’s a pity, but perhaps somewhat typical of the realities being faced by similar communities around the country. Nevertheless, I am convinced that notwithstanding this reality, as long as we keep supporting events like these in the various ethnic communities around the country, something very precious will be preserved for future generations. And that, my friend, would be a good thing.
I was headed to a museum today to photograph old, Oriental relics for a change. But as it happens in far too many occasions on my way to a photographic interest, something catches my eye that turns out to be a little bit more interesting (from a photographic perspective) than what I had originally intended to photograph. It is the proverbial “seeing of a photograph before you actually get to take it.” So here I was today, standing in the middle of the street while cars maneuvered around me, waiting for this gentleman to fill a little more of my 50mm lens frame. A quick three-frame burst later I was done and the subject of my photographic inspiration simply continued on his merry way. Maybe this city is not as hostile to photographers as I once thought, or maybe it was because I was using a Leica instead of a bulky, in-your-face DSLR. Who knows. I guess only this “international man of mystery” would know.
I sat at home yesterday thinking about the old saying that, “There’s no such thing as a bad day to take photographs,” and pondered the wisdom of going out with my camera to challenge the near-freezing temperatures outside. Don’t get me wrong, I am a tough guy. Well, above freezing temperatures at least, but I generally do not let a bad day hold me back from hitting the streets in search of the perfect photograph (which by the way, rarely is out there waiting for you). Nevertheless, out I went to Georgetown because I figured that if anyone would be outside on a cold day like this, it would be the always-there Georgetown crowds. To my surprise, though, the crowds were quite thin today, but the colors on this gray, overcast day could not have been any more perfect. And then there was the light, yes, the light. Not just any light mind you, but that creamy, yellowish, soft light that photographers dream of and which is generally only experienced during what is commonly known in the photography world as the “magic hour.” Who would’ve known, that on this gloomiest of days we would all be blessed with some of the most beautiful light these sorry eyes have ever seen. Go figure.
I know, how can you ever find the perfect quiet moment when photographers sitting next to you can’t resist the temptation of pointing their cameras at you? I get it, but to put it mildly, I couldn’t resist. And if you’ve ever heard of the almost-silent shutter of a Leica M (Type 240), this photograph is living proof of Leica’s well-deserved reputation. With only two empty sits between us, the subject of this photo never heard the shutter. In fact, I was so surprised at the lack of reaction that I ended up taking about 8 shots of the scene. Quiet, inconspicuous, and excellent in low light, the Leica M is definitely the best Leica camera ever. And just in case you’re wondering, the impecably-dressed gentleman turned out to be a distinguished President of a university. The grungy guy was behind the camera.
One of the great things about street photography is that you are always surprised by the scenes your camera captures without you having to stage a thing. Some of these can be the proverbial “photo bombs,” but in many cases it is the unexpected that happens. When this happens, there’s very little time for composition, planning, or for a rerun. A second or two is all you’ve got, and to be perfectly frank, most of the time these opportunities are missed for a variety of reasons. Chance, to a large extent, is a lot more important than skill for these impromptu photo ops, even if we can never ignore the old dictum that “luck always favors the prepared.” In the end what really matters is whether we manage to capture one of the millions of little scenes that take place around us all the time. Just one shot, that’s it. For most photographers, that’s what is called a mighty fine day.
Ah, La Dolce Vita. To be captured on film by Federico Fellini while traversing the narrow streets of an Italian city on a Vespa scooter with a loved one’s arms wrapped around your waist on your way to a weekend rendezvous at a cliffside hotel in Positano, Italy. Well, that’s certainly, if not ideally, one way of riding a Vespa. Another way, and perhaps a little closer to reality, is around the busy streets of our nation’s capital, with taxis zooming past you while you attempt to control your scooter as it putters along potholes, construction sites, and drivers bent on getting you and your annoying Italian cricket off the street. Don’t know which way you would prefer, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m definitely putting all my hopes on Federico, so I better start practicing my Italian.
I have to confess that I have never been, nor intend to be, a nature photographer. Not that I don’t like nature, but rather that judging by a lot of the work I continue to see out there, I’m simply not that good at it. But during this part of the year I would be remiss if I didn’t capture some of the simple beauty that autumn brings to Virginia every year in October. The intense colors and endless micro-scenes that surround us everywhere we go during this time of the year are simply magnificent. And while the wide-angled, grand scenery by itself is worth a trip to this part of the US in October, for me it is nature’s endless detailed scenery that attracts me the most. What can I say, it is a palette of colors that for a brief moment every year compels us to meditate about life, about beginnings and ends, and about a life ahead. The season softens our edges, and makes us see what’s around us in a whole new light. At some level, it humanizes us, and that is a very good thing.
From what I gather, not too many photographers associate rainy, gloomy days with great photographic opportunities. Frankly, I fully understand this feeling and have found myself in those shoes many times over the years. And yet, rain and everything that comes with it, do present some of the best opportunities to change your creative pace a bit, so to speak. Rain makes you a different kind of photographer, as everything from color patterns, wet leaves on the ground, and drops of water suddenly become the focus of your attention. Don’t know what to call the photographic (or psychological) transformation people go through when it rains, but it is there and it makes you see the world around you from a completely different vantage point. Personally, I find that people as subjects are suddenly not as interesting as droplets of water on a rail, or as the shinny reflection that comes off wet sidewalks and city streets. Maybe it has something to do with the allure of so many romantic movie scenes that take place during rainy days, or the way nature’s colors are accentuated by the rain, or how cloudy days relax us in a way that would be impossible during the sunny days of summer. Whatever the case, as a photographer I have developed a new appreciation for those days when nature takes us in dramatic and unplanned directions. They afford us the opportunity to get off that well-traveled road for a while, and we all could use a little bit of that. So next time it rains, give walking in the rain a try and you’ll see what you’ve been missing.
There is a phenomena that regularly takes place in Washington, DC that is perhaps rare in other parts of the country. To put it as simply as I can, it goes like this: as the bureaucrats leave the District for the weekend, the protesters move in to occupy its streets. The movement in and out of the capital resembles the movement of the waves, where the ocean must first recede before waves come back to the shore in force. Such was the case this weekend when thousands of military veterans stormed the DC Mall’s memorials to make the point that citizens should never be denied access to our nation’s monuments. From what my camera could see from the middle of the crowd, it all took place in an orderly (albeit sometimes tense) fashion. Only one brief scuffle took place at the Lincoln Memorial when some of the veterans insisted in taking a section of a barrier from the hands of a Park Police Officer, but after some shoving took place and a nightstick made its appearance, everyone seemed to calm down. But as better heads prevailed, the barriers were removed (to be dumped later in front of the White House) and the crowd made its way up the Lincoln Memorial. It wasn’t exactly the liberation of France, but it was readily obvious the nation’s veterans know a thing or two about breaking down barriers and occupying the high ground, no matter the cost. The days when they wore the uniform may be long gone, but you wouldn’t known from the way so many of them dragged their once able bodies to keep pace with their younger brethren on their way to bring down those metal barriers. I’m sure that President Lincoln, sitting there looking at all that was taking place at his feet today, was probably repeating some of his most famous words to the nation’s veterans: “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” And that’s what they did, Mr. President.
Made any big decisions lately? If you have, then you know how agonizing the process can be, as all sorts of modern variables seem to clash with each other bringing unwanted friction into the process. Money, friends, family, work, mortgages, and a whole slew of things that can become either positive or negative energy bearing down on you. It’s pretty heavy stuff and quite difficult to sort out in a tidy, smooth package. Remember those movies where two small versions of yourself sat at opposite shoulders giving you conflicting advice? Well, life and decisions do appear to resemble those movies. One side urges you to “go for it,” while the other reminds you that “you must be crazy.” In fact, I always thought that it would be a good exercise to divide the “audience” in your life (friends, coworkers, family, and other opinionated folk you may think about) into two sections in a room. Like in a wedding ceremony, the “audience” could be divided down the middle, with one side of the chamber occupied with the “go for it” crowd and the other with the “you must be crazy” one. How would that picture look? Even? Skewed to one side or the other? Hard to generalize because everyone plays their lives in front of a different “audience.” But one thing is for sure: at the end of the journey, when the audiences have long disappeared, it is not their voices that you will hear in your head. No, only one voice will remain with you ’till the very end, and that is your own voice. That’s right, that voice we often suppress when overwhelmed by the audience’s roar. So don’t forget to listen to yourself, and if you do, that may make it a lot easier to decide which side of the “audience” will you allow to influence your life.