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.
Yesterday, I decided to have a little fun with my Leica. After all, with the cold, flu-inducing weather refusing to leave us alone for the season, it occurred to me that what I needed was a little lighthearted photo day. My goal: to do a little tribute to the famous Leica photographer Ralph Gibson. This name may not mean much to those who are not Leica fanatics photographers, but to those who are, Mr. Gibson is somewhat of a Dalai Lama figure in the Leica community. When he talks, people listen. And his talking is mostly done through the lens of a Leica camera.
But why Ralph Gibson? The answer is that contrary to just about everyone I have come in contact with in the photographic community, Mr. Gibson is known (among many other things) for mastering the “vertical” photographic style. The world may be busy taking photos with a horizontal orientation (which admittedly allows for lots of forgiving cropping), but Mr. Gibson is a master of the vertical world, and has been for as long, long time. Easy? Not really. After a day of shooting only vertically to see what this would feel like, all I can say is that not only is this approach ergonomically hard, but it is also compositionally challenging. At the end of the day I felt I had gone through an entire paradigm change in my approach to photography. My photographic world had stopped revolving around avoiding people from walking into my scene and was now obsessed with a somewhat unfamilial vertical line along a much narrower visual alley.
The funny thing is that this approach to photography is also kind of liberating. Verticality, I realized, tends to exclude the superfluous, or at least most of it. It also reduces dramatically those distracting elements that force photographers to use the cropping tool to the point of overheating. But mastering this vertical approach to composition is definitely hard work. Shooting with a Leica rangefinder while trying to keep both eyes open as you manually focus is a challenge in and of itself, not to mention that your eyes tend to see a lot more horizontally than vertically when on a natural state (blame it on the eyebrows or something). That Mr. Gibson’s trained photographic eyes appear to live easily on that up-and-down, rangefinder plane is nothing short of remarkeable. That this verticality takes place up close in shapes and figures that most people don’t even notice, is even more astounding. After a day of attempting to grasp this whole vertical approach to composition by shooting exclusively “that way,” I certainly had a taste of the challenges and rewards associated with this visual approach. Hooked? Not sure, but I surely intend to tilt my camera from its traditional comfort zone a lot more in the future.
Do you nap? If you are like most people, you probably won’t admit to it, even if you secretly grab a “z” or two throughout the day. For some reason, the old siesta trend has never taken much of a hold in North America. Coffee, mid-day power walks, and slacker phobias make sure that this doesn’t happen. Where Europeans and Latin Americans see rest, people in the good-old USA see laziness. Not that a little rest nap is less needed in the USA than any other place in the world, but rather that in the name of über-productivity, you are not getting paid to doze off while on the clock. Oh, sure, you can chat all day at the office and waste time like the best of them while getting paid, but napping? Just forget it. But as these photos show, sleeping in public places may be a new, socially accepted trend in America. For the modern worker, this could be a much-welcomed development. Going out for lunch can now be combined with a quick power nap at a park bench. No park benches where you hang out? No problem. Any flat, solid surface will do, as the only requirement seems to be that the surface be uncomfortable (which will send the message that you are not trying to get too comfortable). Knee up or knee down? I would recommend knee up because it conveys a more dynamic pose, which implies that while you are flat on your back, you do intend to get back to something productive soon. Who knows, this may just be what you need to move your career to the next level. What level will that be? That I’ll leave to you to find out.
Don’t sound the trumpets yet about the disappearance of print newspapers, because as they say, their demise has been highly exaggerated. Lately, and admittedly to my great surprise, I have noticed more and more people reading newspapers out in the open than usual. Not sure what’s going on, but whether this is nostalgia or rejection of the latest technology fads, the truth is that the few remaining diehard paper readers out there have become a lot more noticeable than the iPad reading crowd. After all, you don’t have to charge a newspaper at any time during the day, and you can buy years of newspapers before you break even with the cost of an iPad. Whatever the reason, it does look like newspapers (and the trash they generate) will be around for a while. How long will that be is anyone’s guess, but time does not appear to be on their side.
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.
Ah, nostalgic pedicabs (i.e., rickshaws) gracing the city streets while helping to clean the environment. Pedal power, no CO2, humans helping other humans. Hmmm. This is generally the picture that emerges when we think of the great import that are pedicabs. Reality, though, could be a bit more earthy, shall we say. In many city downtowns with fast-moving vehicular traffic, rickshaws are more-often-than-not forced into sharing the same busy streets where a non-choreographed dance of polluting city buses, taxis, and POV’s are constantly trying to outdo each other to the next light. Needless to say, there’s a lot of weaving, sharp turns, and sudden stops involved in this urban kabuki dance. Strangely enough, I had problems finding collision statistics for the DC area (or for any other city for that matter). Who knows, maybe these pedicabs are safer than we think. Just in case, though, I think that I’m going to stick to walking for now. After all, I do need the exercise.
I’m always amazed at how much I have yet to see in this world. Sure, I move around a lot and seem to suffer from some incurable travel compulsion, but no matter how much I experience through travel, there always seems to be much more out there to see and photograph. What’s more, even the places I’ve visited so many times in the past seem to have a surprising way of revealing something new all the time. Case in point: the historic Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have walked these grounds with my camera, but I hate to admit that until a few days ago, I had never gone inside the Church itself. This was not because of a lack of curiosity, mind you. In fact, the more I walked by, the more I kept telling myself that I had to try to sneak in with my camera someday. Little did I know that when services are not being conducted, everyone is more than welcomed to come in and take as many photographs as your memory cards can hold.
But what makes a visit to Christ Church even more rewarding is the incredible historical information provided to visitors by local volunteers. Walk in when there are no other visitors around and you may catch one of these volunteer quietly sitting in President George Washington’s family box pew waiting to enlighten you about the history of this magnificent building. And yes, just like the local historian, you too will be able to spend some time inside the Church’s two most famous pews: the one used by President’s Washington’s family and the one used by Robert E. Lee’s family many years later. And just in case you begin to wonder about your exact geographical location, the local guide will be nice enough to remind you that your feet are now well planted in “the south.” I guess it is always important not to miss any of those significant historical details. After about twenty minutes, myself and the visitors from Siberia wrapped up our visit. Not sure where they went, but my compass unmistakably showed I was headed to “the north.” And that was OK with me.
After a few days in Amsterdam I’m beginning to realize that like Venice in Italy, this is a city that requires a little time to get used to it and discover its hidden treasures. It is a place of stunning beauty, but also one that doesn’t divulge its true nature easily or perhaps willingly. As a visitor, it would be too easy to walk through the narrow streets in the Museum District or the Jordaan without ever talking to any local or getting to know what gives a particular neighborhood its character. The locals, while quite friendly, do seem to expect you to make that first friendship move, but once you take that first step you invariably find how friendly and nonjudgmental everyone seems to be.
Hang around the city’s many neighborhoods and you will be amply rewarded. From the ethnic diversity of the Pijp in the southern part of the city to the more genteel dwellings around Leidseplein to the west, Amsterdam is a city that begs to be discovered (and even in winter when constant rain and high winds remind you how far north you really are). Behind the imposing City Hall and the curved Amsterdam Music Theater you will find some of the most interesting shopping experiences in town, which are perhaps better characterized by the seemingly popular Cafe Reefer (the name very aptly describes it). But the city Flea Market and Rembrandt House are also in the area, thus providing a good balance to the neighborhood. Continue further west and you will soon be crossing the gorgeous Old Town section and the über-busy Kalverstraat, where you will also find the tiny Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx french fry legend. They have been making fries at this place since 1957 and topping them with as many as 25 different sauces. But be prepared to stand in line for a while and to eat out of a paper cone down the street, as the place serves its potato delicacies out of a window.
And then, there is the Jordaan. Just about every travel publication exhorts you to visit this neighborhood, and I can now see why. This is indeed Old Europe at its best. Small stores selling eclectic wares, tiny cafes filled with trendy-looking folks, and narrow, colorful streets almost begging you to turn here, or there, or anywhere. It is also one of the places where you are most likely to be run over by a bicyclist, as the narrow sidewalks filled with flower pots and bicycles often force you to step onto the cobblestoned streets where all the fast-moving Dutch cyclists aggressively zoom by while ringing warning bells. But none of that danger really matters, as you will most likely be languishing at a cafe or small restaurant oblivious to the passage of time. And if Amsterdam has any poets, I think you will most likely encounter them at a cafe in the Jordaan. Yes, right there next to you, where time and life’s burdens don’t seem to matter much.
Amsterdam is a city of contrasts. On the one side there is the city of great art and imposing architecture, while on the other there is a somewhat more earthy side, to put it mildly. What’s even more interesting about the city, though, is the fact that so much of what makes Amsterdam what it is seems to lie inside its somewhat uniform buildings. Sure, there are the marvelous canals crisscrossed by beautifully undulating bridges packed with bicycles of all kinds, but enter some of those building lining the canals and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find inside.
Such is the case with two of Amsterdam’s most famous attractions: the Van Gogh Museum at Stadhouderskade 55 and the old Heineken factory at Stadhouderskade 78. From the outside, the buildings housing these two local landmarks are a bit industrial in character, but what lies inside is quite remarkable and more than worth the time you have to spend in line before getting inside (which on a rainy, cold day made the Van Gogh Museum line to get inside a bit of a challenge for the hundreds of people inching their way to the ticket booth). But once inside, you are treated to some of the most creative art you’ll ever see anywhere. The four-story museum was divided according to the different stages in Van Gogh’s short creative life (about ten years total), from the days when he was perfecting his style in Paris to his mental asylum days in Arles and Saint-Rémy. A definitely troubled life, but an incredible creative one.
About a quarter mile from the Museum Quarter park, a somewhat different experience can be found at the old Heineken factory (which moved its production to a new location in 1988). What is now termed the Heineken Experience will set you back about 18 Euros, but it will be some of the best money spent in Amsterdam. The old equipment is still there, to include the still-in-use stables with the black Heineken horses. They even “turn you into beer” in a small theater where the audience is put through the beer-production process as if it were the liquid itself with a vibrating stage that is at various points subjected to heat lamps simulating the fermentation process. And to top it all off, there is the tasting room followed by an incredibly slick bar where you get the two beers that were included with the admission price (which also include a free canal ride aboard the Heineken boat and a souvenir at their downtown store). Not too shabby, and quite educational to boot. This city is definitely growing on me.
Funny how sometimes we convince ourselves that traveling always involve getting into a jet and flying to some exotic, faraway place. Sure, that’s a lot of fun, but the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to realize that distance may not have as much to do with the “travel experience” as I once thought it did. Sometimes the experience can be a lot closer to home. You know, the places we usually see from a few thousand feet above ground when taking off from the local airport to our great, once-a-year adventure. Those places do look quite fascinating from the air, but like so many of them we see in aerial photographs, they tend to remain abstractions in our lives. They are things we momentarily glance at on our way to destinations.
Well, yesterday I decided to change all that. On what turned out to be a rare, beautiful mid-December day in northern Virginia, I ventured out to cross the Potomac River by water taxi. Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? But I can guarantee you that it was, and the reason may have had as much to do with the absence of crowds as with the incredible views that are only possible from a river boat. Bald eagles, bridges, historic shorelines, and the soothing sound of a river boat gently slicing the river waters. It was a surreal experience magnified by the fact that it was so out of character (in a good way) with the crazy, busy world that exist in the area a mere mile inside the river shores. The ride, which connects Old Town Alexandria on the Virginia side with the National Harbor complex on the Maryland side, lasts less than half an hour each way and will set you back $16 for a roundtrip ticket. Would it be cheaper and faster to just zoom down by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in your private automobile? Sure, provided the destination is all that matters to you on any given day. But if it’s the journey you are after, then that slow, undulating ride across the river will definitely do the trick. And the view of the cluttered, busy highway above the bridge is quite nice too.
A few days back I came across this scene at the National Mall by the Capitol Building and it got me thinking about that moment when the light comes on and it’s your time to say something, or do something for that matter. What was significant for me was that this solitary crew was out there doing their job in the open and on a bitterly-cold day when most sane mortals wouldn’t be caught dead in such open spaces (so much for the glamour of journalism). Even when no one was looking, the weather was crappy, and nothing of any consequence appeared to be happening around them, there they were getting the job done. No posse, no trumpet section, no crowds, no adoring fans. I guess none of that matters when you are passionate about what you do.
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 have to admit that just about every time I go out with my cameras in any city, it is people scenes that I am after. I think this is probably true of just about every street photographer out there, and even when I do not consider myself a street photographer in the strictest sense of the term, I can totally sympathize with the impact (or sense of wonderment) that people bring to a photograph. What can I say? It’s all pretty much a matter of personal preference, and personal means that everyone will have a slightly different opinion about this.
Having said that, I do think that people add an additional dimension to our interpretation of a photograph. If anything, they make these photographs a bit less flat, less three-dimensional in our heads. Human nature also makes us identify with people in photographs. If they are looking in a particular direction, so do we. We feel the weight of anything they carry, the sadness in their expressions, and the love in their eyes. Their emotions, real or imagined, become our emotions. We try to see through their eyes, to relive the scene as we imagine they lived it when the photograph was taken. It becomes personal in a way that an empty scene will have a hard time emulating. It is the magic of the still photograph and the reason why so many of us love this art form.
Lately I’ve been wondering about the “regular folk” cliche that keeps appearing in the media and our social daily social interactions. Frankly, I’m not sure what that phrase means any more, as the more I look, the more eclectic we are becoming as a nation. What’s more, this generational phenomena seems to be accentuated by the changes taking place between the looks of “city folk” and the people who live in non-urban areas. Not that I am an expert at these things (but you can see the debate depicted by the Economisthere), or qualified to be humanity’s judge. Far from it. But as I spend more time in the city, I’ve become growingly aware of these differences: the way people dress, the speed at which the move, the willingness to make eye contact, their ideas of neighborliness, their desire to go out at night, the cars they drive, and the overall way they carry themselves. I now wish I could remember all those theories I studied in my Ecology course in college, but maybe I was not paying as much attention to this stuff back then. The point is that for a lack of a better term, we all tend to become “aboriginals” in our own ecosystems, be it the city, the suburb, or the countryside. That’s right, we all may have become “tribal” in one way or another. So, in case the great Crocodile Dundee shows up and asks you what he asked Gus (“What tribe are you, Gus”), you better start thinking of an answer.
This weekend was just no ordinary weekend, and while I am no believer on the effect of cosmic forces on human beings (well, not totally), something was definitely happening out there. For starters, two major calendar events took place this weekend: the official end of summer and the official start of the fall season, as evidenced by the autumnal equinox. This celestial, one-day 12/12 hour split between night and day must have put local residents into a partying mood because Washington, DC was definitely rocking this weekend. On Saturday, it was time for what is arguably the best street party in DC to turn on the party volume along H Street NE. This H Street Festival has become an institution in DC and it keeps getting better every year. With a mix of ethnic and trendy new bars and eateries lining its sidewalks, H Street NE continues to be one of the best kept secrets in the city. You won’t see any tourists there, but if cool establishments with style and a modern vive is what you are after, then you better high-tail-it to H Street NE. This street could just be the antidote you’re looking for to spice up your life a bit.
On Sunday, as the autumnal equinox was in full force, it was time for the Latino Festival DC to bring latin music and celebrations to the streets of DC. Thousands of people jammed Constitution Avenue to watch costumed dancers proudly showcase traditional dances from Central and South America while at Pennsylvania Avenue an incredible assortment of latin food and salsa music extended the party all the way to 14th Street. Fresh coconuts, fresh corn, carnitas, tostones, papusas, yucca, rice and beans, you name it, it was all there. And while my expanding waistline could probably not handle too many weekends like this, I’m already looking forward to next year’s autumnal equinox. I tell you, those cosmic forces do seem to be working after all.