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.
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.
In his meditative book, “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down,” Buddhist Monk Haemin Sunim eloquently identifies this zone where nothing, and everything dwell in perfect harmony:
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.
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.