It is said that Mount Vernon is one of the country’s most beautiful estates, but after a short walk around the grounds of this incredible property, I can’t help but think that this observation is a gross understatement. That is, of course, provided you can allow your eyes and imagination to see beyond the massive amounts of tourists (not to mention high schoolers loudly taunting the animals on the property) that descend on the place like locus the moment the weather warms up a bit. You just have to blank that out and let yourself be transported to the period when our First President and his family roamed the grounds of this quiet haven along the mighty Potomac River. If you do that, then you’ll get a better picture of what life must have been like in such a beautiful place.
I had been to Mount Vernon briefly before, but during my first visit I didn’t have the opportunity to walk around the extensive grounds of the estate. The Mansion itself was impossible to visit at this time, as the line for those waiting to enter was about a quarter mile long. No worries, though, because the grounds themselves deserve a visit in their own right. In the quiet solitude of those expansive grounds, I could understand why this place held such fascination for the great General. In fact, after having reluctantly agreed to serve a second term as President (and adamantly refusing to serve a third), he couldn’t wait to get back to his property. I can see why. Places like this, and the lifestyle they surely afforded the First President, must have been the direct opposite of what President Washington had to endure in the city. Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and with the exception of some well-deserved maintenance and the imposing Museum/Education Center, the place looks pretty much the same as it did when the Washington family lived there. George Washington, the master surveyor, certainly knew how to pick a place. Then again, no one could ever doubt the great man’s many talents.
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.
It is a rare moment when the largest library institution in the world, the Library of Congress, opens the doors to its Main Reading Room at the Thomas Jefferson Building to the general public. In fact, it only happens a couple of times a year, but most people (including myself) generally miss it because the news surrounding these rare events tends to be about as low-keyed as you can get. After all, these library folks are not the kind of folks you will generally encounter down in Rio de Janeiro letting loose during Mardi Gras. So when I received an early-morning text from a great photographer friend yesterday asking if I was interested in heading up to Capitol Hill with our cameras, the offer was impossible to resist. Low light, no tripods allowed, and surely lots of folks ready to photo-bomb your shots. No problem, and away we went.
To say that the the Main Reading Room is an impressive place would be a gross understatement. Entering this imposing Beaux Arts room with its incredibly ornamented dome rising about 160 feet from the ground is quite an event in-an-of-itself. It is reminiscent to the experience of entering a Renaissance church in Florence and suddenly been overtaken by a magnificent view you could not have foreseen prior to entering the building. But as beautiful as the scene was, photographing the place was to prove a bit of a challenge. There were people, and photographers of all kinds, all over the place. No one (including yours truly) wanted to miss out on this rare opportunity, and at times it was as if photographers and visitors were engaging in a hastily choreographed, chaotic dance without a dance director. In this environment, timing, patience, and a steady hand to compensate for the lack of a tripod (generally forbidden, but possible to get permission if you plan way ahead and are willing to grow old in the process) were key to getting a decent photograph.
And then there was the low light, which for a Leica rangefinder shooter trying to focus manually in a darkish room does not lead to a match made in heaven. So out came the external Leica EVF adapter, and just like that, I could suddenly focus in the dark. I suddenly felt better about having had to sell an organ to pay for the darn contraption. Now I just have to work on developing the smooth breathing rhythm of a zen monk in deep meditation before I press that shutter release. No doubt this is easier said than done.
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.
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.