Who doesn’t like a tall ship? I certainly do, and they are all the more pleasant if they happen to be Spanish Galleons of the swatch-buckling kind. Thanks to Spain’s Nao Victoria Foundation, which owns the ship, this marvel of the seas recently visited Alexandria, Virginia. Everyone (including yours truly) had a chance to walk on history, as this replica of the 17th Century tall ships graciously sat along the Alexandria shore as an apparition. Canons, Captain’s quarters, and heavily accented Valencian Spanish completed the picture. It was enough for your imagination to run away from you into a world of sea pirates and lost treasures at sea. The crew said that it took them about 30 days to cross the Atlantic from Spain, which compared to the less than nine hours it recently took me to fly back from Europe, sounds like a “no way” kind of trip. Then again, time, a little fresh air, and a sky full of stars, do have their virtue, provided you are not too seasick to enjoy them. There’s a thought. Well, I think I’ll stick to terra firma for now and leave the pirate thing to the pirates.
Like any other aspiring photographer, I too get tired of the familiar. I’m talking about those places where we tend to spend too much of our limited photographic time in the hope that on any particular day, that great photo opportunity will simply appear before us. Most of the time, it is a total waste of our time. Same thing, different day. But every now and then, something happens. A spot that we have photographed a thousand times without ever liking any of the photos taken, suddenly rewards us with a moment, a keeper moment, if you know what I mean. Hard drives full of photographic junk immediately evaporate from our consciousness, and for a moment (but what a moment), that simple click becomes the justification for endless hours wasted in pursuit of a reason to get behind a camera again. Perfection? Not by a long shot. Satisfaction? Oh yes. Such was the case with this photograph. A familiar deck in Alexandria that I have photographed seemingly a million times before, but only for what seemed destined to my photographic junk pile. I have photographed the deck from every side and from every angle short of being on a boat in front of it. Nothing. Nada. Photo junk. And then this guy shows up. I watch him walk towards the deck and I just stand there waiting for something, anything, to happen. Pack down, leg up on the bench. Click. Moment over. An imperfect photo for sure, but one that reminded me that being there to take the photo is ninety percent of the way to making great photographs. We just have to keep showing up.
I am here today to defend the proposition that there is no better part of the day than the early morning hours of a day. That’s right, I am taking a stand. And yes, this is a subject that is much ignored by most folks, but in the name of the pursuit of happiness, I feel that it is my duty to openly declare that those fleeting hours when the sun begins to appear over the horizon are about as close to heaven as we will get on this earth. They are poetry incarnate, manifesting a choreographed rhythm replete with rituals, lights, beginnings, and discovery. When we wake up (and no matter our speed of movement), we tend to do the same things every day, even if during the rest of the day we proudly profess not to be the victims of routine. It is those little things we do without fail that make morning so special. Eyes opening with the first light, setting those same eyes on a loved one, laboring in the kitchen, and going through our mental checklist for the day. It is busy time, but busy with new beginnings and the hope that today will be better than yesterday. So there you have it: I’m officially issuing the “morning is best” edict, so we all better start enjoying them a little bit more. Still skeptical? Just ask the fella sitting at that bench.
I’m fascinated by tables. No, it’s not a clinical condition or anything of the sort, but rather that whenever I see a table with some chairs, it is almost impossible for me not to photograph it. Now, mind you, that I’m not talking about just any table out there. My photographic fascination lies with those unoccupied, lonely, waiting-for-someone kind of tables. Yes, yes, a bit awkward, I’ll grant you that, but I just can’t help it. Every time I see one, I am inevitably transported to an imaginary story of a secret rendezvous, a long wait for a person who never shows up, or the melancholic story of a table that remains unoccupied, night after solitary night. Yes, I can see it now: a long wait, nervous anticipation, an uncomfortable smile, a conversation, a tear. Who knows. All I know is that I’m no writer, but if I were, perhaps it would be at one of those empty tables where I would start my next great story, or end it.
Talk about happenstance. This past week I had a chance to photograph inside a building that I’ve been eyeing with my camera for a long time, but one that is not generally open to the public like other places in Alexandria, Virginia. I’m referring to the Seaport Center, a floating structure that is the area’s only boat-building facility along this part of the Potomac River. Endless times I’ve walked along this building, at times seeing people inside hunching over small tools while chiseling away at curved pieces of wood. But the doors have always been closed, obviously to prevent the inevitable procession of visitors from interrupting the detailed work going on inside. But to my surprise, his past week those same doors were open, and a gracious member of the staff who saw me with my camera even asked me if I would like to come inside and take a tour of the place.
Finally, after so many misses, a chance to step inside this photogenic gem, and with all the time in the world to spare. One problem, though. Not imagining this would ever happen, I had only taken a 50mm lens with me for what was to be a short walkabout, leaving my best-suited-for-the-job wide-angled lenses safely inside a bag at home. This being a relatively small facility, those wide-angle lenses would have been perfect for the occasion, but at the time all that I could think of was the old saying that “now is all I’ve got,” so in I went into the boat house with a grin on my face.
This particular day just happened to be an “open house” day for the Seaport Foundation project. I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of this particular initiative prior to my visit, but after hearing what these folks were doing to help the young people in the area, I had my faith in humanity restored quite a bit. Under a “Building boats, building lives” slogan, the Boatbuilding Apprentice Program run by the Seaport Foundation is not only a one-of-a-kind craftsmanship program, but one that directly impacts the lives of young people by introducing a much-needed environment of belonging and purpose into their lives. These folks are doing tremendous work, one life at a time. As a photographer, I walked through those doors thinking that my day was about to be made amazing by the opportunity to photograph something I’ve been wanting to capture for a long time. Unbeknownst to me, what was about to make my day truly amazing was meeting such a wonderful group of people engaged in one of the noblest causes you could ever imagine. They possess something that I could never capture with a camera, but which served as a reminder that in small places like these all over our country, people are working diligently (and more-often-than-not, anonymously) to make a better world for others. It is humbling and inspiring at the same time, and they deserve all the credit in the world for what they do.
You know those days when nothing much seems to be going on? Well, yesterday was one of those days. The whole city seemed to have entered the New Year’s hangover stage and everywhere you went there seemed to be an eerily quiet atmosphere with only a few, slow-moving folks trickling about. This is actually pretty normal during these first days of the year, as people psychologically gear themselves for the inevitable return to the daily grind. After all, all those postponed projects and tasks from last year didn’t quite disappear with the champagne on New Year’s eve.
However, the absence of crowds is also a great opportunity for some unique photography. Empty space can be accentuated, serenity can dominate a scene, and the proverbial “photo bomb” can be eliminated from the frame. Hoping to capture a little of that that empty, serene space, I headed down to the Alexandria waterside to take a long walk along its quiet, rocky shore. Bereft of crowds and the never-ending sound of human activity, the place was like a scene right out of some small European village along the French Mediterranean shore. The mighty Potomac river was so calm that it appeared to be sleeping after a night of celebration. Couples moved at glacier speeds before coming to a halt in order to linger and take in the beauty of an empty landscape. Young girls danced with seaguls as if in a choreographed performance on a vast, outdoor stage. In the quiet humm of a morning breeze, nature and the human spirit appeared to still be dancing the night away. A new year, hesitantly taking its first steps while shining its soft, morning light on us to remind us of the beauty that life can be. What a day. What a life.
Here’s one place that most likely very few of you (if any) has ever visited: the Jones Point Lighthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Don’t blame you, though, because admittedly, I recently discovered the place myself. Well, discovered in the sense that someone else led me there during this year’s Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photowalk (read rainy, cold day). Not having had much time that day to photograph the place, I decided that I would come back to this somewhat isolated spot along the Potomac River when I didn’t have to fight a multitude of photographers for position, or the weather for that matter. But once I set out to find the place, I began to realize why the lighthouse is somewhat of a desolate, albeit beautiful, place. The lighthouse is just not easy to find, let alone bump into, even when millions of people drive by it everyday as they cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge linking Virginia to Maryland. Getting there, though, is half the fun, specially during the fall season when the park seems to be celebrating a festival of colors, with reds, orange, and yellow leaves shinning bright against the deep blue sky of autumn. Considering that downtown Washington, DC lies only a few miles away, you would think that the Jones Point park and lighthouse would be on people’s radars when visiting the area, but the opposite seems to be true. Quiet, isolated, and only reachable by foot, it sits majestically and alone by the water’s edge, with its occasional visitors enjoying the zen-like experience the place seems to induce.
I have walked by Fire Station #201 in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia many times before. After all, Prince Street is somewhat of a well-known street in Old Town, specially during spring when some of the best looking tulip plantings in the area can be seen barely a block away. Never had I seen the station doors open, though, or seen any of its personnel hanging out outside like they do in the movies. I guess this is a good thing when you think about it, because when firefighters are not busy putting out fires it means that some level of human and property suffering is being avoided. But today, as I decided at the last minute (and for no particular reason) to take the long way to where I was headed, I was pleasantly rewarded with the opportunity to visit the #201 Station by some of the nicest people I’ve met in a long time. The folks at the station were extremely friendly, informative, and obviously very proud of the work they are doing to keep the rest of us safe. For this roving photographer, what started as a quick walk on a sunny Sunday morning turned out to be a lesson in history, a walk of discovery, and a realization of how thankful we all must be for the professionalism and sacrifice of our great firefighters (of which my brother-in-law is one). I guess no day, no matter how ordinary it may look, is really ordinary. I met some great Americans today at a place that is both part of America’s past and of its present, and I am glad to report that we could not be in better hands when it comes to our safety and wellbeing. So, a big thank you goes out to the great folks of Fire Station #201 for their generosity and the great work they do together with firefighters from other stations to keep the rest of us safe and secure.
Funny how sometimes we convince ourselves that traveling always involve getting into a jet and flying to some exotic, faraway place. Sure, that’s a lot of fun, but the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to realize that distance may not have as much to do with the “travel experience” as I once thought it did. Sometimes the experience can be a lot closer to home. You know, the places we usually see from a few thousand feet above ground when taking off from the local airport to our great, once-a-year adventure. Those places do look quite fascinating from the air, but like so many of them we see in aerial photographs, they tend to remain abstractions in our lives. They are things we momentarily glance at on our way to destinations.
Well, yesterday I decided to change all that. On what turned out to be a rare, beautiful mid-December day in northern Virginia, I ventured out to cross the Potomac River by water taxi. Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? But I can guarantee you that it was, and the reason may have had as much to do with the absence of crowds as with the incredible views that are only possible from a river boat. Bald eagles, bridges, historic shorelines, and the soothing sound of a river boat gently slicing the river waters. It was a surreal experience magnified by the fact that it was so out of character (in a good way) with the crazy, busy world that exist in the area a mere mile inside the river shores. The ride, which connects Old Town Alexandria on the Virginia side with the National Harbor complex on the Maryland side, lasts less than half an hour each way and will set you back $16 for a roundtrip ticket. Would it be cheaper and faster to just zoom down by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in your private automobile? Sure, provided the destination is all that matters to you on any given day. But if it’s the journey you are after, then that slow, undulating ride across the river will definitely do the trick. And the view of the cluttered, busy highway above the bridge is quite nice too.
I have to admit that just about every time I go out with my cameras in any city, it is people scenes that I am after. I think this is probably true of just about every street photographer out there, and even when I do not consider myself a street photographer in the strictest sense of the term, I can totally sympathize with the impact (or sense of wonderment) that people bring to a photograph. What can I say? It’s all pretty much a matter of personal preference, and personal means that everyone will have a slightly different opinion about this.
Having said that, I do think that people add an additional dimension to our interpretation of a photograph. If anything, they make these photographs a bit less flat, less three-dimensional in our heads. Human nature also makes us identify with people in photographs. If they are looking in a particular direction, so do we. We feel the weight of anything they carry, the sadness in their expressions, and the love in their eyes. Their emotions, real or imagined, become our emotions. We try to see through their eyes, to relive the scene as we imagine they lived it when the photograph was taken. It becomes personal in a way that an empty scene will have a hard time emulating. It is the magic of the still photograph and the reason why so many of us love this art form.
One of the things I like about photography is the ability to capture rare moments and freeze them for eternity. After all, everything that happens around us takes place in video mode and nothing stays the same for more than a few seconds at a time. But to freeze time in order to be able to ponder on that split second for as long as we want, well, that is real magic as far as I’m concerned. That is why every time I look at this photograph I will think of the meaning of friendship and the importance of spending time together with all the people who matter to us. This visual introspection is only possible because the scene never moved from that second; it was not cluttered by other scenes vying for our attention. Such is the magic of photography.
Are we having fun? Don’t blame you if you feel a little down after hearing what the IRS has been up to lately, but this is a question that we ought to be asking ourselves on a much more regular basis. Walking down the Wales Alley in Old Town Alexandria yesterday with my camera, I was asking myself that very question when I came face-to-face with this bicycle just outside the old Bike and Roll shop. Not that taking pictures on a beautiful sunny day is not fun, but rather that seeing this old, so-called Penny-farthing bike made me think of the innocent fun we used to have when we were young. Fear of a broken arm? Nope. Knee scratches? Survived plenty of those. Helmet? You’ve got to be kidding. Did we survive our dangerous youth? Yeap. Carefree days zooming down the neighborhood streets on a wobbly bike, and with lots of dreams in our heads. It is refreshing to remember who I was before I became who I am now. And the more I think about it, the more I’m convincing myself that I just may have to give this Penny-farthing bike a try after all. Wish me luck.