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.
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.
I never thought that the lonely, cutting sound of a small chisel would cause such a great impression on me. After all, this is something we don’t hear or see every day. A cold chisel being driven by gentle, patient hands into a granite wall with the methodical rhythm of someone who’s intent has more to do with achieving perfection than with worrying about time. As I watched this artist work the stone I couldn’t help but think that this is the same level of patience and precision that goes into the making of top-end Leica cameras (which just happens to be what I used to take this photo). For some people this is boring stuff, and no doubt watching an artisan’s slow, methodical work interspersed with numerous periods of silent observation is not everyone’s cup of tea. For others, it is like watching a chess match by Grand Masters, where the long, tense silence is suddenly disrupted by a stroke of genius involving the subtle move of a chess piece to an adjacent square on the board. Beauty lives in the very simplicity of the act.
Royally holding court in a back room at the elegant Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, Virginia is one of the most incredible pieces of art in the entire DC Metro Region. Can’t blame you if you have driven past the historical Maury School building without realizing what treasures lie inside. After all, the imposing galleries and monuments down the road in Washington, DC are a much bigger magnet for area visitors short on vacation time. But if there’s anything that demands a separate road trip on its own merits, the golden Tiffany glass windows at the Arlington Arts Center must be it. Not that a photographer can claim any degree of poetic justice in describing such a magnificent piece of art, but as a hopeless romantic with a camera I found it impossible to enter this sun-bathed room without being transported to the elegant world of New York high society during the late 19th Century. There, covered by the glowing yellow light of an afternoon sun, I couldn’t help but feel a little underdressed. Shouldn’t I be wearing a tuxedo while waiting to waltz the night away with my beautiful companion? Have the cocktails been served yet? Will the horse-drawn carriages be on time outside to slowly carry us back home after the most marvelous of nights? I swear that all these thoughts crossed my mind before I had to swap memory cards on my camera, so maybe there’s really something to all those time-travel rumors we keep hearing about.
Incredibly, though, these Tiffany masterpieces, which are now part of the Arlington Public Art Collection, were almost lost to the wrecking ball fourteen years ago. After many years of neglect and disrepair, in 2000 the U.S. Navy took over the building, and before tearing it down, allowed Arlington County to salvage anything of historical value at the site. As described at the Arlington Arts Center Blog, the windows were finally discovered after having “been boarded over and long forgotten” in the long-neglected mausoleum. I can just imagine the faces of those tearing down the wooden planks hiding such incredible treasure. So much for a day’s work. So if you are in the area any time soon, pay the great folks at the Arlington Arts Center a visit. Who knows, you too may be transported to a world long since gone, but not yet forgotten. And in case you’re wondering, your carriage will be waiting for you outside.
One of the great things about street photography is that you are always surprised by the scenes your camera captures without you having to stage a thing. Some of these can be the proverbial “photo bombs,” but in many cases it is the unexpected that happens. When this happens, there’s very little time for composition, planning, or for a rerun. A second or two is all you’ve got, and to be perfectly frank, most of the time these opportunities are missed for a variety of reasons. Chance, to a large extent, is a lot more important than skill for these impromptu photo ops, even if we can never ignore the old dictum that “luck always favors the prepared.” In the end what really matters is whether we manage to capture one of the millions of little scenes that take place around us all the time. Just one shot, that’s it. For most photographers, that’s what is called a mighty fine day.
Don’t you love people? No question that art evokes many emotions from people, and not all of them revolve around deep introspection. Yes, there’s that, but I have to admit that there’s something refreshing in seeing a different type of reaction from visitors to an art exhibit. Like many other visitors to the National Gallery of Art East Building this weekend, I was totally fascinated by this simple sculpture of four young women dancing. I must have gone around it ten times with my camera trying to find the right angle for my shot, but considering that I was shooting with with 50mm lens, finding the right place proved to be harder than I though. My primary interest was to capture people’s reactions to the sculpture, but this also proved to be quite challenging because most people simply stood there next to the art piece looking as if in some sort of a trance. After a while, I gave up and walked away, only to return later to give luck another opportunity to show its kindness to a struggling photographer.
Fast-forward a few poker faces and a few minutes later, and there was the photo I was waiting for all along. Two young women not yet affected by the sclerotic effect of time, suddenly became one with the joyous scene before us. With disarming innocence and cheer, they broke into dance as if to join the celebration that was taking place before they arrived at the scene. The whole thing didn’t last more than 30 seconds, but I was glad I stuck around waiting for something to happen. In some way, what the camera captured had to do with much more than the recording of a simple photograph. The scene revealed the endless wonder of youth, the disarming effect of a moment of happiness, and the sheer beauty of unencumbered spontaneity. Who knows, maybe that’s what the sculpture was all about.