The Empty Space Between Us

Lady By Windows

Not everyone enjoys empty spaces. I’m referring to those empty rooms where maybe a sole couch sits, or a sole print on the wall. Sort of a Japanese Zen kind of room, devoid from visual distractions, but perhaps with a single object in it to demand your total, and uncluttered attention. It is really incredible how the Japanese have turned the absence of something into a thing of beauty. If only we could do that in this part of the world, where people cannot have enough stuff to cram into whatever space they have. Kind of what we do with our time, where society feels compelled to fill every minute of it with some activity, like checking a cell phone for that constant stream of those “insignificant little nothings.”

But when we search for creativity, empty spaces do seem to take an importance out of proportion from their normal selves. Perhaps it has to do with the visual isolation they allow, or perhaps with the fact that the less taxing our visual reaction is, the more our minds can wonder and compose. Whatever the case, it is in that desolate, empty distance separating feelings from the subject of our attention, where I find the glorious sustenance that feeds my imagination. That gap, that clear path where nothing lives and where obstacles don’t exist, is precisely where inspiration dwells. Nothing stands in the way of our eyes, thoughts, and admiration. It is glorious emptiness, where unable to be seen by the naked eye, incredible amounts of energy bounces back-and-forth without obstacles between the admirer and the admired.

In his meditative book, “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down,” Buddhist Monk Haemin Sunim eloquently identifies this zone where nothing, and everything dwell in perfect harmony:

What makes music beautiful is the distance between one note and another. What makes speech eloquent is the appropriate pause between words. From time to time we should take a breath and notice the silence between sounds.

The absence of notes and words makes “noticing” possible, just as the absence of obstructing things make beauty noticeable. A pause in a conversation. The expectation of the next note. A lone painting on a wall. And the empty space between us. I couldn’t help but notice.

The Quick Shot

Metro Rider

Like most photographers out there, I too spend endless hours looking for that perfect shot. And when I say perfect, I don’t mean that literally, but rather in the context of being able to stand out a little from the crowd of shots we regularly find in places like Instagram and Flickr. The sad thing is that no matter how much I try (and perhaps I’m speaking here for most wandering photographers), those photographs that elicit comments of the “you should take more pictures like this,” are very hard to find indeed. No doubt this is the result of multiple factors, from your timing as a photographer, your choice of venue, or the simple fact that not much is really happening around you. Whatever the case, the point is that while personal photographic and geographic choices have a lot to do with it, luck (yes, that same old variable) has a lot to do with it too. That is why photographers out there (myself included) look like human versions of 360-degree radars. We look right, left, behind us, up, down, and everywhere. We do this while crossing the streets, walking by a construction site, while drinking coffee, wherever. You can imagine the thoughts that cross people’s minds in a city like Washington, DC that is replete with intrigue and spies everywhere. Who is this person with a camera checking everything out and taking photos from weird angles? He looks Russian to me. Yes, that’s pretty much the thought pattern, but in reality what we photographers are after is that quick shot, that unique moment in time that make all those walked miles worthwhile. And that is the story of the shot above. Many hours and sore feet later, this scene revealed itself to me as I was headed for the metro and the comforts of home. My last shot of the day, and like they say in golf, the one that keeps you coming back, again and again, to the unpredictable streets of your city.

I See More Than You Think

Experience and age are indeed big factors in determining what we see when looking at the world around us.
Experience and age are indeed big factors in determining what we see when looking at the world around us.

It appears to be a scientific truth that as we age our vision diminishes with the years.  Technically speaking, this simple fact could lead us to conclude that diminished visual capacity means that we will all see less the more our hair turns to gray.  I get this, but I’m here to tell you that the opposite is indeed the case.  That is, if we are to accept that there is a distinction between mere looking and seeing, then aging could actually be a good thing for all of us.   In fact, the familiar “being there, done that” claim that we are all so fond of using, actually holds the key to our ability to see more with age.  Unconsciously, we all apply years’ worth of visual experiences to every scene we look at with our alert, yet tired eyes.  The computer inside our heads forms a myriad of relationships to other similar scenes in our lives, as well as the outcome of those scenes.  This is why an aboriginal who has lived all of his or her life deep in the Amazon jungles will always see a lot more than a city visitor when staring at a thick jungle.  It is the visual advantage of experience and time spent outside.  So as you age you need to keep on looking, and look some more, put on those glasses that vanity sometimes relegates to a hidden place, and celebrate the passing of time.  You will be pleasantly surprised at how much more you will be able to see now that youth is not affecting your vision.

Spring Is Finally Here

You can barely tell that a couple of weeks ago temperatures were at the freezing level and it was snowing in the Mid-Atlantic region.
You can barely tell that a couple of weeks ago temperatures were at the freezing level and it was snowing in the Mid-Atlantic region.

What a difference a couple of weeks make.  As April started in the Mid-Atlantic region, freezing temperatures and a couple of inches of snow would have led you to believe that winter would never end.  Instead of birds singing in the morning all you could hear was the unmistakable raspy sound of ice scrapers chiseling away windshields before the dreaded morning commute to work got started.  Gladly, all that appears to be behind us now and those dreaded ice scrappers have been put away for good.  This coming week should also be the peak bloom period for the famous cherry trees lining the Tidal Basin in DC.  The annual Cherry Blossom Festival is in full force and the weather could not be more perfect.  Time to get out and see the world waking up from its long, winter slumber.  See you out there.

Creativity And Location

The locations at which people unleash their inner creativity are as diverse as the different forms of art.
The locations at which people unleash their inner creativity are as diverse as the different forms of art.

Don’t ask me why, but lately I’ve been pondering how much our environment affects our creativity.  After all, painters gravitate to the south of France in search of the perfect light, creative writing courses travel to Paris in search of inspiration, and photographers don’t seem to be able to stop talking about the lonely pursuit that their craft demands.  Remember Georgia O’Keeffe?  Her artistic peak came about during the period in her life when she made the wide, open spaces of the New Mexico dessert her home.  And how about the irrepressible Salvador Dalí and his incredible imagination that traced its roots to the small Spanish towns of his youth, Figueres and Cadaqués.  And famous writers are all over the place, but invariably alone when practicing their craft.  So what am I to conclude from all this?  Perhaps that for solo creatives, solitude during the creative process seems to be a lot more important than any particular location.  After all, the proverbial creative block doesn’t seem to care much about place.  It is the simple act of “disconnecting” from the everyday that seems to be at the root of our creativity.  What is must give way to what’s possible in our consciousness.  And if getting there takes us to a faraway land, or just as far as the kitchen table, so be it.  Our eyes and our hearts will tell us when we’ve arrived there, wherever there happens to be.

The Photographer As Diplomat

Neighborhood streets in big cities are great backdrops for photo glamour shots.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
Neighborhood streets in big cities are great backdrops for photo glamour shots. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.

Afraid of walking up to a stranger and asking if you can take their picture?  Can’t blame you if you are, as it could be a nerve-wracking experience for the non-extroverts amongst us.  What people with cameras don’t realize is that the worst that could happen is for you to get a dismissive “no” in the process.  Rarely will people show any fangs as part of their answer.  My experience has been that while half the people will say no and keep on walking, the other half will gladly say “yes,” if you ask nicely.  In fact, for many folks out there minding their own business, your asking is kind of an ego-booster of some sort.  People take time to make themselves up as best as possible before going out, and it is not to be visually ignored by the rest of us.  As a photographer, you can’t help but notice these fashionistas when you go out.  They are different in some visual way: better looking, more colorful, strange, exotic, or simply unique.  Whatever the reason, they catch the photographer’s eye, and the often-repeated advice that being nice and showing a sincere interest in them (or what they are doing) will always go a long way in you getting them to agree to have their picture taken.  So best to avoid photographic ambushes that give so many photographers a bad reputation and instead give your subjects a little time from your busy photo day.  You’ll be amazed at how nice people can be in return, as I discovered with the young woman in the photo.

What Cold Weather?

Even in frigid temperatures, if you want to look good, you forsake the coat.  Leica M9, Summarit-M 90mm f/2.5.
Even in frigid temperatures, if you want to look good, you forsake the coat. Leica M9, Summarit-M 90mm f/2.5.

In one of the coldest days of the year in Washington, DC I ventured into town to see whether there were any brave souls willing to challenge the bone-chilling temperatures from the previous couple of days.  After all, this is a city where a mere one-inch of snow pretty much shuts down the entire metro area (OK, any excuse to leave work is good enough, but still).  To my surprise, while most of the crowds were huddled inside the museums along Constitution Avenue, true fashionistas were out in force, proving that even when your fingers are turning black from the impending frostbite, it is still possible to look good.  Of course, this seemed to apply mostly to to a certain age group (see the photo above).  For those in my age group (no, I’m not telling), quadruple layering was the order of the day.  Patagonia on the first layer, REI on the second, 300-thread fleece on the third, and a windbreaker on the fourth.  Oh, and I almost forgot about that fashion statement thing.  Simple: there was none.