Let’s face it, winter time in the Washington, DC area could be a very dreary time indeed. Politicians take lots of time off, and with them, whole armies of lobbyists and contractors who have carved an impressive symbiotic relationship with them. They don’t stay away for long, mind you, but that precious period of low tide in the city is both wonderfully quiet and a great opportunity for exploring the many world-class museums and galleries that dot the area. No need to stand in line for an hour to see an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum or at any other venue in town. And the often-ignored Freer Gallery of Art (pictured above) becomes even more magnificent in its undisturbed silence. To walk those empty, silent grand hallways and emerging into a room full of historical treasures is nothing short of bliss. The sound of slow-moving, tapping footsteps at a distance reverberating through those empty hallways, nothing short of music to our ears. This is more the case if you happen to find yourself at the museums the moment they open, when that feeling of having the whole place to yourself transports you into a world of ancient Chinese scrolls and golden figurines from centuries gone by. It is all wonderful stuff, and about as close as you can get to losing track of time, and of yourself.
Is it possible to find happiness inside a commercial shipping container? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on a whole slew of factors. But be that as it may, my interest remains on those who would actually answer “yes” to this sort of question. This is specially the case in big cities like Washington, DC where long, sour faces have become the modern Venetian masks of the average worker. Ever ride the metro during the rush morning or afternoon hours? You would be forgiven for thinking that smiling has been officially banned in the city. More than that, you could also be forgiven for thinking that you have become invisible, or transparent at the very least. No eye contact, no acknowledgement of your presence, and definitely no smiling. Strangers doing their best to ignore each other while sharing the same space, the same direction, and the same universe.
But then, when you least expect it and are about to give up on humanity, something different happens. Right there in the middle of grumpy city, and inside a hot metal shipping container, the very meaning of happiness and friendliness. No suits, no high-paying job, no ideal working conditions, and no high-flying college diploma on the wall. Just the mere presence of a photographer looking into the container was enough to do away with invisibility. As if being transported into another Second World galaxy, I was suddenly blinded by the toothy smile of an alien DC character and his incredible good attitude. An unsolicited display of friendship immediately followed, ending in a gladiators’ duel of who could express the most effusive “great talking to you” goodby. Walking away with my camera, I couldn’t help but think of the words uttered by the late Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh: “There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” A chance encounter, a lifted spirit, and a much needed shot of faith in humanity. Away I went with a little more bounce on my steps and a much needed reminder of the power of good attitude.
Quick, think of Washington, DC and what is the first thing that comes to mind? No doubt, images of politicians, government, and power brokers galore. Below that layer most people will probably think of lobbyists, spies, embassies, and huge governmental businesses. Keep the conversation going for an hour or more, and perhaps, but only perhaps, someone will think of the incredible art scene that has made the area one of the leading arts centers in the country, despite all the more “serious” stuff that constantly goes around it. Really, dig in and you will find some of the best companies in the world, with local talent that would rival the best of New York. What’s even better is that most theaters in the area sit right next to some of the best restaurants you’ll encounter anywhere. These are not usually the kind where you have to dish out a thousand dollars for a meal for two, but rather the kind of trendy, modern, type that populate most travel magazines. At the risk of leaving some out, I would much rather not start naming them here, but check out here, and here, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s actually a lot of fun to be had in the city, provided there’s not a politician within a thousand feet from you.
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.
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.
Not everyone enjoys empty spaces. I’m referring to those empty rooms where maybe a sole couch sits, or a sole print on the wall. Sort of a Japanese Zen kind of room, devoid from visual distractions, but perhaps with a single object in it to demand your total, and uncluttered attention. It is really incredible how the Japanese have turned the absence of something into a thing of beauty. If only we could do that in this part of the world, where people cannot have enough stuff to cram into whatever space they have. Kind of what we do with our time, where society feels compelled to fill every minute of it with some activity, like checking a cell phone for that constant stream of those “insignificant little nothings.”
But when we search for creativity, empty spaces do seem to take an importance out of proportion from their normal selves. Perhaps it has to do with the visual isolation they allow, or perhaps with the fact that the less taxing our visual reaction is, the more our minds can wonder and compose. Whatever the case, it is in that desolate, empty distance separating feelings from the subject of our attention, where I find the glorious sustenance that feeds my imagination. That gap, that clear path where nothing lives and where obstacles don’t exist, is precisely where inspiration dwells. Nothing stands in the way of our eyes, thoughts, and admiration. It is glorious emptiness, where unable to be seen by the naked eye, incredible amounts of energy bounces back-and-forth without obstacles between the admirer and the admired.
What makes music beautiful is the distance between one note and another. What makes speech eloquent is the appropriate pause between words. From time to time we should take a breath and notice the silence between sounds.
The absence of notes and words makes “noticing” possible, just as the absence of obstructing things make beauty noticeable. A pause in a conversation. The expectation of the next note. A lone painting on a wall. And the empty space between us. I couldn’t help but notice.
This will be another of those “photographers are weird people” kinds of post. Its origin started with a recent realization at the Hirshhorn Museum downtown Washington, DC. I love museums, and that is why during one of the coldest days of this winter, I decided to visit (ok, if you really need to know, I needed a warm place) this eclectic museum to see their new exhibits. If you know the Hirshhorn, you’ll know that it is the kind of museum that challenges that strange part of your brain that is not used very much, but which when engaged, turns your reality into something that takes some getting used to. Translation: I love the place. But there’s where this sort of epiphany took place. You see, like the museum’s split reality, I too possess a kind of split view of the world: one with camera on hand, the other sans camera. With a camera, it seems I only visit museums to observe other people observing the museum art. People, all of them, become part of the ongoing exhibit, with one lacking any meaning without the other. Take that camera away from me and suddenly I become Joe the art critic, with eyes only for the inanimate objects (excuse me, art) found therein. Weird? Perhaps a little, but it is what it is. The camera, like a window for a writer, transforms you somehow. It pulls something from within you that affects your vision of the world around you. It makes you see the human ecosystem as if you were wearing X-Ray glasses. See deeper, see more. A walk through a magnificent visual door that will allow you to hold on to that saw forever.
Some things take a while, but if the result makes the wait worth it, then everyone is happy. Such is the case with the recently completed renovation of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. No wonder those who inhabit this most Federal of cities consider themselves privileged to live in the same city the Smithsonian Institution calls home. The new gallery pretty much took the place of the now-closed Corcoran Museum, but in doing so it acquired the same modernistic vibe that made the Corcoran unique amongst the many galleries in the city. Did I like it? Absolutely, even though I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of some of those single-color canvases and abstract works that dot the museum walls. Not their fault, mind you, for my somewhat superficial knowledge of art history would not even allow me to pretend erudition at the corner bar. The point is that the art scene in our nation’s capital continues to get better and more varied every day, and that is something worth celebrating. And unlike so many museums in Europe and elsewhere, admission is totally free. Score one for America.
Why is it that we search for more meaning in a photo after we have taken it than at the time the photo is being captured? I’m sure that there are many explanations for this, but for me, it all has to do with frame counts. Let me explain. In the process of acquiring a particular photo, we observe the world as a continuous video, a sequence of fast-moving frames that get processed inside our brains with a refresh rate that mimics the speed of light (or so it seems). If we watch a person walking, we don’t particularly remember the uniqueness of any particular step, or gesture, or scene complexity. It just flows from one side to the other in a perpetual motion, and at the end we kind of remember the overall occurrence of having seen someone walking. It is a factual story that in all its generosity, allows our imaginations to rest without bother.
Photographs, on the other hand, disrupt our imagination’s slumber and literally compel us to “fill in the blanks” of the story. In true Sherlock Holmes fashion, it makes us leap from that frozen fraction of a second into all sorts of directions and plots. A delayed reaction from the moment of capture, for sure, but perhaps the essence of why we capture images in the first place. That is not to say that seeing life as a moving video is any less rewarding, but rather that just like we tend to remember particular scenes in a movie, photographs are the particular scenes of our visual movies. They anchor us to a place and time like no moving object can, and feed that which is the essence of us all: our imaginations. That is why in the photo above I simply do not want to know more about this couple, for it is more fun to “imagine” lovers on a sunny day reading from her latest writings and oblivious to the passing of time. Reality? Perhaps not, but as long as I look at that photo, I’ll pretend that it is.
No matter how many times I visit the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC, there’s always something fascinating to be found amongst its many art chambers. And while I too admire its world-class exhibits, I would have to admit that it is the pursuit of the elusive perfect photographic scene that keeps me coming back to this wonderful place. Sadly, I haven’t found it yet, but sometimes I can’t help to think that I am so close to it, that I can feel it in the next chamber. Along I go, heart beating with the expectation of a 15-year old, and always hopeful that this time will be the lucky one. Mysteriously, and no matter the amount or level of disappointment, I never cease my quest. I know it has to be there, that perfect scene just waiting for me around the corner, with the backdrop of canvases and the magic strokes of long-gone masters of the arts. Yes, it has to be there, and no matter how much my feet hurt, or how tired I am, I can’t bring myself to stop looking, for to do so would amount to voluntarily extinguish the spark that lit the search flame in the first place.
The thing is, that no matter how hard I look, I really don’t want to find that perfect photograph. This may render my quest somewhat illusory, but in reality it is a case of enjoying the search (i.e., the journey) more than the idea of getting to what I’m after. It may not sound unique, but it really keep those aching feet taking one more step along the way. I will grant you that this whole notion resides somewhere deep in my mind, but after all, don’t we all live inside our heads? Photographers do, and that is why they wrestle all the time with the concept of visual meaning, or value for that matter. One minute they are happy with their work, the next they are not. The emotional and artistic yo-yo effect constantly pulling in one direction or the other. And all driven by the notion that next time, yes, next time, they can do better than yesterday. Self-dilusion or unbridled optimism? Take your pick, but I think I’ll stick with the optimism part for a while longer.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t convince yourself that you need to travel to Old Europe to see some incredible architecture. If you are curious enough, you can stick to some of your local attractions like this magnificent hall at the National Portrait Gallery. Frankly, this photo doesn’t do the hallway justice, as the sheer magnitude and beauty of this colorful hall is simply stunning. I guess when thinking about traveling is good to sometimes start thinking locally.
I never thought that the lonely, cutting sound of a small chisel would cause such a great impression on me. After all, this is something we don’t hear or see every day. A cold chisel being driven by gentle, patient hands into a granite wall with the methodical rhythm of someone who’s intent has more to do with achieving perfection than with worrying about time. As I watched this artist work the stone I couldn’t help but think that this is the same level of patience and precision that goes into the making of top-end Leica cameras (which just happens to be what I used to take this photo). For some people this is boring stuff, and no doubt watching an artisan’s slow, methodical work interspersed with numerous periods of silent observation is not everyone’s cup of tea. For others, it is like watching a chess match by Grand Masters, where the long, tense silence is suddenly disrupted by a stroke of genius involving the subtle move of a chess piece to an adjacent square on the board. Beauty lives in the very simplicity of the act.