Something is happening in Washington, DC these days, and it has nothing to do with politics. Well, not completely. It is as if the city is going through one of those TV makeovers where a person’s scruffy looks are dramatically turned into a glamorous, check-me-out kind of look. Neglected city areas are suddenly being converted into smart neighborhoods full of trendy new restaurants and livable urban spaces demanding a second look from those accustomed to fly by at high speeds. In the heart of DC, it is the area referred to as City Center, just off the less glamorous Chinatown neighborhood, that is setting the pace. The place is so glamorous that anyone coming down from New York’s 5th Avenue for the weekend would feel right at home. And it was about time, for in a city where money is literally being printed every day, there appeared to be a serious need for some glamour. Who would’ve known, chic and greasy joints just a few blocks from each other, and both apparently doing quite well. That is a definite sign of a great country.
I will be the first to admit that today’s post has somewhat of a random quality to it. In fact, that’s precisely my goal. You see, I have come to believe that most of the beauty of life has to do precisely with this randomness concept–the multitude of seemingly disconnected activities that characterize our everyday living. For lack of a better term, I like to refer to this phenomena as the chaotic order of society. Everyone pursuing his or her own activities totally different from that of others, but in some strange way, in an orderly, life-synchronous way. Yes, it all kind of falls together quite nicely, even if at first impression these activities appear to be ricocheting all over the place. Contemplation, stress, joy, and pain all seem to come together as if by necessity and disorderly design. For some, this sense of uncontrolled living is the root of all problems in society; for others, it is nothing but randomness beauty, a symphony orchestra tuning their instruments before the greatest performance of their lives.
Is this what fascinates so many street photographers out there? Perhaps, and while I wouldn’t dare pretend to be speaking for this community, there’s got to be something in this chaotic order of our human ecosystem that proves to be irresistible to so many of these photographers. That something is there, and it always is, in an endless succession of juxtaposing micro-events that is both chaotic and orchestrated. To be able to witness them is pure joy, a confirmation that whatever occupies us in our daily lives is intrinsically intertwined into a larger, colorful quilt that is more obvious when observed from a distance. Remember the last time you sat down to relax and to engage in a little “people watching?” I’m sure that the world around you acquired a somewhat different dimension, an unexplainable revelation that highlighted everything you’ve been missing when looking at life through a panoramic lens. Contrary to the old expression about the devil being in the details, for those who aim to feel the pulse of that chaotic order out there, heaven is what lies in the details. A bride’s hurried steps on her way to a museum photoshoot, a lonely man sitting at a restaurant, friends looking out of a window, and a lone public servant waiting for someone to ask her a question. Details. Different worlds. One fabric. Beauty.
If you read a lot of the popular photography literature out there, you would think that when it came to focal lengths, not much has changed for lenses over the past 100 years or so. To this day, lots of print is devoted to Robert Capa’s dictum that, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.” Now, I’m not sure whether Mr. Capa was referring to optical or physical distance, but my guess is that he was perhaps referring to the proportion of the subject in the photograph to the overall frame of the photo. I can only surmise this because Mr. Capa was more interesting on the drama of a photograph than where the photographer happened to have his or her feet planted. A great image, after all, is never hostage to a particular focal length.
But something has changed a bit since Mr. Capa’s days. Call it the loss of innocence, societal mistrust, or whatever, but people are no longer as relaxed when having their picture taken by a stranger as they used to be. Governments have also jumped into the focal length controversy by creating all sorts of conditions under which a photographer can be labeled an intruder of some sort. Under modern privacy rights considerations, that invisible privacy zone around people has become a virtual minefield for photographers. Enter at your own peril, and successful navigation through it will require a great deal of luck, not to mention personal charm. This zone, which used to be easily traversed with a 50mm focal length, has become a lot harder to deal with. Awareness, perception, and distrust have to a large extent forced the average photographer on the street to move back a bit. Photographers may perceive themselves as creatives capturing a moment in history, but their subjects are growingly seeing them as trespassers, perverts, and untrustworthy social media trolls. But that is precisely where a 75mm or 85mm lens comes into play. These lenses allow you to move back a bit, be less conspicuous, less intrusive, and more discreet. Not that you always want to be that detached from the people you are photographing, but if you don’t have the time to invest in building those relationships (like a photographer in the middle of a festival, procession, or market), then distance could easily prove to be your best friend, and a mid-sized telephoto lens will easily subtract the added distance from your subject. That is why these days, my trusted Leica 75mm f/2 Summicron-M, as well as my Nikon 85mm f/1.4G workhorse, are getting a lot more saddle time on my camera. Ah, and then there’s that glorious bokeh, but that is a subject for another day.
One of the things I like about photography is the ability to capture rare moments and freeze them for eternity. After all, everything that happens around us takes place in video mode and nothing stays the same for more than a few seconds at a time. But to freeze time in order to be able to ponder on that split second for as long as we want, well, that is real magic as far as I’m concerned. That is why every time I look at this photograph I will think of the meaning of friendship and the importance of spending time together with all the people who matter to us. This visual introspection is only possible because the scene never moved from that second; it was not cluttered by other scenes vying for our attention. Such is the magic of photography.
This photograph pretty much speaks for itself, but it really makes you think of those years-gone-by when friends would actually talk when sitting at an outdoor cafe. How times change. Not that texting is not a form of conversation, but rather that the “here and now” has kind of given way to the “now, but over there.” While I walked around the area taking photographs, these ladies never raised their heads to talk to each other. I guess being there was enough, but that is precisely why I love photography so much: you never take your attention away from what’s around you. In a sense, everything talks to you in some way, and you never stop paying attention to it. You see, you listen, and you constantly feel. It is a visual conversation without distractions. At least that’s something that the Internet won’t be able to change any time soon.
Running a restaurant is not all Iron Chef stuff. In fact, it is more of a complex mix of grunt work and logistics than the TV shows would lead all of us to believe. To keep these mini-food factories going it takes a lot of supplies and a network of folks who will always be under-appreciated and underpaid. Like in cruise ships, under all the glitter and fresh paint there is a complete underworld of people doing the grunt work of moving supplies, fixing machinery, and washing pots. Not glamorous, but necessary. When you think about it, this whole network of people diligently working from origin to table is really something amazing. It is easy to miss too when we are looking at that menu while trying to decide between the Chilean Sea Bass and the Norwegian Crust Salmon. A cursory look at a map will immediately tell us how far the waters from which the fish was plucked are rather far away, very far away. Just the thought of how many people and resources it has taken for the fish to travel to our table in perfect condition is mind-bogling. But even when we don’t know the route this delicious seafood takes before it gets to sit in front of us covered in butter sauce, I do know that at one of my favorite local restaurants the final leg of this maddening logistics journey is down the sidewalk doors depicted above. And as long as that supply network keeps working the way it is, my days will have more to do with photography than with fishing poles. And that’s a good thing.