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.
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.
Recently, I came across a quote by Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, that got me thinking about the things we say and the things we do. What made this quote even more puzzling for me was that it came in stark contrast with something I read in one of my favorite books of all times, “Cassanova In Bolzano,” by the famous Hungarian author Sándor Márai. The contrast between Carl Jung (a realist) and Cassanova (an idealist) could not be more stark.
Let’s start with Carl Jung. The quote I’m referring to goes as follows:
You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.
Jung could not be more blunt. A waiter, then, is just a waiter and not a writer. An office worker is an office worker, and there’s no use describing him or her as a painter. If you have a great voice, but don’t sing professionally, then you are definitely not a singer, according to Jung. No room for dreamers here, or for trying to convince anyone that you are really an artist trapped in the daily toil required to put food on the table. Plain and simple, no amount of talk, of dreaming, or wishful thinking will change what is obvious for everyone to see. A harsh reality indeed, but Jung obviously called them like he saw them.
And then, there was Sándor Márai, telling us through his character Cassanova that what you do does not necessarily defines who you are. That you, in your hearts of hearts, could be a painter even if you’ve never painted anything. That what defines a writer is not the product of his or her labor, but rather the poetry that forms inside his or her heart. What we think we are is what we are, not what the trappings of life and circumstance have forced upon us.
In his book, Cassanova is somewhat annoyed by his assistant (Balbi) questioning why he called himself a writer if he had never written anything, or gotten paid for it for that matter. For Cassanova, his life was, in a sense, his writing. It was just that he had yet to put it down to pen and paper:
… I am that rare creature, a writer with a life to write about! You asked me how much I have written? … Not much, I admit… I have been envoy, priest, soldier, fiddler, and doctor of civil and canonical law… But that’s not the point, it’s not the writing, it’s what I have done that matters. It is me, my life, that is the important thing. The point … is that being is much more difficult than doing… When I have lived, I shall want to write.
It would have been an event to remember to hear Carl Jung and Sándor Márai discussing this contrasting philosophies. I can’t help but think that at times I’ve found myself fervently ascribing to one of these camps or the other. That is why photographs like the ones above make me think so much about the nature of people, or at least, the nature of the people depicted on the photos. Who are these people? Are they what I see, or is there something more to them (perhaps their true nature) that is hidden from my eyes?
Unbeknownst to me, about a month ago I was standing precisely on the line of demarcation between these contrasting approaches. Upon visiting one of the major art galleries in Washington, DC (will not mention names here in the name of privacy) and walking down one of the empty, yet beautiful corridors, I came face-to-face with one of the security employees who hangs around the hallways making sure no harm comes to the artwork at the gallery. What my eyes saw was a security guard doing his job, and one that at first impression, did not look like a very exciting one. After a short conversation I discovered that he and his family had come to this country in search of the safety that they could not find back home in their African country. More than that, he confided that he had run for President back home and lost, but that it remained his dream to go back and try again when the conditions were right. He also gave me a short lesson in African economics and development, and all without me ever asking. Obviously, there was a longing in his heart and a vision of the role he felt he was meant to play in his life. I was just surprised at the trick my eyes had played on me. Now looking back at this experience, I can only wonder whether Jung and Márai, had they been in my position, would have seen the same man in front of them. The eyes, after all, can be quite deceiving.