Don’t sound the trumpets yet about the disappearance of print newspapers, because as they say, their demise has been highly exaggerated. Lately, and admittedly to my great surprise, I have noticed more and more people reading newspapers out in the open than usual. Not sure what’s going on, but whether this is nostalgia or rejection of the latest technology fads, the truth is that the few remaining diehard paper readers out there have become a lot more noticeable than the iPad reading crowd. After all, you don’t have to charge a newspaper at any time during the day, and you can buy years of newspapers before you break even with the cost of an iPad. Whatever the reason, it does look like newspapers (and the trash they generate) will be around for a while. How long will that be is anyone’s guess, but time does not appear to be on their side.
What a difference a couple of weeks make. As April started in the Mid-Atlantic region, freezing temperatures and a couple of inches of snow would have led you to believe that winter would never end. Instead of birds singing in the morning all you could hear was the unmistakable raspy sound of ice scrapers chiseling away windshields before the dreaded morning commute to work got started. Gladly, all that appears to be behind us now and those dreaded ice scrappers have been put away for good. This coming week should also be the peak bloom period for the famous cherry trees lining the Tidal Basin in DC. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival is in full force and the weather could not be more perfect. Time to get out and see the world waking up from its long, winter slumber. See you out there.
Don’t ask me why, but lately I’ve been pondering how much our environment affects our creativity. After all, painters gravitate to the south of France in search of the perfect light, creative writing courses travel to Paris in search of inspiration, and photographers don’t seem to be able to stop talking about the lonely pursuit that their craft demands. Remember Georgia O’Keeffe? Her artistic peak came about during the period in her life when she made the wide, open spaces of the New Mexico dessert her home. And how about the irrepressible Salvador Dalí and his incredible imagination that traced its roots to the small Spanish towns of his youth, Figueres and Cadaqués. And famous writers are all over the place, but invariably alone when practicing their craft. So what am I to conclude from all this? Perhaps that for solo creatives, solitude during the creative process seems to be a lot more important than any particular location. After all, the proverbial creative block doesn’t seem to care much about place. It is the simple act of “disconnecting” from the everyday that seems to be at the root of our creativity. What is must give way to what’s possible in our consciousness. And if getting there takes us to a faraway land, or just as far as the kitchen table, so be it. Our eyes and our hearts will tell us when we’ve arrived there, wherever there happens to be.
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.
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.
If you read a lot of the popular photography literature out there, you would think that when it came to focal lengths, not much has changed for lenses over the past 100 years or so. To this day, lots of print is devoted to Robert Capa’s dictum that, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.” Now, I’m not sure whether Mr. Capa was referring to optical or physical distance, but my guess is that he was perhaps referring to the proportion of the subject in the photograph to the overall frame of the photo. I can only surmise this because Mr. Capa was more interesting on the drama of a photograph than where the photographer happened to have his or her feet planted. A great image, after all, is never hostage to a particular focal length.
But something has changed a bit since Mr. Capa’s days. Call it the loss of innocence, societal mistrust, or whatever, but people are no longer as relaxed when having their picture taken by a stranger as they used to be. Governments have also jumped into the focal length controversy by creating all sorts of conditions under which a photographer can be labeled an intruder of some sort. Under modern privacy rights considerations, that invisible privacy zone around people has become a virtual minefield for photographers. Enter at your own peril, and successful navigation through it will require a great deal of luck, not to mention personal charm. This zone, which used to be easily traversed with a 50mm focal length, has become a lot harder to deal with. Awareness, perception, and distrust have to a large extent forced the average photographer on the street to move back a bit. Photographers may perceive themselves as creatives capturing a moment in history, but their subjects are growingly seeing them as trespassers, perverts, and untrustworthy social media trolls. But that is precisely where a 75mm or 85mm lens comes into play. These lenses allow you to move back a bit, be less conspicuous, less intrusive, and more discreet. Not that you always want to be that detached from the people you are photographing, but if you don’t have the time to invest in building those relationships (like a photographer in the middle of a festival, procession, or market), then distance could easily prove to be your best friend, and a mid-sized telephoto lens will easily subtract the added distance from your subject. That is why these days, my trusted Leica 75mm f/2 Summicron-M, as well as my Nikon 85mm f/1.4G workhorse, are getting a lot more saddle time on my camera. Ah, and then there’s that glorious bokeh, but that is a subject for another day.
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.
Do you idle? That is, do you ever have those moments in your daily life when your time is not filled with activity? In an attempt to see if folks out there were into this idling thing, I went out with my camera recently to find out. My goal was to find something akin to the contemplative lifestyle out there, if at all possible. Now, I do realize that “idling” as an adjective kind of implies an activity in of itself, but the kind of scene I had in mind had more to do with exactly the opposite: the absence of activity. So armed with the “not spent or filled with activity” dictionary definition, out I went at the end of the day when people were supposed to be done with work for the day.
The result? I couldn’t find anyone really idling, as per the dictionary’s definition. The folks in the photographs were the closest I could find, and as you can see, cell phone technology pretty much did away with all that idling witchcraft. In fact, this technology has redefined this whole idea of “relaxing.” Ever heard anyone say, “I find this whole idea of relaxing too stressful?” I have, and the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to convince myself that there’s something to that statement. Otherwise, how could I explain that after a whole day of work I was out “relaxing” with my camera. Are we doomed? I hope not. After all, one’s got to have something to look forward to.