It has to be one of the busiest sidewalks in the world. Sandwiched between the US Supreme Court building and 1st Street NE, this small piece of DC real estate is a constant beehive of activity whenever the Supreme Court is in session. Journalists with tons of expensive gear wait impatiently for litigants to come down the Court’s stairs either to complain or celebrate after the Court issues a decision. If the issue being litigated is controversial enough, you will also see (and hear) advocates from each side of the issue trying to out-demonstrate each other with bullhorns, placards, and mannequins. Real estate is at a premium, though, and it is usually a sight to behold to watch journalists, demonstrators, and tourists with cameras jockeying for position along the relatively short space in front of the Court. Some journalists (as you can see in the photo) opt to set mobile offices on the Capitol’s grounds, busily relaying news items to major networks from their shaded suites. I guess if you have to be at the office on any given day, this is about as good as it can get in DC. Chaos and calm, or what otherwise passes as a normal day in Washington’s charged political climate.
Ever feel that you got to a place a few decades too late? Well, I do, and that place is indeed the SoHo neighborhood in New York City. Not that I could hang out with the local fashionistas that strut the local streets looking “mahvelous,” but rather that upon setting foot on the place I had that all-too-common feeling of having arrived late to a party. I’ve been hearing about SoHo for far too long now, but for some reason or another (OK, like most tourists) I have primarily limited myself to mid-Manhattan and other “have been” attractions like Little Italy and Chinatown during previous visits. This was a serious mistake that I do not intend to repeat, though. In fact, several years ago I made the decision to leave most tourist places to time-starved tourist and just head out to the neighborhoods where no tourist buses are to be found. But this I applied mostly to cities abroad like Paris, Rome, and Berlin. One day in SoHo has made me realize that I need to do the same at home.
But I just didn’t just wake up one day and decided to go to SoHo. I was there to spend the day with the great folks of The Leica Meet group, who were being graciously hosted by the Leica store at 460 West Broadway. The people at the Leica store simply hit it out of the park with their great support for this event. Not only did they allowed the group to use their store facilities for the day, but they also coordinated a wonderful group lunch at the Hundred Acres Restaurant & Bar, followed by a visit with various great Leica photographers like Ralph Gibson and Adam Marelli. This sense of community is something that other camera manufacturers can only dream of, and SoHo was just the perfect setting for the event. It’s definitely great to discover a few more good reasons to visit the city that never sleeps more often – like taking a creativity vitamin, which I dare say, we all could use from time to time. I know I do.
I was headed to a museum today to photograph old, Oriental relics for a change. But as it happens in far too many occasions on my way to a photographic interest, something catches my eye that turns out to be a little bit more interesting (from a photographic perspective) than what I had originally intended to photograph. It is the proverbial “seeing of a photograph before you actually get to take it.” So here I was today, standing in the middle of the street while cars maneuvered around me, waiting for this gentleman to fill a little more of my 50mm lens frame. A quick three-frame burst later I was done and the subject of my photographic inspiration simply continued on his merry way. Maybe this city is not as hostile to photographers as I once thought, or maybe it was because I was using a Leica instead of a bulky, in-your-face DSLR. Who knows. I guess only this “international man of mystery” would know.
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.
The more I see of Budapest, the more I like this majestic city. It keeps reminding me of Vienna with its royal castles and beautifully winding streets. even if unlike Vienna, most of the city could use a fresh coat of paint. They are getting there, but I’m also beginning to wonder whether the somewhat worn-down look is what gives the city its unquestionable charm. You could spend a lifetime staring at the building facades, even if more-often-than-not you’ll have to look up beyond the first floor, which was generally reserved for commercial ventures.
But what makes this city great on my book is that the lively energy manifested by its people seems to live side-by-side with an obvious desire to enjoy life along the way. In Budapest, people are up and about at all hours of the day and night. Granted that many of them are tourists, but at the restaurants and bars within the city, the eclectic Hungarian language reins supreme. How different this is to the center of Washington, DC at night, where you can hear a pin drop at 9:00 PM. In Budapest, all along the famous Andrássy Avenue leading to Hero’s Square (with its two art galleries on opposite sides of the Square) the city is a constant beehive of activity. Along the picturesque Danube promenade on the Pest side, restaurant boats and a slew of land-based restaurants with violin music constantly adorning the nights appear to be major hangout for tourists and all sorts of (how should I say this?) evening activities. A few blocks from the promenade, Budapest’s busiest commercial/pedestrian boulevard (Váci ut.) is even more crowded with tourists trying use up all their forints before heading back home. No question that with its excellent mass transportation system and many pedestrian-only streets, this city almost begs you to get up and get moving. In fact, after a few days in the city I have yet to see a single obese person anywhere. Looking at what people eat around here, though, I can only attribute this to a miracle. I can only hope that I am similarly blessed with “thinness” during my stay.
Do you idle? That is, do you ever have those moments in your daily life when your time is not filled with activity? In an attempt to see if folks out there were into this idling thing, I went out with my camera recently to find out. My goal was to find something akin to the contemplative lifestyle out there, if at all possible. Now, I do realize that “idling” as an adjective kind of implies an activity in of itself, but the kind of scene I had in mind had more to do with exactly the opposite: the absence of activity. So armed with the “not spent or filled with activity” dictionary definition, out I went at the end of the day when people were supposed to be done with work for the day.
The result? I couldn’t find anyone really idling, as per the dictionary’s definition. The folks in the photographs were the closest I could find, and as you can see, cell phone technology pretty much did away with all that idling witchcraft. In fact, this technology has redefined this whole idea of “relaxing.” Ever heard anyone say, “I find this whole idea of relaxing too stressful?” I have, and the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to convince myself that there’s something to that statement. Otherwise, how could I explain that after a whole day of work I was out “relaxing” with my camera. Are we doomed? I hope not. After all, one’s got to have something to look forward to.
Yes, it is Hooters. But obvious reasons were not why I was there. Rather, and much to my regret, I ventured out with my camera this morning on a scorching and humid 90-plus degree day to see who else was out and about. As it turns out, not too many people, or at least not too many sane people. It was hot, very hot, and as you can see, servers seemed to have a lot of time on their hands as a result of lack of customers. But heat or no heat, there is always something worth photographing. The action today, though, was mostly inside. The art galleries and museums were packed with visitors trying to cool down while trying to figure out who Diaghilev was (I only know this because I was one of them). After a couple of hours out in the sun, I had had enough. Back to the metro and back to home base with only a few keepers in hand. A total wash? Almost. Hooters might have saved the day after all.
One of the great things about photography is its ability to hold on to a scene so we can take our time in analyzing it. This is what photographers commonly refer to as “capturing the moment.” Now mind you that this “moment” doesn’t really have to be publishable material, but rather it is a moment that has the effect of grabbing on to your attention while simultaneously precluding you from moving on in a hurry. The phenomenon is commonly experienced when we flip through a photo book or magazine barely noticing much of its content, until something makes us stop and take notice. Sometimes it’s bewilderment, sometimes it’s just plain old curiosity. But we do stop and linger while our eyes and brains get in synch to make sense of what lies before us. Not that this whole synching thing takes a long time. After all, we’re talking Internet-era attention span here. But unlike video, our “moment” goes nowhere and there’s never a need to rewind. It is static, suspended in time until we are done with it. It is a story onto itself, and we rarely know what happened before or after this fraction of a second in time. An incomplete story where more often than not our imagination must fill in the blanks. Perhaps that’s why we linger after all, to take our time in completing the story.
Is it possible to have a favorite street corner in the whole world? I never gave this much thought until a few days ago when I happened to find myself in a very familiar spot in Washington, DC. You see, I have a kind of strange fascination with the Penn Quarters section of the city, and in previous occasions this neighborhood has been the subject of this blog. What makes this occasion different is that I just realized how much I really enjoy walking around this particular spot on earth with my camera. No matter how many times I go out to photograph everyday life, I seem to always find way to this corner of 7th Street NW & F Street NW, and with good reason.
The place is a beehive of human activity, from panhandlers selling tickets to sports events, to elegantly-attired folks headed half a block up E Street to the imposing Shakespeare Theater Company. It is like the point where various rivers converge, resulting in waters that become both turbulent and majestic at once. For photographers and admirers of the human condition, this is definitely the place to be. And no matter where other roads may take me from time to time, there’s one thing I know for sure: I will be back to this raucous corner many times in the future. Not that everyone there is happy to see you with your camera, but rather that there’s so much going on all the time, that most people don’t notice you much amongst the constant flow of people that cross that intersection every day. It is the perfect place to feel alive, and that puts it right up there on my book.
Nothing like getting your hands on a new Leica M camera to get your photographic blood pumping a little. But not just any M, mind you, but rather the new (and still very hard to get) Leica M 240 from the folks at Solms, Germany. How good is this camera? Very, very good, in my humble opinion. I’m no gear analyst by any stretch of the imagination, but I would be remiss if I didn’t stop for a second and describe what it feels like to go out shooting with this remarkable work of art. At the risk of being labeled a bleeding Leica fanboy, I have to tell you that this camera is about as close as anyone will get to enjoying the feeling of photographic poetry. The best camera in the world? Of course not. No sports shooter here my friend. The only camera you would take to document the swamp people in the Amazon River? Nope. This camera is definitely not about the extremes, even if some incredible daring photographers out there would just go for it. But if you are thinking street, documentary, fine art, or studio work, then the Leica M would be a powerful photographic tool in your hand.
I have read many blogs where the Leica M has been described as a totally new camera when compared with its predecessor, the Leica M9. And you know what? The blogs were right (see Steve Huff’s wonderful review here). This is an amazing camera. Richer colors, nearly silent operation, great contrast, extensive customization, live view, focus peaking, fantastic battery, and retention of the famous “Leica look.” I could go on and on about the specs, but others a lot more qualified have already provided this information (see Ming Thein’s article and Sam Hurd’s take on this camera). But why the excitement about all these functions that have already made their appearance in other camera brands, and at a lot less money? The answer to this question lies precisely on the fact that we are talking about Leica here. Ever heard of tradition? Well, Leica takes this concept significantly beyond the point to which the patriarch Tevye did in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, and by a long shot. In fact, it is precisely this “remain in touch with the past” attitude that brings so many photographers into the Leica camp. Change, any change, is big news in the Leica community, with equal amounts of proponents and detractors taking their positions at opposite sides of the trenches. In the end, what I know is this: that recording the world around you with a Leica M is a very special thing–a feeling that is only intensified by the new Leica M 240. Simplicity at its very best. And at a price.