Not all colors are alike. How’s that for a tautological argument? But let me explain. I spend a considerable amount of my time on earth walking around cities searching for interesting photographic subjects. And while my somewhat optimistic searches don’t always prove fruitful (ok, some of it may have to do with my inherent photographic limitations), there is no denying that colors, or the lack of them, kind of influence what I look at, or at the very least, what I find interesting. They make objects stand out from their surroundings and dramatically influence the visual choices we make out there in the world.
So what is it about the color red that usually makes it stand out supreme from other colors? It’s not even my favorite color. But no matter where my eyes take me, red is a color I’ve found impossible to ignore. In its own silent way, it screams at me, demanding my visual attention like no other color out there (well, maybe with the exception of the neon oranges that some tourist groups wear so they won’t loose anyone). From a fashion perspective, you would not catch me dead wearing such a color. Perhaps because different to other colors, I don’t find red to be a passive color, or unassuming for that matter. It visually pokes you and demands not to be ignored. In its own convoluted way, it represents both passion and pain, smiles and tears. It can’t hide and cannot be missed. It pulls more than it pushes, and demands a photographer’s attention like no other. Resistance is futile, so it’s not even worth trying. Isn’t that wonderful?
Speed. What a noble virtue. Its need is everywhere, from computers to transportation. It saves time, it shortens the undesirable, and it allows us to accomplish a lot more in the limited time we all have in our lives. It is an adrenaline rush too, quite dramatically illustrated in blockbuster movies like Top Gun and the myriad of action movies that inundate our daily consciousness. Smell the flowers? You kidding. Who has time for that?
Well, as it seems, a lot of people do. In the last few days I have been concentrating my photographic time on the number of people that I constantly see moving in what for lack of a better term I’ll refer to as “the slow lane of life.” To a large extent, this slow road exists in somewhat of a parallel universe in society, dictating its own rhythm, its own sense of urgency, and its own rewards. It is not characterized by what it manages to accomplish in a short period of time, but rather by what it manages not to do over a longer period of time. It is subtraction, not addition; forsaking, not gathering. It is finding time instead of lamenting not having any. It is admonishing Seneca’s observation that the lack of time has more to do with how much of it is wasted than with how little of it is available. It is a road as real as the busy one our lives travel on, and it is always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Interestingly, there was a time when I thought that the glorious “slowness” was only possible at life’s extreme ends. That is, when you were very old and financially comfortable (that is, whey you begin to talk about your days being numbered), or during your youth, when someone else took care of the bills and most of life’s worries (when we all believed we had all the time in the world ahead of us). In my mind, the middle was made for the fast lane, for the never-ending “too busy” lamentations, for the social fly-by’s, and for dreaming about that distant, slow lane. The rose garden? Nope. No time to plant it. Need to get going. And so it went for far too many years. And why not? Everywhere I looked people were traveling at the same rate of speed, down the same rocky roads, and in the same general direction. This was normal, and everything else seemed, well, abnormal, or at the very least, too far out in the future. It was all an exciting, zero sum, high-speed journey that if left unattended could have culminated many years later in a place that no one really wants to arrive at: the valley of regrets.
One day, however, I dared to take my foot off the accelerator in order to experience the effects of deceleration on the trajectory I was riding on. I slowed down, took a detour, acted on one long-neglected dream, and surprised a loved one in the middle of the day. Deceleration made it all possible, and clarity, its inevitable result, did its part in dissipating the stubborn forces of obfuscation and neglect. No longer would I drive past that farmer’s produce stand in order to lament later of not having had the time to stop. No, that story was changed to the great time I had while shopping at that very own farmer’s stand during my busy day. I also made it a point to never talk about that abstract walk in the park everyone talks about, but never takes. No, my story changed to how incredible it was to find the time to walk along the the carpet of fallen, yellow leaves that infuse such a bright, golden hue to a cold, autumn morning. Moreover, I made time for my friends so we could spend long hours at the dinner table solving the problems of the world over multiple bottles of wine. And without a doubt, it was a lot more meaningful to say “I love you” to the one I love while staring at her eyes rather than texting the words, Emoji in tow, over an impersonal data network of bits and bytes.
Time. Speed. Contemplation. Obfuscation. Neglect. Love. They all do battle in our busy lives. Some of their challenges will be conquered by speed, others by simply slowing down. And just as it seems impossible to always travel at high speed down the proverbial road, it appears just as unrealistic to spend a lifetime on that slow, off-the-beaten-path lane. The secret in dealing with this dilemma may lie on both sides of the spectrum–on the adoption of a “variable speed” approach to life. Never accelerating without a well-developed plan for deceleration. Never decelerating without accepting that in life, even the good things often require a little acceleration on our part. The concepts are not, and should never be, mutually exclusive. Perhaps, and this may be mankind’s eternal hope, meaning and happiness will be found somewhere along that continuum. And at every one of those critical junctures along the way, changes in speed, and the detours we dare to take, will dramatically increase our chances of finding the cherished moments that will weave the incredible stories of our lives.
After a few days in Amsterdam I’m beginning to realize that like Venice in Italy, this is a city that requires a little time to get used to it and discover its hidden treasures. It is a place of stunning beauty, but also one that doesn’t divulge its true nature easily or perhaps willingly. As a visitor, it would be too easy to walk through the narrow streets in the Museum District or the Jordaan without ever talking to any local or getting to know what gives a particular neighborhood its character. The locals, while quite friendly, do seem to expect you to make that first friendship move, but once you take that first step you invariably find how friendly and nonjudgmental everyone seems to be.
Hang around the city’s many neighborhoods and you will be amply rewarded. From the ethnic diversity of the Pijp in the southern part of the city to the more genteel dwellings around Leidseplein to the west, Amsterdam is a city that begs to be discovered (and even in winter when constant rain and high winds remind you how far north you really are). Behind the imposing City Hall and the curved Amsterdam Music Theater you will find some of the most interesting shopping experiences in town, which are perhaps better characterized by the seemingly popular Cafe Reefer (the name very aptly describes it). But the city Flea Market and Rembrandt House are also in the area, thus providing a good balance to the neighborhood. Continue further west and you will soon be crossing the gorgeous Old Town section and the über-busy Kalverstraat, where you will also find the tiny Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx french fry legend. They have been making fries at this place since 1957 and topping them with as many as 25 different sauces. But be prepared to stand in line for a while and to eat out of a paper cone down the street, as the place serves its potato delicacies out of a window.
And then, there is the Jordaan. Just about every travel publication exhorts you to visit this neighborhood, and I can now see why. This is indeed Old Europe at its best. Small stores selling eclectic wares, tiny cafes filled with trendy-looking folks, and narrow, colorful streets almost begging you to turn here, or there, or anywhere. It is also one of the places where you are most likely to be run over by a bicyclist, as the narrow sidewalks filled with flower pots and bicycles often force you to step onto the cobblestoned streets where all the fast-moving Dutch cyclists aggressively zoom by while ringing warning bells. But none of that danger really matters, as you will most likely be languishing at a cafe or small restaurant oblivious to the passage of time. And if Amsterdam has any poets, I think you will most likely encounter them at a cafe in the Jordaan. Yes, right there next to you, where time and life’s burdens don’t seem to matter much.
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.