During the hot summer months, I tend to hang out around the great museums in Washington, DC. Not only do they have some of the best art collections in the world, but they are also the perfect places to try some creative photographic techniques. And did I mention the air conditioner? Well, that too. But no matter what my photographic intentions are during these wanderings, I never seem to take too many photos. I’m just too distracted. You see, I continue to be fascinated by the creativity of the artists, old and contemporary, whose work dot these galleries and who’s incredible talents generally make me feel like some sort of artistic anti-matter. So mostly walk and look, camera hanging from my neck like a heavy adornment, and all the while gawking at the simple genius of those who have seen form and color in ways that I can only dream of.
On this particular day, my fascination was all with the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and his current exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum downtown. Now, I had heard a lot about this “dissident” artist and his head-butting with the Chinese government through news reports and documentaries, but this is the first time I had a real chance of seeing his work in person. What’s more, it all consisted of Legos. Yeap, the kind of plastic pieces we buy for our children. Mind you, though, that these were not ordinary Legos, as they are better described as portrait mosaics that happen to be made of colorful plastic squares. And on the floor, which forced you to look down as if lowering your stare before the authorities. Absolute genius. But it all left me with somewhat of a sore neck. Not from looking down, but rather from the weight of that rock attached to a strap around my neck which barely got any use during the exhibit. It figures. Once again, I was too busy seeing to worry about my camera.
Something is happening in Washington, DC these days, and it has nothing to do with politics. Well, not completely. It is as if the city is going through one of those TV makeovers where a person’s scruffy looks are dramatically turned into a glamorous, check-me-out kind of look. Neglected city areas are suddenly being converted into smart neighborhoods full of trendy new restaurants and livable urban spaces demanding a second look from those accustomed to fly by at high speeds. In the heart of DC, it is the area referred to as City Center, just off the less glamorous Chinatown neighborhood, that is setting the pace. The place is so glamorous that anyone coming down from New York’s 5th Avenue for the weekend would feel right at home. And it was about time, for in a city where money is literally being printed every day, there appeared to be a serious need for some glamour. Who would’ve known, chic and greasy joints just a few blocks from each other, and both apparently doing quite well. That is a definite sign of a great country.
For some reason or another, yesterday I started my day wondering why I kept going out with my camera to endlessly roam city streets in search of photographs. What is the purpose when you are not really earning any money from it, and fame is something that is surely something for someone else to enjoy. Tired feet, too much sun, dehydration, and lots of bad photos on top of it. Really, what’s the purpose of this obsession? The endless search for a masterpiece? Boredom? What? After all, I plan to do nothing with most of the photos I take day in and day out. They will lie dormant forever in my computer, hidden from the world in order to save me some well-deserved photographic embarrassment. Why then?
The answer may be depicted on the photo above. That is because no matter how tired I am, or the number of photographic disappointment awaiting me, or all the negative energy being generated in the world each day, there will still be an endless amount of wonder left for us to discover. It may not be the stuff of our every day, but in your heart, yes, very deep inside your heart, you know that nature, and human creation will still surprise you with their incredible creations. I know this because after having spent a life traveling with a camera on hand, I still look at the world around me with the same sense of awe as the lady in the photograph above. The search for that feeling is why we travel, because no matter how good photography is these days, nothing can substitute for the feeling experienced when standing in front of a natural or artistic masterpiece. Photography merely allows us to record that moment, to remember, and to thirst for more. As photographers, then, we really don’t invent anything, but rather freeze, in a fraction of a second, the beauty and wonder that was already there.
Chances are that you have never set foot inside the Smithsonian’s imposing Arts and Industries Building. Not that the building is hidden away somewhere where no one can find it. It rather sits in plain view of us all, right next to the Smithsonian Castle and smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. The building is incredible large and a beautiful architectural masterpiece, not to mention that it borders what many consider to be the most beautiful garden in DC, the Enid A. Haupt Garden. But not too many people have been inside, as it has been in constant renovation for a while now (translation: empty and closed to the public). I have lived in the area for nearly two decades and have never set foot inside, and have grown accustomed to seeing the plain-paper “closed” sign taped to its magnificent doors. That is, until today, when by chance I happened to walk by and some great folks conducting a demo along Jefferson Dr SW who thought that I was a tourist and told me to check out the inside of the building. At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out to be that they were not.
From inside, the structure is nothing short of spectacular. A throwback to another era with the finesse and class of an old Parisian covered market. The metal ceiling and beam-supported upper deck reminded me of the central market in Budapest, but without the people and the cheerfulness that is typical in those markets. Empty, underutilized, and unseen by most of us, this Arts and Industries Building, like a queen in exile, sits royally at the heart of the nation’s capital in total silence. And that is a pity. Perhaps one day it will be yet another museum at the Mall, but if it were up to me, I would create a food market to rival some of the best food markets in the world. Sadly, this will never happen. Most likely, and in true local fashion, a city full of museums will gain another museum in the end, and another place where you are expected to be quiet. Oh, well. I guess once I set eyes on the place, it was more of a “laugh out loud” kind of vision that wedged itself inside my head.
The road less traveled. We’ve all heard of it and would like to think that our lives are spent down that unmarked, desolate trail where everything is discovery and excitement. I know this because I’m one of those dreamers, constantly looking for the entrance to that road everywhere I travel. In fact, in the few instances where I have actually found that entrance, I have been rewarded with great photographs and incredible experiences. The effect is so uplifting, that no matter how many times you experience it, you just can’t have enough of it. So there we go every chance we get, down backstreets and narrow alleyways in faraway lands looking for that something to recharge our lives and fill them with the wonderment that very few daily experiences can match.
This constant pursuit, however, could easily make us miss the wonders that lie right before our eyes on that well traveled road. I have to admit that my frequent sojourn down the well traveled road has more to do with limitation of funds and time, but whether by design or imposition, I have come to discover that the familiar always holds a mystery or two for the visually creative types. That is because on different days and times of year, the backdrop changes, as does the light and the intensity of the colors. And thus the photo above, which shows a place I have photographed a million times from just about every angle imaginable over the years. Notwithstanding this level of photographic attention, this is the first time I publish a photo of the fountain at the Smithsonian Institution’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. Not that I believe that this is a perfect photo, but rather that for the first time, there was blue in the sky, the light was about right, and the eternal crowds were nonexistent. It is the same place I’ve visited far too many times in the past, but one that chose to reveal itself in a complete new manner simply because I stayed away from that road less traveled. I guess the familiar, when seen with fresh eyes, will never cease to surprise us. So as we look for those roads less traveled, perhaps it bears remembering that sometimes the wonders we’re looking for can also be found along those familiar roads.
Who would’ve know. Mention the Spanish Steps to anyone who enjoys travel, and immediately romantic images of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome with its fountain and multitude of lovers peering down the busy Via dei Condotti come rushing in. A stroll with your lover down the narrow Via del Babuino in late afternoon to the imposing Piazza del Papolo before catching a romantic dinner along the undulating Tiber River. The stuff dreams are made of. So, it is time to get those tickets and head on out to the Bella Italia and Old Rome in search of the Spanish Steps? Perhaps. But guess what? Just yesterday I discovered that right here in good old Washington, DC, we too have Spanish Steps, and you can get there by metro! Steps? Check. Lovers? Check. Views? Check. Tiber River? Well, would you settle for the off-color Potomac River? If yes, then check. Romantic dinner? There’s plenty of romance a few steps away at Dupont Circle, so check. Antiquity and beautiful architecture with narrow, cobblestone streets? Highly overrated.
So, yes, there you have it. Hidden away between S St NW and Decatur Pl NW a bit north of Dupont Circle, and sitting amongst a slew of foreign Embassies, lies our lilliputian version of the famous Italian landmark. And you know what, they’re kind of nice. Small, but offering the kind of privacy that sometimes makes all the difference. Very few people seem to know about this place, specially if they don’t live close by and have to traverse the area out of necessity. Beautifully out of sight in plain view. Brilliant. And while somewhat lacking the grandiose magnitude of its Italian distant relative, it didn’t seem to lack any of the romance for lovers occupying its steps. There were giggles. There were stares. There was a kiss, and a lover’s hand. When you already have all that, who needs Rome after all.
The city of Berlin never disappoints, and seeing it again after a few years, I find it continues to be an energetic and dynamic metropolis. If you believe everything you read in some publications, you would be forgiven for believing that the city has lost most of its mojo, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The city remains as vibrant as before, if not more. Great stores, historical sites, and lively neighborhoods keep the city on the move, with streets packed with people at all hours of the day. Hang around the Kurfürstendamm, Friedrichstrasse, and the Gendarmenmarkt and you’ll soon know what I’m talking about. No doubt that when the time comes time to leave, I will once again regret my departure from such a great city.
Here is yet another one of those “hiding in plain sight” stories. Ever heard of the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, DC? Well, neither had I. That is, until the last 48 hours or so. In fact, I wasn’t even looking for it, as I was driving along Georgetown’s Q Street on my way to the eccentricities of Dupont Circle, my photography destination for the day. Considering how enchanting this Dumbarton House is, I am kind of glad that I never made it to Dupont that morning, even if my discovery soon led to disappointment when I discovered that the House itself did not open its doors until 11:00 AM for inside-the-house tours. Thus, the early bird did not catch the proverbial worm this particular morning.
Like other houses built around 1800 in the area (almost all of them private properties closed to the general public), the simple elegance of the mansion bespeaks to a world that is almost unimaginable by today’s standards. It is described as a fine example of Federal Period architecture of the type that began dotting the Washington area during the early days of the capital. And while the attached East Park and Herb Garden are beautifully serene, the gem of the outdoors has to be the section right behind the house itself, were blooming flowers perfume the morning air with the soft embrace of a morning sun. A quiet, little-known hamlet surrounded by busy streets and busy people, and a reminder of how rewarding it can be to take a detour from our charted journeys in order to see where our tired, wandering feet will take us.
The city of Chicago never ceases to surprise you. It seems that every time I visit (which, granted, is not too often), the place has significantly changed in one way or another. Unfortunately, these days, when we hear about Chicago in the news, the headlines have more to do with the escalating crime rate than with all the wonderful things that are happening in the city. That’s a pity, because without a doubt, this city has one of the most vibrant urban environments I’ve seen anywhere. Like in New York City, people are about at all hours of the day and night. Incredible restaurants dot just about every block downtown, and if you take the time to walk down the beautiful riverwalk promenade, you’ll be able to do some wine tasting while watching the never-ending boat procession sailing down the Chicago River. The negative headlines are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind in the beautiful downtown area, as the city simply takes your mind away from those concerns.
There’s also a lot more to the city than the famous Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile, even if that mile alone is worth a special trip to Chicago. After all, right smack in the middle of that mile you’ll find the out-of-this-world Dylan’s Candy Bar store, which is sure to induce a Pavlovian response from even the strongest mortal. But venture a few blocks west of this famous mile, and you’ll come face-to-face with such places as the incredible Italian import that is the Eataly food emporium. You could spend an entire week inside the place indulging in a joyous adventure of pure, unadulterated gluttony.
But with only a day-and-a-half to spare during this trip, I chose to spent most of my available photography time in a couple of areas: walking under the overhead Metro lines that shoot down N. Wabash Street and visiting the adjacent Theater District in the N. State Street area. These areas south of the Chicago River are perfect for street photography, and while not as busy as the famous mile north of the river, they provide ample elbow room for photographers to do their thing. Venture a few blocks east and you’ll bump right into the plush Grant Park, which also affords a whole slew of photographic opportunities. It is neighborhoods like these that make Chicago such a well-kept photographic secret. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if urban photography is your thing, then during the summer months Chicago has to be up there on your list of great cities to visit for great urban photography. The beautiful architecture alone merits its ranking on that list. Come winter, though, the Windy City will live up to its Arctic reputation, and perhaps you’ll be better off taking your precious self to a place where no one has ever suffered from frostbite. Fair-weather photography advice? Maybe, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Talk about hiding in plain sight. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have walked by and photographed the grounds of the Hirshhorn Museum downtown Washington. In fact, the museum area and the sunken sculpture garden just across the street are some of my favorite places to capture unique people photos during the warm summer months. Yesterday, however, with temperatures dipping into the low 30’s and winds gusting to 30 mph, was not one of those days. Very few daring souls were out in the open, and those who ventured the elements were scurrying from one building to another as if training for the Olympics race-walking competition. I know this because camera in hand, I was one of them. Originally headed to a different museum, I was compelled by the frigid temperatures to find refuge in the nearest public (and heated) building to the metro station. That oasis of warmth was the Hirshhorn Museum, and much to my surprise, I found myself discovering a gem of contemporary modern art that had been sitting under my nose for longer than I care to admit.
You can’t miss this museum when visiting the National Mall in DC. With its multi-layered, circular design (I wonder if Steve Jobs was inspired by the design for his new Apple headquarters) and open ground floor, the museum structure sticks out like nothing else at the National Mall. Sort of the same could be said of the inside, where some of the sculptures and structures lining its circular halls will leave you scratching your head for meaning (as much as it pains me to say it, I have to admit that I am somewhat artistically primitive). But amongst its massively eclectic collections, incredible displays of human creativity and talent are also evident everywhere you look. In particular, the outstanding “Days of Endless Time” exhibit (open until April 12, 2015) was simply mindblowing.
The official description of the exhibit says it best:
In a world conditioned by the frantic, 24/7 flow of information and the ephemerality of digital media, many artists are countering thie dynamic with workd that emphasize slower, more meditative forms of perception… Selected as alternatives to the pace of contemporary life, these works provide a poetic refuge–a reflective realm where one drifts as if through days of endless time.
My favorite work in the series was a short film appropriately called “Travel.” To say that this slow-moving, ode to movement and perception was simply out of this world would be a gross understatement. The venue could not have been more perfect either. An oversized, dark room devoid of structures, where the rythmic, heart-grabbing musical score gradually induced a deep, meditative state on the audience. This was great stuff in a small package. More than that, it was another reminder that sometimes, great things happen when we dare to veer off those intended paths well-worn out by familiarity and routine.
As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind. I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday. I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history. It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward. Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future. This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness. Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future. Not sure. But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage. The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.
But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact. Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways. This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen. Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry. And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay. Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world. As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past. As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past. Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts. If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.
Architectural photography is not something I practice with any degree of regularity. In fact, I generally try to avoid it if I can, as the genre is really more difficult than it looks. On rare occasions, though, I dabble a little in it more out of sheer curiosity than anything else. This is specially the case during scorchingly hot days, when people avoid venturing outside and nothing much is happening on the street. A few days ago, this was exactly the case. In order to avoid the heat, , I headed out to find some good structures inside the many national museums in DC to photograph (get it, air-conditioned museums). After visiting a few of them, my mind kept wandering back to the first time I visited the somewhat out-of-the-way National Building Museum, and before I knew it, my feet started moving in the direction of Judiciary Square where the museum unassumingly sits.
Not sure what it is about this place that attracts me so much (aside from the obvious architectural beauty of the place). Compared to the traffic you see in other DC museums, this place is a ghost town. Sure, in most normal days people kind of trickle in and kind of meander along its Great Hall, straining their necks to look up to its long, arched hallways and imposing, marbled columns in the center of the hall. But most of the time the place is also a gem of a quiet space in the midst of a busy metropolis. This silence is no doubt accentuated by the scale of the place, which dwarfs anyone who enters its carpeted Great Hall. I can’t help but think that this grandiose scale is some sort of reminder that human creation is vastly more grandiose than the individual humans themselves. Can’t quite put my photographic thumb on it, but for whatever reason, I keep coming back. Hallucinations from the scorching heat or elevation of the human spirit when witnessing such incredible human creations? I would much rather think it’s the latter, air-conditioner or not.
Ever come back from a photo outing and notice that there seems to be a pattern with your photographs? I did. After going over my photos after a trip to the Rosslyn area in Northern Virginia, I came to the realization that for whatever reason, I seemed to be fascinated with circular objects in the area. I grant you that this was a strange realization for me, but then again, I guess round objects and architecture do seem to break the linear mold that characterizes most modern, urban development in America. To tell you the truth, I never gave a lot of thought to the notion that our visual world is dominated by rectangles and straight lines. Well, not in Rosslyn, where folks do seem to have quite an artistic flare and love of round things. The neighborhood was already a favorite of mine because of the amazing reflections you see on the side of its tall, glass buildings. There’s simply nothing like it in the DC Metro area. And as far as I know, no one puts it on top of their list of priorities to go and spend a day wandering around Rosslyn, but I’m glad I did. The place never ceases to surprise me.
Let’s face it, not everyone can live in Paris. Sure, come can, but this post is for the rest of us mortals who sometimes need to struggle with our familiar surroundings in order to overcome photographic paralysis. For the creative in all of us, the numbing effect of the familiar can easily lead to a condition where the sights that are right there in front of us have become transparent to us. We just don’t see things any more. Think back and retrace everywhere you’ve been this week and you’ll know what I mean. Most of us will simply not be able to describe everyone we met or everywhere we went. To a large extent, the familiar has become transparent and has stopped registering in our consciousness.
The same with our attitude towards photography. It is very easy to convince ourselves that there’s nothing new to photograph in the neighborhoods, towns, or cities where we have lived for so long. It all looks the same, and probably ceased to inspire us a long time ago. In fact, the thought of prepping your gear to go photograph something you’ve photographed many times before can be outright debilitating. Too familiar. Too transparent. Ever been there? Well, I have, and nothing good photographically comes out of it. However, it really doesn’t have to be this way. With a little effort on our part, we can easily overcome the negative effect of the familiar. Convince yourself that the world around you is nothing but a huge photographic opportunity waiting for someone like you to find those photos. Make it a point to stop and visit a place that caught your eye at some point, but which you never took the time to explore. Find the new in the old by walking around a building instead of in front of it, by sitting in a garden and observing, and by looking all around you as if you were expecting a Mafia hit at any time. Slow down, use your feet, dare to walk into empty spaces, and imagine. If anything, you’ll have lots of fun in the process.