There is something refreshingly simple about visual isolation. Not sure whether it is because of what we choose to leave out or because what we choose to accentuate. But whether it is the result of subtraction or addition, our enjoyment of visual scenes seems to be directly related to this simple visual arithmetic. Everyone has their favorites, but for me, subtraction seems to win most of the time. That is not to say that my intent is to photograph a single object in a scene, but rather that in every scene recorded, I find it more appealing when something within that scene plays a dominant or prominent role. It could be a castle at a distance, or a gentle hand over a book, whatever. What matters is that the photo is clearly anchored on an object, or a theme, as opposed as having every item in the photo compete for your attention. Granted, though, that focusing on an object is not as complicated as focusing on a theme. A photo of flowers will always be easier to capture than a photo depicting melancholy. But something must dominate the thought process, something must stand out to be remembered, and if a photographer is lucky or skillful enough to capture both an object and a mood, then that is payday in a creative’s life. Easier said than done, but undoubtedly the magnetic force that keeps us on the eternal journey of discovery.
Who buys paper books these days? Certainly, not me. I’ve gone purely electronic, for an Amazon Kindle with ten books fits nicely in your jacket pocket, but try to do that with paper books. It just won’t work. Paper books are chunky, unruly, lack build-in dictionaries, and demand a separate bag for storage. So, why not declare them dead once and for all and be done with it? Well, not so fast. From what I can see during my photographic roamings around major cities, paper books seem to be alive and well, and for one reason or another, lately I’ve begun to miss them. Looking through my photos I also discovered that while I tend to photograph lots of people reading books, I have yet to take a photo of anyone reading an electronic book reader. Why is that?
For starters, nothing beats the tactile feeling of holding a book. Their physical presence, while usually cumbersome, is also what keeps us engaged with its contents. We feel its weight on our hands, we see it, we judge it by its thickness, and we must actively secure it with one hand while the other gently waves its pages with a sweeping motion reminiscent of a professional harpist. And when we open a book, we experience that unmistakable exhilaration that comes from opening a window into a great view, a quickening of the senses driven by anticipation. The sweet perfume of a freshly printed book, a lonely title sitting prominently by itself on on a main page, and a first sentence to prepare us for the story that’s about to come. Yes, that first sentence that author Jhumpa Lahiri aptly described as “… a handshake, perhaps an embrace.” All of this I miss when holding my electronic reader. And every now and then, when nostalgia becomes too hard to bear, I too go out and buy a paper book, if anything to experience that warm embrace that never left my imagination. A feeling that has become collateral damage in a world consumed by technology, but one that hopefully will never die.
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 will be the first to admit that today’s post has somewhat of a random quality to it. In fact, that’s precisely my goal. You see, I have come to believe that most of the beauty of life has to do precisely with this randomness concept–the multitude of seemingly disconnected activities that characterize our everyday living. For lack of a better term, I like to refer to this phenomena as the chaotic order of society. Everyone pursuing his or her own activities totally different from that of others, but in some strange way, in an orderly, life-synchronous way. Yes, it all kind of falls together quite nicely, even if at first impression these activities appear to be ricocheting all over the place. Contemplation, stress, joy, and pain all seem to come together as if by necessity and disorderly design. For some, this sense of uncontrolled living is the root of all problems in society; for others, it is nothing but randomness beauty, a symphony orchestra tuning their instruments before the greatest performance of their lives.
Is this what fascinates so many street photographers out there? Perhaps, and while I wouldn’t dare pretend to be speaking for this community, there’s got to be something in this chaotic order of our human ecosystem that proves to be irresistible to so many of these photographers. That something is there, and it always is, in an endless succession of juxtaposing micro-events that is both chaotic and orchestrated. To be able to witness them is pure joy, a confirmation that whatever occupies us in our daily lives is intrinsically intertwined into a larger, colorful quilt that is more obvious when observed from a distance. Remember the last time you sat down to relax and to engage in a little “people watching?” I’m sure that the world around you acquired a somewhat different dimension, an unexplainable revelation that highlighted everything you’ve been missing when looking at life through a panoramic lens. Contrary to the old expression about the devil being in the details, for those who aim to feel the pulse of that chaotic order out there, heaven is what lies in the details. A bride’s hurried steps on her way to a museum photoshoot, a lonely man sitting at a restaurant, friends looking out of a window, and a lone public servant waiting for someone to ask her a question. Details. Different worlds. One fabric. Beauty.
As I walk around all sorts of cities during my endless photo walkabouts, I can’t help but notice the sheer number of people I see alone. No, I’m not referring to the millions who go about their days moving from point A to point B as they go about their normal workdays, but rather I’m referring to those who are “really” alone, as if “I’m here all by myself” type of alone. So, unable to stop my mind from wondering what may be going through these solo souls’ minds during their personal walkabouts, I have begun to dwell on all sort of things relating to loneliness, companionship, and solitude. No, I’m not loosing my mind or plan to give up photography for psychiatry, but rather that when I’m alone out there (camera in hand), I always wonder whether my fellow lone riders are enjoying the “life less interrupted” as much as I am.
“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.” … Paul Tillich
From the little I can gather, it seems that people need as much time alone as they need the company of others. Call it a recharge, a moment to gather our thoughts, or whatever. And even when the line between loneliness and solitude is a blury one at best, somehow we all kind of know when we have crossed it. Ideally, that transition from one side of that undefined line to the other is a voluntary, and timely, one. That seems to be the implication of Tillich’s quote above. Choice, then, appears to be at the core of human ability to temporarily disengage, to fly alone, and to find meaning in the things around us. It is in that seemingly empty, yet rich space where we can get back to the basics of our humanity. And what emerges from that brief moment of solitude is a better person, a more fulfilled person, who’s time alone will make the company of others that much more enjoyable.
While most people around the country imagine the glamour of working at a big city like Washington, for many of the local bureaucrats the magic seems to have faded a little. Not that the so-called power lunch is a thing of the past, but rather that the road to the inner circle appears to require some time on a bench like the one depicted on the photo above. But in a city where who you know is more important than what you know, the distance from that bench to a table with a white table cloth and expensive silverware could indeed be a short one. Better keep those eyes open and that suit pressed just in case.
These days workers appear to be clamoring for a little space away from their overcrowded, communal offices. What’s more, it appears that in order to find a little peace and quiet, any space will do, even if it means planting themselves behind a column, or on a chair that is totally out of place with its surroundings. It doesn’t seem to matter, as long as the result is that level of temporary solitude that today’s office environment seems to deny them on a daily basis. As most of you know by now, modern office design, with its overemphasis on team work, is typically designed to promote constant human interaction and contact. While noble, this traditional approach has led to an interruption-driven ecosystem where most forms of solitude and introspection have become virtually impossible, if not outright frowned upon. Luckily, people are not totally surrendering to the always-on office syndrome, as my most recent lunchtime stroll with my camera revealed. So, I am pleased to report that escapism, even if mostly limited to lunchtime hours, is alive and well in today’s office jungle environment.
I was fascinated by this scene when I bumped into it at the Javits Center in New York City. An oasis of quiet in a city that is not known for being quiet. The woman simply owned the spot, and from what I could tell, no one dared to occupy any of the empty chairs next to her. A perfect display of momentary solitude and territoriality. An unintended, silent commentary that no one dared to disrupt. I wonder if she knew she was saying so much with her silence.