Ever wonder whether we are all artists in some way or another? I mean, even if you have yet to express yourself publicly in some artistic form or fashion, it is not an exaggeration to say that within us all there is an artistic bend that has yet to be discovered, even by ourselves. Why am I saying this? It’s all because of the photograph above, or more precisely, because of the artistic expression that became the subject of the photograph above. You see, the lady in the photo was just spinning very slowly on the raised platform while every 4 to 5 seconds striking the same cords on the guitar. On and on it went, while the rest of us stood there at this famous museum simply staring and waiting for the next stroke to come on, even if it was not any different from the one that preceded it. And you know what? I thought it was great, even if right now I couldn’t tell you why. Suffice it to say that art is art, and the fact that someone may not admire a particular art form, does nothing to diminish this fact. It is creativity given expression through some mean, and just like a plate of food, someone’s dislike does not do away from the simple fact that it was actually food and someone else will like it. So it is perhaps high-time that most of us aspiring creatives just let loose out there. Paint if you feel like painting, write if you feel like writing, and sing if you want to let loose the song in your heart. And never worry about what others may be thinking. The lady with the guitar didn’t seem to mind, and still everyone stared admirably in silence eagerly waiting for her hand to move. Sounds absurd? No, it’s art.
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.
I realize that I have posted photos of street musicians many times on this blog, but this time I just couldn’t resist. What caught my attention about these two young men was the fact that they were both impeccably dressed and that their music didn’t quite fit the vaudeville style we usually associate with street musicians. In fact, after watching and listening for a while, I had this great compulsion to write their mothers a thank-you note for raising such great young men. In an European capital they would have had about a hundred people standing around them enjoying their music, but for reasons I don’t even want to get into right now, here in America only about three of us took the time to stop and listen. Sure, people were indeed contributing some money to their act, but all while zooming by at speeds that reminded me of a toll booth on an interstate highway. No time for music, I guess. Thankfully, these detached monetary acknowledgements didn’t deter our duo, who continued to play as if they were about to receive a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. I guess that even when most people have no time to listen until the song ends, the music will still play on without them.
OK, I need you to relax, sit back, and bear with me on this one, as I know you will understand by the time I’m done. You see, I just realized that I have always been a musician, even if for a variety of reasons, I have never played a musical instrument in my life. In fact, the fact that my life has been devoid of outward manifestations of my musical talent has nothing to do with the inescapable fact that the heart of the musician has always been there, composing as life went on and in constant search for that elusive masterpiece. But why now? To what divine revelation can I attribute this sudden manifestation of my musical talents? The answer lies on a book. And to be more precise, to a particular chapter in a particular book. I’m talking about an obscure little book first written in 1940 in Budapest by a then-obscure author by the name of Sandor Marai. The book, “Casanova in Bolzano,” contains what I consider to be one of the best monologues I have ever read. Casanova, upon proclaiming himself to be a writer, is somewhat taken aback when his assistant points out to him the simple fact that he had never written anything. This throws Casanova into a duel of words, describing in great detail what a writer is and why he, who indeed had never written anything, perfectly fit the description of a writer. His words are poetry in the form of prose.
So I got to thinking. Yes, you could argue that I have never played a musical instrument. And yes, you would be technically correct in saying that I don’t know the difference between a diatonic, chromatic, or tremolo harmonica. The same with the distinction between a glissando, a staccato, or a fermata. Have I ever played a violin? No. A piano? Nope. Wouldn’t even know where to start, but it doesn’t matter. What I know is that there is song in my heart, that it is impossible to look at life around me without music playing in my ears. That in many occasions I have sat, pen in hand staring at an instrument in a futile attempt to compose a note, or play one for that matter. A life long lived for music and art, but with no success in creating its physical manifestation. I, the musician, have found it virtually impossible to write or play those notes. But why should I care? Why reduce the sublime to a mundane scribble on a piece of paper, or a strum on an old guitar? No, not me. I am too busy composing the music of my life to slow down to jot it down, or play it slow. Isn’t it good enough that I feel it and live it? Have people not enjoyed music for thousands of years without ever seen it written or listening to an orchestra? Yes, Sandor Marai was right. We are what we are. And I, my dear friends, am a musician at heart. In fact, I’m headed out to make more music. Good luck with your own music.