The Magic Of Great Halls

The majestic third floor hall at the National Portrait Gallery would give some castles in Europe a run for their money.
The majestic third floor hall at the National Portrait Gallery would give some castles in Europe a run for their money.

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.

Escaping The Office Jungle For The Coffee Shop Jungle

Working at the local coffee shop these days may not bring the kind of quiet solitude that modern workers sometimes crave.
Working at the local coffee shop these days may not bring the kind of quiet solitude that modern workers sometimes crave.
The work ergonomics of a coffee shop will never match your former office at work, or your cubicle for that matter.
The work ergonomics of a coffee shop will never match your former office at work, or your cubicle for that matter.

A few years ago, and before coffee shops were discovered in earnest by modern-day workers, a somewhat bohemian fairy tale entered our lives.  This fairy tale described a world where everyone had a relaxed disposition, enjoyed a warm latte by the window, and toiled through the day about as far away as you could get from the office maddening crowds.  This very special place was an ideal sanctum where creative introspection, creativity, and unparalleled productivity could all be nurtured at the same time.  However, something appears to have happened since the inception of that bohemian dream.  Have you been to a city coffee shop lately in the middle of the morning?  I don’t purport to speak for every coffee shop in every city of the world, but after seeing the above scenes at a very popular coffee shop in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC, I’m beginning to wonder whether what people intended to leave back at their crowded offices ended up following them to the modern coffee shop.  Expensive lattes, canines, noise, uncomfortable furniture, you name it, and it’s there.  Not that sitting in any of these places while you finish your morning cup of joe has ceased to be a rewarding experience, but it’s beginning to look like everyone and their families is now congregating there where you intend to do your day’s labor.  Is this a necessarily a bad thing?  Perhaps not, but just in case, better not get too enamored with that bohemian lifestyle just yet.

To Look Or Not To Look

Perhaps people are not invisible when stepping outside as they would otherwise think.
Perhaps people are not invisible when stepping outside as they would otherwise think.
Then again, the notion that everyone is always noticing what we do could be highly overstated.
Then again, the notion that everyone is always noticing what we do could be highly overstated.

We have to sometimes wonder whether it is best to be noticed when we are out and about, or whether it is better if no one ever pays us any attention.  After all, some of us do spend a little bit of time color coordinating, placing the hair just so, and making sure that there is not much out of place before we venture into the open world where self-anointed fashion critics lurk around coffee shops and sidewalk restaurants to mercilessly critique our threads and the way we wear them.  OK, I’ll admit that this is a bit overstated, but hey, that’s the way it feels sometimes.  Of course, I must admit that I’m using “yours truly” as a point of reference, which is all I’m an authority at, and that most of you out there are quite the head-turners (in a good way, that is).  But be that as it may, the point is that while some people do deck-up so that at least someone notices them, other folks couldn’t care less about the unwanted attention.  That’s a pity, because being noticed reminds us that we are alive and that we are part of the great human story of our times.  So go out, strut your stuff, notice and be noticed.  Take it all in, because these will be the memories of your life.

Daily Rituals Outside The Supreme Court

When a decision by the Supreme Court is imminent, journalists descend on the building waiting to grab anyone coming out of the building.
When a decision by the Supreme Court is imminent, journalists descend on the building waiting to grab anyone coming out of the building.
Winers and losers alike can't wait to hit the microphones outside the court to express either joy or disappointment with the Court's rulings.
Winners and losers alike can’t wait to hit the microphones outside the court to express either joy or disappointment with the Court’s rulings.
For TV crews, juggling between the Supreme Court and Congress is as simple as crossing the street.
For TV crews, juggling between the Supreme Court and Congress is as simple as crossing the street.
In the interest of timely reporting, journalists deploy tactical desks with wifi connectivity around the Capitol grounds.
In the interest of timely reporting, journalists deploy tactical desks with wifi connectivity around the Capitol grounds.

It has to be one of the busiest sidewalks in the world.  Sandwiched between the US Supreme Court building and 1st Street NE, this small piece of DC real estate is a constant beehive of activity whenever the Supreme Court is in session.  Journalists with tons of expensive gear wait impatiently for litigants to come down the Court’s stairs either to complain or celebrate after the Court issues a decision.  If the issue being litigated is controversial enough, you will also see (and hear) advocates from each side of the issue trying to out-demonstrate each other with bullhorns, placards, and mannequins.  Real estate is at a premium, though, and it is usually a sight to behold to watch journalists, demonstrators, and tourists with cameras jockeying for position along the relatively short space in front of the Court.  Some journalists (as you can see in the photo) opt to set mobile offices on the Capitol’s grounds, busily relaying news items to major networks from their shaded suites.  I guess if you have to be at the office on any given day, this is about as good as it can get in DC.  Chaos and calm, or what otherwise passes as a normal day in Washington’s charged political climate.

Public Servants You Can’t Help But Like

Right outside Metro stations downtown Washington, DC you will find some of the friendliest and most helpful public servants in the city.
Right outside Metro stations downtown Washington, DC you will find some of the friendliest and most helpful public servants in the city.

Rain or shine, you see them outside many downtown Metro stops, reading maps with tourists and pointing in every direction possible.  They are the men and women in red and blue, Metro employees who’s friendly attitude and willingness to assist visitors with whatever they need puts them in direct contrast with local bureaucrats who buzz right past you without even noticing whether you’re still breathing.  Because of their uniforms, some people may think they are security officers, but take the time to talk to them and you’ll find some of the nicest people you will encounter anywhere inside the Beltway.  Washingtonians who actually look forward to talking to you, who would’ve known.

Shall We Fly?

Skateboarding in Washington, DC seems to be concentrated around the Penn Quarters neighborhood.
Skateboarding in Washington, DC seems to be concentrated around the Penn Quarters neighborhood.
Only those who can heal overnight would ever dare to perform these acrobatic moves.
Only those who can heal overnight would ever dare to perform these acrobatic moves.

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!

The Young Make Their Mark During Chinese New Year Celebrations

Chinese Americans kicked off local celebrations for the year 4711, known as The Year of the Horse.
Chinese Americans kicked off local celebrations for the year 4711, otherwise known as The Year of the Horse.
The colorful celebrations in the Chinatown section of Washington, DC included traditional costumes and a local parade.
The colorful celebrations in the Chinatown section of Washington, DC included traditional costumes and a local parade.
Young Chinese Americans continue to celebrate their culture while the older generation becomes a lot less visible at these events.
Young Chinese Americans continue to celebrate their culture while the older generation becomes a lot less visible at these events.
Cultural changes were readily evident at the parade, as a younger generation communicated in English while the elderly population spoke only in Chinese.
Cultural changes were readily evident at the parade, as a younger generation communicated in English while the elderly population spoke only in Chinese.
A young woman wears the so-called paddie straw hat that is so common in rural parts of Asia.
A young woman wears the so-called paddie straw hat that is so common in rural parts of Asia.
A young, vibrant, new generation of Chinese Americans are beginning to make their presence known in the Washington, DC area.
A young, vibrant, new generation of Chinese Americans are beginning to make their presence known in the Washington, DC area.

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.

A Wintry Georgetown Day

The walk along the Georgetown Canal late on a wintry day is definite soup for the soul.
The walk along the Georgetown Canal late on a wintry day is definite soup for the soul.
The new breed of chic cafes along the many side streets in Georgetown will reward those with a vivid curiosity for the road less traveled.
The new breed of chic cafes along the many side streets in Georgetown will reward those with a vivid curiosity for the road less traveled.
In a scene reminiscent of Paris, the Georgetown neighborhood has the greatest concentration of bakeries in the city.
In a scene reminiscent of Paris, the Georgetown neighborhood has the greatest concentration of bakeries in the city.

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.

A Quiet Moment

Business people need their quiet moments too, and the Jaleo bar downtown DC sounds like the perfect spot.
Business people need their quiet moments too, and the Jaleo bar downtown DC sounds like the perfect spot.

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.

Photographers After Dark

When photographing at night without a tripod, any surface could be a cheap substitute.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
When photographing at night without a tripod, any surface could be a cheap substitute. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.

Where is a tripod when you really need one?  Like so many of you, I don’t particularly enjoy hauling a tripod with me when I go out with my camera.  Not that there’s anything wrong with a tripod (I actually own three of them and use them quite regularly), but rather that no matter how light and compact they are, they are just one more thing to carry when you are trying to reduce your load in the first place.  Of course, no sooner after you leave your tripod back at home or at your hotel, that you find yourself in desperate need of one.  That was the case with the shot above.  Finding myself walking through beautiful European cities at night, I couldn’t help but constantly regret leaving behind that tripod I had on my hands when the airport taxi showed up.  Yes, in order to “save some weight,” I put it down and walked out the door.

So what to do when you come to a scene like this one at night and your tripod is 3,000 miles away?  Answer: you desperately look for any surface you can find to support your camera.  In order to avoid blaming myself for being lazy, I have chosen to hide my shortcomings by referring to all sorts of support structures out there as photographic structural support compensation items.  OK, maybe not, but I guess my point is that there’s always a Plan B, even if it is not as pretty as Plan A.  What I have discovered about shooting at night without a tripod is that there are two elements that are absolutely crucial: patience and any type of support structure.  I say patience because speed and motion do seem to go together when night photography is concerned.  You have to look around checking for smooth surfaces, for people to get out of the way, for people to get in the way, for checking your breathing, and for slowly pressing that shutter release.  Not that patience can totally compensate for a good tripod, but if you take the time to adjust your position and angle based on whatever surface you have available to you, you’ll be able to get a fairly stable shot at a low ISO number.  But routinely counting on good luck and providence when shooting photographs at night without a tripod will always be a high-wire act.  Without a doubt, it will lead to a lot more rejects than keepers; and when you are out there for hours looking for that magical shot, having wasted most of your time is not the feeling you want to be left with at the end of the day.  That’s why that contraption is going with me next time I’m headed out with a camera after dark, whether it’s a mile or 3,000 miles from home.