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.
A few years ago, and before coffee shops were discovered in earnest by modern-day workers, a somewhat bohemian fairy tale entered our lives. This fairy tale described a world where everyone had a relaxed disposition, enjoyed a warm latte by the window, and toiled through the day about as far away as you could get from the office maddening crowds. This very special place was an ideal sanctum where creative introspection, creativity, and unparalleled productivity could all be nurtured at the same time. However, something appears to have happened since the inception of that bohemian dream. Have you been to a city coffee shop lately in the middle of the morning? I don’t purport to speak for every coffee shop in every city of the world, but after seeing the above scenes at a very popular coffee shop in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC, I’m beginning to wonder whether what people intended to leave back at their crowded offices ended up following them to the modern coffee shop. Expensive lattes, canines, noise, uncomfortable furniture, you name it, and it’s there. Not that sitting in any of these places while you finish your morning cup of joe has ceased to be a rewarding experience, but it’s beginning to look like everyone and their families is now congregating there where you intend to do your day’s labor. Is this a necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps not, but just in case, better not get too enamored with that bohemian lifestyle just yet.
It has to be one of the busiest sidewalks in the world. Sandwiched between the US Supreme Court building and 1st Street NE, this small piece of DC real estate is a constant beehive of activity whenever the Supreme Court is in session. Journalists with tons of expensive gear wait impatiently for litigants to come down the Court’s stairs either to complain or celebrate after the Court issues a decision. If the issue being litigated is controversial enough, you will also see (and hear) advocates from each side of the issue trying to out-demonstrate each other with bullhorns, placards, and mannequins. Real estate is at a premium, though, and it is usually a sight to behold to watch journalists, demonstrators, and tourists with cameras jockeying for position along the relatively short space in front of the Court. Some journalists (as you can see in the photo) opt to set mobile offices on the Capitol’s grounds, busily relaying news items to major networks from their shaded suites. I guess if you have to be at the office on any given day, this is about as good as it can get in DC. Chaos and calm, or what otherwise passes as a normal day in Washington’s charged political climate.
Rain or shine, you see them outside many downtown Metro stops, reading maps with tourists and pointing in every direction possible. They are the men and women in red and blue, Metro employees who’s friendly attitude and willingness to assist visitors with whatever they need puts them in direct contrast with local bureaucrats who buzz right past you without even noticing whether you’re still breathing. Because of their uniforms, some people may think they are security officers, but take the time to talk to them and you’ll find some of the nicest people you will encounter anywhere inside the Beltway. Washingtonians who actually look forward to talking to you, who would’ve known.
Ever come to the realization that there are just some things that only the young can do? Or should do? Well, I have. And while I would prefer to think of it in terms of growing older and wiser, I hate to admit that this jumping over trash cans and concrete steps was never “my thing.” Not that I could not think of the mechanics involved in such daredevil acts, mind you, but rather that pain (or the possibility of pain) has never been something I willingly accepted as part of growing up. These folks downtown Washington, DC didn’t seem to be too concerned with such mundane things as crashing, smashing your face against a trash can, breaking bones, or painting some of the pavement with their epidermis. Nope, all they seemed to care about was speed and landing on that skateboard after soaring in the sky for a few seconds. And they were pretty good at it too. That they gave me the opportunity to try out a manual-focus camera on a fast-moving sport like skateboarding was even better. Thank you guys!
I sat at home yesterday thinking about the old saying that, “There’s no such thing as a bad day to take photographs,” and pondered the wisdom of going out with my camera to challenge the near-freezing temperatures outside. Don’t get me wrong, I am a tough guy. Well, above freezing temperatures at least, but I generally do not let a bad day hold me back from hitting the streets in search of the perfect photograph (which by the way, rarely is out there waiting for you). Nevertheless, out I went to Georgetown because I figured that if anyone would be outside on a cold day like this, it would be the always-there Georgetown crowds. To my surprise, though, the crowds were quite thin today, but the colors on this gray, overcast day could not have been any more perfect. And then there was the light, yes, the light. Not just any light mind you, but that creamy, yellowish, soft light that photographers dream of and which is generally only experienced during what is commonly known in the photography world as the “magic hour.” Who would’ve known, that on this gloomiest of days we would all be blessed with some of the most beautiful light these sorry eyes have ever seen. Go figure.
I know, how can you ever find the perfect quiet moment when photographers sitting next to you can’t resist the temptation of pointing their cameras at you? I get it, but to put it mildly, I couldn’t resist. And if you’ve ever heard of the almost-silent shutter of a Leica M (Type 240), this photograph is living proof of Leica’s well-deserved reputation. With only two empty sits between us, the subject of this photo never heard the shutter. In fact, I was so surprised at the lack of reaction that I ended up taking about 8 shots of the scene. Quiet, inconspicuous, and excellent in low light, the Leica M is definitely the best Leica camera ever. And just in case you’re wondering, the impecably-dressed gentleman turned out to be a distinguished President of a university. The grungy guy was behind the camera.
There is a phenomena that regularly takes place in Washington, DC that is perhaps rare in other parts of the country. To put it as simply as I can, it goes like this: as the bureaucrats leave the District for the weekend, the protesters move in to occupy its streets. The movement in and out of the capital resembles the movement of the waves, where the ocean must first recede before waves come back to the shore in force. Such was the case this weekend when thousands of military veterans stormed the DC Mall’s memorials to make the point that citizens should never be denied access to our nation’s monuments. From what my camera could see from the middle of the crowd, it all took place in an orderly (albeit sometimes tense) fashion. Only one brief scuffle took place at the Lincoln Memorial when some of the veterans insisted in taking a section of a barrier from the hands of a Park Police Officer, but after some shoving took place and a nightstick made its appearance, everyone seemed to calm down. But as better heads prevailed, the barriers were removed (to be dumped later in front of the White House) and the crowd made its way up the Lincoln Memorial. It wasn’t exactly the liberation of France, but it was readily obvious the nation’s veterans know a thing or two about breaking down barriers and occupying the high ground, no matter the cost. The days when they wore the uniform may be long gone, but you wouldn’t known from the way so many of them dragged their once able bodies to keep pace with their younger brethren on their way to bring down those metal barriers. I’m sure that President Lincoln, sitting there looking at all that was taking place at his feet today, was probably repeating some of his most famous words to the nation’s veterans: “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” And that’s what they did, Mr. President.
You just can’t miss it. The Buda Castle Hill sits majestically over the city of Budapest as if protecting it like it did a few centuries ago. Before arriving to Budapest I had read a few travel articles that downplayed this particular part of the city as being too “touristy.” And yes, the tourists (to include your’s truly) were there, but frankly, I don’t think that some of these travel writers were doing much justice to this wonderful place. The 360-degree views alone make this part of the city a “must visit” destination. And if you get there around 7:00 AM like I did, you will have the hill practically all for yourself for a few hours. And while public transportation can get you there in no time at all, it is a lot more fun to walk across the famous Chain Bridge and then up the hill through the various winding trails and sets of stairs leading to the castle.
But as great as the views were from the eastern, Pest-facing side of Castle Hill, my favorite part of this journey was walking along the promenade that borders the western part of the hill. This quiet residential area with its tree-lined pedestrian road and incredible views of the Buda Hills at the distance reminded me of the quiet serenity one feels when visiting some of those old European cathedrals. Walking that empty promenade during the early morning hours accompanied only by the soft light of a morning sun has to be the greatest highlight of my visit to this great city. And while I may never see this city again, this wonderful morning stroll, lit only by the melancholy light of morning eastern sun, will remain with me forever.
One of the great things about photography is its ability to hold on to a scene so we can take our time in analyzing it. This is what photographers commonly refer to as “capturing the moment.” Now mind you that this “moment” doesn’t really have to be publishable material, but rather it is a moment that has the effect of grabbing on to your attention while simultaneously precluding you from moving on in a hurry. The phenomenon is commonly experienced when we flip through a photo book or magazine barely noticing much of its content, until something makes us stop and take notice. Sometimes it’s bewilderment, sometimes it’s just plain old curiosity. But we do stop and linger while our eyes and brains get in synch to make sense of what lies before us. Not that this whole synching thing takes a long time. After all, we’re talking Internet-era attention span here. But unlike video, our “moment” goes nowhere and there’s never a need to rewind. It is static, suspended in time until we are done with it. It is a story onto itself, and we rarely know what happened before or after this fraction of a second in time. An incomplete story where more often than not our imagination must fill in the blanks. Perhaps that’s why we linger after all, to take our time in completing the story.
Is it possible to have a favorite street corner in the whole world? I never gave this much thought until a few days ago when I happened to find myself in a very familiar spot in Washington, DC. You see, I have a kind of strange fascination with the Penn Quarters section of the city, and in previous occasions this neighborhood has been the subject of this blog. What makes this occasion different is that I just realized how much I really enjoy walking around this particular spot on earth with my camera. No matter how many times I go out to photograph everyday life, I seem to always find way to this corner of 7th Street NW & F Street NW, and with good reason.
The place is a beehive of human activity, from panhandlers selling tickets to sports events, to elegantly-attired folks headed half a block up E Street to the imposing Shakespeare Theater Company. It is like the point where various rivers converge, resulting in waters that become both turbulent and majestic at once. For photographers and admirers of the human condition, this is definitely the place to be. And no matter where other roads may take me from time to time, there’s one thing I know for sure: I will be back to this raucous corner many times in the future. Not that everyone there is happy to see you with your camera, but rather that there’s so much going on all the time, that most people don’t notice you much amongst the constant flow of people that cross that intersection every day. It is the perfect place to feel alive, and that puts it right up there on my book.