A Beautiful, Empty Shell

Arts & Industry Building

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.

City Hopping In Europe

Prague will always be at the top of everyone's favorite cities in Europe.
Prague will always be at the top of everyone’s favorite cities in Europe.
The historical importance of Vienna is evidenced in its majestic buildings.
The historical importance of Vienna is evidenced in its majestic buildings.
Old Town Hannover transports you to another era.
Old Town Hannover transports you to another era.
Sitting by the Elbe River, Dresden lives up to its historical grandeur.
Sitting by the Elbe River, Dresden lives up to its historical grandeur.
In Berlin's Mitte, old and new coexist as if they had ever been there.
In Berlin’s Mitte, old and new coexist as if they had ever been there.

There are some things you just can’t have enough in life. For me, that’s traveling through Europe. That is because no matter how much I visit that continent, there’s something new to discover and experience. The fact that you can find a completely different language and culture by just driving the equivalent of crossing an US state line, just adds to the experience every time. But today’s Europe is not the same as the one I experienced during the days of the Cold War and before globalization. Today, it is a much-changed cultural landscape, where the old, great architecture is still there, but goods and services are pretty much the same as in any US major city. Of course, I’m referring to the large cities in the continent, because once you get to the countryside, the Europe of your imagination is still hanging on to culture and mores. Of course, this is not to say that the large cities have lost all manners of cultural identity (because they have not), but rather that the forces of globalization are a lot more evident in the great capitals than anywhere else in the continent.

But whatever the changed landscape, return to Europe I must. And just like every time before, what I found was quite incredible and left me (as always before) wanting to return as soon as possible. In true “slow travel” mode, I once more discovered that slowing down, venturing off-the-beaten-path at odd hours of the day, and taking time to absorb everything around me, made all the difference in the world. From the royal architecture of Vienna, to the cobblestone streets and towers of Prague, it is all fascinating to me. The quiet, precious moments at daybreak, when the majestic, war-scared buildings of Dresden were drenched in the lazy, yellow light of a new day ricocheting off the mighty Elbe, inevitably transported you to another century long the stuff of history books. And then, there were the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen in Hannover. You could spend an entire day enjoying what has to be one of the great, and most romantic gardens of the world. New and old, coexisting for centuries. In Berlin while wrapping up this never-long-enough European tour, I couldn’t help but think of the incredible talent that centuries past created such works of beauty, and the incredible hatred that so often tried to destroy them in equal time. Human frailty and the human spirit, battling it out throughout history. We can only hope that the spirit continues to help preserve such gems for future generations.

A Summer Stop By The Windy City

 

One of the best things to do in the city is to take a walk down the Chicago River riverwalk downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
One of the best things to do in the city is to take a walk down the Chicago River riverwalk downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
The Theater District downtown allows for walking access to numerous Broadway productions.
The Theater District downtown allows for walking access to numerous Broadway productions.
Taking a break from their street performance, a couple remains in character even when relaxing.
Taking a break from their street performance, a couple remains in character even when relaxing.
The centerpiece structure at Dylan's Candy Bar will make sure you don't leave the store empty-handed.
The centerpiece structure at Dylan’s Candy Bar will make sure you don’t leave the store empty-handed.
Friends party down the Chicago River while fueling the trip with a couple bottles of champagne.
Friends party down the Chicago River while fueling the trip with a couple bottles of champagne.
While the Chicago River appears to be a big party venue, there are plenty of quiet spots still available along the riverwalk.
While the Chicago River appears to be a big party venue, there are plenty of quiet spots still available along the riverwalk.
While the city has plenty of formal dining establishments, informal hangouts remain the best places for enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
While the city has plenty of formal dining establishments, informal hangouts remain the best places for enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
The incredible cheese counter at the Eataly store is only one of the many wonders to be discovered at this Italian import.
The incredible cheese counter at the Eataly store is only one of the many wonders to be discovered at this Italian import.

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.

 

Seeing Differently By Adjusting Your Visual Gyroscope

Sometimes all it takes to see things differently is to climb a set of stairs and look down.
Sometimes all it takes to see things differently is to climb a set of stairs and then proceed to look down.
Using a different lens could lead to new and creative ways of seeing in the urban environment.
Using a different lens could lead to new and creative ways of seeing in the urban environment.
Common urban scenes familiar to most folks can prove to be quite interesting if observed from a different perspective.
Common urban scenes familiar to most folks can prove to be quite interesting if observed from a different perspective.
Curved lines will always add a different architectural perspective to the landscape.
Curved lines will always add a different architectural perspective to the landscape.
A lone and otherwise insignificant street lamp acquires a new personality as a result of empty space.
A lone and otherwise insignificant street lamp acquires a new personality as a result of empty space.

There is something to be said for purposefully changing the way we see. Not that there’s anything wrong with the “panning field of view” approach that characterizes the way we see most things on a daily basis.  Rather, the point is that within all those daily panoramas there are endless opportunities to adjust our visual gyroscopes in order to add a little spark to our visual enjoyment of life.  This take on our visual world is nothing new. After all, most people already do this, albeit somewhat unconsciously.  It happens whenever they adjust their positions to “get a better view,” or when they take the elevator to an observation deck in order to see the world around them from a different vantage point. Something deep inside us all gives rise to the desire for visual adjustment, and whether it is the result of simple curiosity or much deeper emotions, it nevertheless represents a transition from a less-fulfilling state to a more fulfilling one. It is positive energy at its best, and we all know that we could use a lot more of that.

Seeing differently, however, does not come without some effort. Just like it is imperative to climb a set of stairs before enjoying a view, there are some stairs to climb when adjusting the way we see in that crazy world around us.  But what really matters in the end is that the rewards of such climbs are incredibly satisfying.  They just take a “change in latitude,” like the common saying says.  The few photographs on this week’s post are the result of some of those changes in latitude–simple attempts to see the familiar differently.  As if out of nowhere, the old became new, and the familiar revealed itself in a brand new light.  I immediately came to the realization that these scenes were there all the time for someone to see them, provided that someone took the time to look.

 

Life At 18mm

The ceiling at the Freer Gallery in DC shows that sometimes it pays to look up upon entering a grand building.
The ceiling at the Freer Gallery in DC shows that sometimes it pays to look up upon entering a grand building.
Shooting with an ultra-wide 18mm lens will provide a greater sense of location than narrower lenses.
Shooting with an ultra-wide 18mm lens will provide a greater sense of location than narrower lenses.
The north corridor at the Freer Gallery is the type of narrow place where an 18mm lens shines.
The north corridor at the Freer Gallery is the type of narrow place where an 18mm lens shines.
The round Hirshhorn Museum bears an uncanny resemblance to Apple's new campus in Cupertino.
The round Hirshhorn Museum bears an uncanny resemblance to Apple’s new campus in Cupertino.

Ever heard of the idea of going out shopping as a form of therapy?  Well, just recently I subjected myself to a little of this therapy.  Don’t know about you, but as a photographer, I sometimes need a little change from seeing the world at 50mm, or 35mm for that matter.  Not that there’s anything wrong with sticking to a single focal length (after all, some of the great photographers out there do exactly that), but rather than mixing things up sometimes does have the therapeudic effect that we photographer may need from time to time.  With that in mind, and not knowing whether I would ever really use an 18mm lens much in the future to justify the expense on a much more expensive Leica lens, I went out and grabbed a Zeiss Distagon T* 4/18 ZM for my Leica M Type 240.  A few of the results from my first outing with this lens appear above.  How did I feel shooting with this lens?  Actually, pretty good.  It is indeed very wide, so it takes a little getting used to having so much real estate in your viewfinder.  However, the wide coverage does allow you to get in close to your subjects, or capture the whole scene in tight places where a 28mm or a 35mm would simply not work.  So, will I use this lens on a regular basis in the future?  Perhaps not, but knowing that this compact 18mm lens is within arms reach for those rare occasions when I have to go really wide, is indeed a comforting feeling.  For all other occasions, that Leica glass will be firmly attached to my M.

Daily Rituals Outside The Supreme Court

When a decision by the Supreme Court is imminent, journalists descend on the building waiting to grab anyone coming out of the building.
When a decision by the Supreme Court is imminent, journalists descend on the building waiting to grab anyone coming out of the building.
Winers and losers alike can't wait to hit the microphones outside the court to express either joy or disappointment with the Court's rulings.
Winners and losers alike can’t wait to hit the microphones outside the court to express either joy or disappointment with the Court’s rulings.
For TV crews, juggling between the Supreme Court and Congress is as simple as crossing the street.
For TV crews, juggling between the Supreme Court and Congress is as simple as crossing the street.
In the interest of timely reporting, journalists deploy tactical desks with wifi connectivity around the Capitol grounds.
In the interest of timely reporting, journalists deploy tactical desks with wifi connectivity around the Capitol grounds.

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.