A Visit To A Neighborhood Library

The Georgetown Neighborhood Library is one of the lesser known gems in Washington, DC.
The Georgetown Neighborhood Library is one of the lesser known gems in Washington, DC.
High ceilings and incredible windows accentuate the quiet atmosphere at the library.
High ceilings and incredible windows accentuate the quiet atmosphere at the library.
The library royally sits on top of one of the highest points in DC.
The library royally sits on top of one of the highest points in DC.

Something feels a bit different when you step into a library these days. The first thing you notice is that these great places of wisdom have ceased to be the meeting places of yesteryears. These days the level of activity within these ancient temples can be best described as a trickle. Long gone are the days when the library was central to our thirst for knowledge, or to our social lives. The Internet and the digital revolution rendered them pretty much irrelevant for most people, and it all happened seemingly at the speed of light. The digitization of knowledge meant that we no longer had to physically travel to find it. Rather, knowledge would now come to us through a few, simple strokes on a keyboard. Ditto for our social interaction. Handshakes? That’s so yesterday. Today we just click on a “like” and be done with it. Catching a potential partner’s eye across the library table? You kidding? Just make sure your online dating profile is up to snuff and that your photoshopped photo looks great on the dating site. Click. Send. Done.

But no matter how much some of us appear to be grieving for the passing of the old-fashioned library, I still think that its total demise remains a thing of the future. Sure, the books in those buildings appear to be more decoration than references (when I visited not one person had a book in front of them, but everyone was at a computer terminal or sitting with a laptop), but some of the traditional attributes of libraries remain as needed today as they were decades ago when we all used to hang out around such places. Quiet. Silence. Solitude. A sense of space. A time for introspection and learning ( and yes, on account of propriety I’m leaving out some of the shenanigans that made libraries famous for different reasons way back then). Today, there are simply not too many places available in cities and communities for people to enjoy those somewhat passive pursuits. Noise pollution and endless visual demands have taken a serious toll on all of us. But in a library, the moment people set foot in them, silence and quiet take over just like magic, and a sense of “do-not-disturb” immediately becomes the norm, rather than the exception. Social detox at its best. Bastions of peace and quiet in a world bent on denying us those simple pleasures. And while such musings could easily be interpreted as excessive nostalgia or some equally forlorn feeling, I can only hope that such places never cease to exist, even if the betting is heavily stacked against them.

 

Life At 24mm

Long Hall
The wider you go with a lens, the more perspective you will add to a photo. [Click photos for larger versions]
Work Outside
In what passes in DC as a patio, a man finds a little quiet in which to do some alfresco work.
Lunch Break
With a name like the Upper Senate Park, this quiet local gem is hardly ever visited by tourists.
Market Restaurant
The 24mm focal length is ideal for capturing a lot of real estate when photographing indoors.

Wide-angle photography is not everyone’s cup of tea. Ask any photographer out there what his or her favorite focal length is, and more-likely-than-not the answer will be other than a wide-angle lens. I count myself in this group, because throughout the years I’ve developed a real affinity for 50mm lenses. You could say that 50mm is my general visual comfort level, even if this sounds a lot less glamorous than the more technical explanations you’ll see on the Internet. But it is what it is, and no matter how many times I hit the streets with my camera, a 50mm is always inside my bag.

Having said that, it is also true that in the last year or so, I have also developed quite an affinity for the 21-28mm focal length. Perhaps because reality makes more sense when it appears in context or something, but ever since I acquired the incredible Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super-Elmar lens, my eyes have been opened wide, so to speak. These wide, optical marvels usually don’t come cheap (they can set you back as much as the cost of an European vacation), so my move into this area can best be described as hesitant at best. At least until recently, when I decided to give cheap a chance.

That’s where my incursion into the 24mm range comes in. It all started with a conversation that took place during my recent trip to Chelsea in NYC. During this trip I had the pleasure of meeting Olof Willoughby, one of the co-founders of the popular Leica Meet group. It just so happens that Olaf is quite fun of the Leica 24mm range (think European vacation here too), and the day I met him, that was all he was carrying. So, I started wondering that if such a distinguished photographer as Olaf loved that 24mm focal length, that perhaps I was missing something. Not that I haven’t dabbled into 24mm before. I have, and I was once the proud owner of the magnificent Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED lens. But weight and bulk considerations got the best of me, and after kind of abandoning this lens back at home for too long, I decided to part ways with it. Have I lived to regret this decision? Of course I have, but since that lens now retails for about $2,100 (which admittedly is way less than its Leica equivalent) I haven’t been too keen to replace it.

But here is where the “hiding in plain sight” story comes in. I’m referring to the Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D lens, a small gem originally designed in the 1990’s. Retailing for $391 and weighing a mere 270 grams (9.5 oz), it is no wonder why the lens has remained quite popular with travel photographers. Affordable, lightweight, and tack-sharp, this lens produces incredible results while ensuring you stay away from your chiropractor’s office. Nano crystal coating?  No.  Any aspherical elements?  Nope.  Class leading element/group combo?  Of course not.  Modern design?  You must be joking.  Great photos while saving you thousands of dollars you could put towards that European vacation?  You bet.  Modern glass, while unquestionably great, is not providing thousands of dollars worth of optical performance gain to justify their ever-growing cost.  That is specially the case when you factor in the capabilities of modern processing software.  Blasphemy?  Not really, but perhaps a kitchen analogy will help explain it.  It is often said that buying a modern knife will not necessarily result in making anyone a better cook.  The secret to better meals is just to learn how to cook better rather than to keep spending tons of money on the latest kitchen gadgets.  Too simple?  Perhaps, but something that entire generations of Italian grandmothers figured out a long time ago.

 

A Reading Room Like No Other

Girl quietly reading by a lone lamp at the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.
Girl quietly reading by a lone lamp at the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.
Long, winding reading tables dot the main floor of the Reading Room and contribute to its scholastic atmosphere.
Long, winding reading tables dot the main floor of the Reading Room and contribute to its scholastic atmosphere.
One of the beautifully private research alcoves right off the Main Reading Room at the Thomas Jefferson Building.
One of the beautifully private research alcoves right off the Main Reading Room at the Thomas Jefferson Building.
The majestic dome stands way up high in solemn guard above the famous research room and the researchers quietly toiling below.
The majestic dome stands way up high in solemn guard above the famous research room and the researchers quietly toiling below.
The entrance hall to the Thomas Jefferson Building is commonly described as Beaux Arts architecture at its finest.
The entrance hall to the Thomas Jefferson Building is commonly described as Beaux Arts architecture at its finest.
A child, and perhaps a future researcher, has already mastered the ability to ignore the noise around him in the pursuit of knowledge.
A child, and perhaps a future researcher, has already mastered the ability to ignore the noise around him in the pursuit of knowledge.

It is a rare moment when the largest library institution in the world, the Library of Congress, opens the doors to its Main Reading Room at the Thomas Jefferson Building to the general public.  In fact, it only happens a couple of times a year, but most people (including myself) generally miss it because the news surrounding these rare events tends to be about as low-keyed as you can get.  After all, these library folks are not the kind of folks you will generally encounter down in Rio de Janeiro letting loose during Mardi Gras.  So when I received an early-morning text from a great photographer friend yesterday asking if I was interested in heading up to Capitol Hill with our cameras, the offer was impossible to resist.  Low light, no tripods allowed, and surely lots of folks ready to photo-bomb your shots. No problem, and away we went.

To say that the the Main Reading Room is an impressive place would be a gross understatement.  Entering this imposing Beaux Arts room with its incredibly ornamented dome rising about 160 feet from the ground is quite an event in-an-of-itself.  It is reminiscent to the experience of entering a Renaissance church in Florence and suddenly been overtaken by a magnificent view you could not have foreseen prior to entering the building.  But as beautiful as the scene was, photographing the place was to prove a bit of a challenge.  There were people, and photographers of all kinds, all over the place. No one (including yours truly) wanted to miss out on this rare opportunity, and at times it was as if photographers and visitors were engaging in a hastily choreographed, chaotic dance without a dance director.  In this environment, timing, patience, and a steady hand to compensate for the lack of a tripod (generally forbidden, but possible to get permission if you plan way ahead and are willing to grow old in the process) were key to getting a decent photograph.

And then there was the low light, which for a Leica rangefinder shooter trying to focus manually in a darkish room does not lead to a match made in heaven.  So out came the external Leica EVF adapter, and just like that, I could suddenly focus in the dark.  I suddenly felt better about having had to sell an organ to pay for the darn contraption.  Now I just have to work on developing the smooth breathing rhythm of a zen monk in deep meditation before I press that shutter release.  No doubt this is easier said than done.