Photography Close To Home

DC Sunset

I love to travel. Yes, I do, and the pages of this blog can attest to that in more ways than one. But I also love to look around my neighborhood, which in my case happens to be the greater Washington, DC area. I couldn’t begin to tell you the many hours I’ve logged walking the streets of DC and the northern Virginia neighborhoods with my camera in search of visually interesting scenes. It’s kind of visual grunt work, and more often than not all I have to show at the end of the day are sore feet and a few, if any, possible keepers. But sometimes, and I say this with a bit of creative emotion if that’s even possible, you are rewarded for being in the right place at the right time. A few seconds in a long day, a man alone, and a sunset in the most unlikely of places for such a spectacle by mother nature. Nobody comes to Washington, DC to watch sunsets, but on this particular day, in a place where thousands of people live, work, and roam the busy streets of Rosslyn, a single, pensive man stood there enjoying one of the rarest, and most wonderful gifts of nature. It was nature at its best; it was glorious solitude at its best. One click. The man walked away, and a moment in time captured forever. I guess it is true, that if we care to see, we will find photographs all around us, regardless of where we’re at.

Add Savanna, Georgia To Your Bucket List

Savannah Museum

I have to admit that I have not spent a lot of time in the American states that are generally grouped together as “the south.” This has been more for reasons of circumstance than of design, mind you, but whatever the reason, I am a neophyte when it comes to the traditions and manners of this wonderful part of the country. Nevertheless, my recent forays into a few cities along the Eastern Seaboard has convinced me that I should have ventured into the area a lot sooner than I did. Case in point: Savannah, Georgia. Walking through this beautiful southern gem of a city, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps my sight had been fixed on faraway places for too long while I was missing what was right there in front of me all along. This historical city of enchanting parks, majestic trees, and incredible restaurants kind of took me surprise, to say the least. For certain, a couple of days were not enough, and like so many people there who kept telling me that they come down to visit every year, I too may become somewhat of a regular visitor myself. My list just keeps on growing. Isn’t it wonderful?

Art Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

museumlady

Some things take a while, but if the result makes the wait worth it, then everyone is happy. Such is the case with the recently completed renovation of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. No wonder those who inhabit this most Federal of cities consider themselves privileged to live in the same city the Smithsonian Institution calls home. The new gallery pretty much took the place of the now-closed Corcoran Museum, but in doing so it acquired the same modernistic vibe that made the Corcoran unique amongst the many galleries in the city. Did I like it? Absolutely, even though I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of some of those single-color canvases and abstract works that dot the museum walls. Not their fault, mind you, for my somewhat superficial knowledge of art history would not even allow me to pretend erudition at the corner bar. The point is that the art scene in our nation’s capital continues to get better and more varied every day, and that is something worth celebrating. And unlike so many museums in Europe and elsewhere, admission is totally free. Score one for America.

 

The Root Of Our Worries

Job Stress

Photographers are an unhappy lot. Or so it would seem from the amount of time they spend discussing equipment, projects, and the apparent success of others in the trade. See some great photos of the Amalfi coast with a golden sunset as a backdrop? Within seconds that sinking feeling of “what am I doing sitting here instead,” begins to take over like the morning fog along the California coast. These understandable worries seem to have their roots in the competitive nature of everything we do these days. It is the feeling that from the moment we wake up each day, we are in a constant race, with too many people seemingly sprinting past us in order to increase the gap that separates us by the end of the day. To a large extent, it has become increasingly more difficult to measure how far we have all come by simply looking at where we started. No, in the spirit of constant competition, the measurement of how far we have all come is growingly dominated by a comparison with others, irrelevant of the reality that not everyone started this so-called race from different starting points. It is the mentality of finite glory, of feeling so far from that Amalfi Coast scenery for us to find any sort of meaning and success on our own coast.

This professional anxiety may be taking its toll on us. At the very least, it stifles creativity by its very nature, and by leading too many people to what I will refer to as an “imitative state” of mind that focuses too much on the emulation of someone else’s success rather than on the development of a personal brand of success. It is the exact opposite of Robert Frost’s advice in The Road Not Taken, with all of the psychological dependencies that accompany the relentless pursuit of the imitative life. This is not to say, though, that the adoption of creative blinders is the answer to that which worries us. Rather, the distinction that I’m alluding to points to the difference between observing and learning from the creative genius of others, and the unaware psychological need of trying to emulate that which is the unique product of someone else’s creativity and genius. The perceived gap of the imitative life is where you will most likely find the roots of all our worries. The popular photographer Zack Arias referred to all these perceptions in our heads as “noise” standing in the way of our own creative actualization. Getting rid of this noise is not easy, for there is so much of it being bombarded into our heads every day. But perhaps the key of getting rid of all those worries and dependencies lies precisely on our ability to suppress that noise, or simply overcome it by singing our own voices louder above their level of disruption. We just have to grow comfortable with our own song and realize that it is as sweet a melody as anyone else has ever produced.

 

You Just Had To Be There

Paris Red

Location, location, location. We have all heard this a million times with regards to retail businesses, but over the years I have become convinced that the same mantra applies to photography. The concept of location is really absurdly simple, as if you cannot take a photo if you are not there. But the simplicity of this notion hides a lot more under its skin, so to speak. That is because location is also inspiration. It brings out the desire to create, to compose, and to see with new eyes all things around us. That first time we set eyes on the Eiffel Tower from the courtyard in Palais de Chaillot in Trocadéro, or the morning when with the first light of the day we emerge from the Via del Corso onto Piazza del Popolo in Rome, are the stuff that feed our creative souls like nothing else can. It is as if such places pull some dormant creative energy from inside of us that for some reason or another, never managed to come out during our more routine lives. Call it creative adrenaline or whatever, but it is real, and some places just reach into us and pull it out. Which places? Well, that’s really a personal thing, and no one but ourselves can tell us where that is. But you’ll know it when you get there because you will feel that uncontrollable creative pull suddenly overwhelming you. And that, my friend, is why our feet take us where they take us.

 

Better Uphill Than Downhill

uphill

Lately I’ve talked to a few folks that seem somewhat morose about everything that’s going on around them. You could actually see the burden on their shoulders, not to mention their cautious, hesitant steps. It is as if this hyperactive world is finally beating them down, leading to conversations long on medical tests and anxiety about a world that has seemingly gone mad. Too many travel warnings, too many terrorists, too many lying politicians, too many medications, and too little time to live a little. It’s all kind of depressing, to tell you the truth, and if you let these worries get into your head, it won’t be long before you convince yourself that life is nothing but a mad dash downhill to the end of the road. What’s so fun about that?

The antidote to all this is nothing less than focusing on always going uphill, rather than downhill. That’s right, struggle more, not less. Celebrate your ignorance, because there will be so much more to learn, but do get on with it. Look in front of you and plan your next move, be it learning something difficult or doing something challenging. Get rid of negative talk and fix your eyes on the hill ahead, no matter how high it is. Look at the stars above and not at the dirt below. Live for the joy of living, and never take that dreaded downhill road. Others have tried that route, only to discover that it leads nowhere. So cheer up, look up, and push up that hill with gusto, because it is along that road where great things always happen.

Seeing Europe From A Window

Classical view from an European train.
Classical view from an European train.

No matter how many times you ride trains in Europe, it never ceases to be a fascinating experience. Don’t know whether it is the novelty of it all, the beautiful landscape, or just the rocking motion of those mighty machines that so enthralls those of us who rarely experience such treats. No doubt it’s a combination of those and many other factors, but whatever it is, I just can’t get enough of it. Mind you, though, that I much prefer to experience European trains during the off-season, when the multitude of visitors to the continent have gone back to work, but even if that’s not possible, any day will do as far as I’m concerned. But this affection for trains is not something everyone possesses, as I recently met some Europeans who literally hated the idea of having to take a train. Go figure.

To a large extent, my love of European trains has a lot to do with seeing things for the first time. When we travel, it is like we send our senses into overdrive. From what we see to what we eat and feel, travelers seem to be in a constant state of overdrive, or enhanced sensitivity. It is as if we cannot get enough of all the things around us, which no doubt receive way more attention than what a local is willing to bestow. As locals ourselves back home, we find it kind of entertaining sometimes to listen to tales from visitors about places we have become too familiar with to notice anymore. Like them, we have been afflicted by a kind of visual numbness induced by familiarity.

Exactly the opposite happens when we travel, specially in trains. That whole combination of speed, visual overload, and briefness, plays wonders inside our heads. Like beautiful postcards flashing at high speed before our eyes, those flashing scenes on a window demand we focus all our senses in order not just to see, but to remember. After all, the very Europe rapidly passing in front of us is precisely the Europe we spent so much money and time to experience. That is why when I ride a train in Europe, afraid that I will miss something, I cannot bring myself to look at anything but that window. Nope, I didn’t come to Europe to read a magazine on a train. I came to Europe to see, feel, and experience Europe. And that window, with its rapidly changing landscape, is precisely the Europe I’m talking about. The small villages, the rivers, the mountains, the pine trees, the tree-lined country roads, the graffiti, the blue sky and vast plains. Yes, all of it. Memories some day, but just as part of me as the world back home. A love affair that has no end.

The Start Of A Weekend Like No Other In Washington, DC

Members of the Rolling Thunders begin to make their presence felt in the city.
A sea of American flags lies between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
A sea of American flags lies between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
For at least one weekend a year, bureaucrat suits give way to a more relaxed American attire.
For at least one weekend a year, bureaucrat suits give way to a more relaxed American attire.

There is perhaps no better place to be in America during Memorial Day that in Washington, DC where a grateful nation pays tribute to so many fallen heroes in such a honorable way. The annual pilgrimage is really something to see. What are otherwise empty streets on weekends are now overwhelmed with the rumbling sounds of motorcycles and visitors making their way to the countless ceremonies taking place at memorials all over town. They come from just about every part of the country with a sense of pride and patriotism that you only wish you could bottle it and sell it to those who could use a little dosage of both. But what I like above all is that these are ordinary Americans, the ones who have built a great nation through personal sacrifice and ingenuity. Even better, their yearly arrival at the capital they own happens to coincide with the hasty exodus by professional politicians from the city, as well as local elites going into lockdown at their pricey downtown condos (God forbid that they had to mingle with “them” people). Am I digging this? Maybe a little. But it sure is nice to know that a great nation full of incredible folks stills exists beyond the walls of Minas Tirith.

A Short Visit To President Lincoln’s Cottage

A somewhat unassuming monument at the Cottage reminds visitors of the dwelling's most famous tenant. [Click photos for larger versions]
A somewhat unassuming monument of a great President.
The beautiful Cottage sits high above one of the best locations in Washington, DC.
One of the best locations in Washington, DC.
A simple reminder of the turbulent times experienced by President Lincoln at a critical time in American history.
A simple reminder of more turbulent times.

Think most politicians dream of spending time in the White House? Then think again. It just so happens that high up on a hill barely three miles north of the White House, a simple cottage next to a civil war cemetery was the preferred dwelling of none other than Abraham Lincoln himself. During the Civil War years, when more than your usual number of shady characters walked the power hallways of our nation’s capital, old Abe managed to spend around one-forth of his presidency conducting business from the quieter government quarters a short walk away from the Soldier’s Home in the District. And after spending a few hour recently touring this little-known Washington attraction, I can definitely see why he chose to spend his summers there. He may not have been able to avoid the raging civil war, but he was able to put some distance between himself and the grinding politics of Washington during these troubled times.

The Cottage is a bit out-of-the-beaten-path for most people. You pretty much have to drive there, although you could get there by bus if you have unlimited patience reserves, or by Metro if you if long walks are your thing when you travel. However you get there, the Cottage is well worth a visit for anyone interested in history and the personalities of the Civil War era. Be mindful, though, that the place is not what I would call photography-friendly. The DC area as a whole is a bit paranoid about photographers, but at this restricted installation you would think that you just entered Area 51 or something like it. No photographs inside any building, severely restricted movement around the Cottage, and security personnel on you like a cheap suit. You would certainly be forgiven for thinking that President Lincoln was still there. But the place is part of the rich history of our country, and well worth enduring the minor photographic and movement inconveniences that come with visiting.

The Power of Contemplation

"He sat watching what went forward with the quiet outward glance of healthy old age" ... George Eliot
“He sat watching what went forward with the quiet outward glance of healthy old age” … George Eliot

Very few things fascinate me as much as when I observe a stranger in a state of utter contemplation. Can’t quite say why, but I assume it has to do with what such scenes do to the power of the imagination. Contemplation is perhaps the ultimate form of freedom, as it gives birth to who we truly are, stripped from the the cacophony of sounds that demand so much of our senses, but deliver so little to out souls. Of course, many would argue that such musings are nothing but signs of mental illness on the part of photo blogger, but I have to believe that there’s something to it. When we loose ourselves into ourselves, something transformative seems to happen. We connect dots, we make sense of us, and above all, we come to know the self in ways that are so deeply personal that it is impossible for others to see. That is precisely what this simple scene along the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris reminded me of. Silence, contemplation, and a journey that only eyes that had seen so much more than mine, could see. No doubt that scenes like these led Percy Bysshe Shelley, the famous British romantic poet from the early 19th Century, to perfectly capture the deep feelings generated by such moments:

 

There is eloquence in the tongueless wind, and a melody in the flowing brooks and the rustling of the reeds beside them, which by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul, awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes, like the enthusiasm of patriotic success, or the voice of one beloved singing to you alone.

 

But why do we allow so very few of these moments in our lives? Fear of what we may discover? Or could it be that they would require us to give less to others as we pursue more of ourselves? I’m sure that there are as many explanations are there are pebbles on a beach. Such a pity, for I’m sure we could all benefit from heeding Shelly’s wise advice to “… awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture…”

 

Little Havana: 50 Years Late, But Still Worth It

Symbol of Cuba in Miami.
Symbol of Cuba in Miami.
Summer straw hats have been a symbol of the Caribbean nation for longer than anyone cares to remember.
Summer straw hats.
Hand-crafted Cuban cigars are one of the main reasons tourist still flock to Little Havana.
Hand-crafted Cuban cigars.
Cuban espresso is everywhere.
Cuban espresso is everywhere.
Hanging bananas brought back memories of youth growing up in the Caribbean.
Hanging bananas typical in the Caribbean.
Ground zero at Little Havana.
Ground zero at Little Havana.
Not everyone can join the local domino games, but if you are over 55 and a local resident, then you're in.
Must be over 55 to play.
The colorful, Cuban restaurants are still thriving there, with prices that will make you want to come back over and over again.
Colorful restaurants thrive in the area.

Sometimes, it takes a long time to get to a place that has always been right in front of you.  In my case, four or five decades, to be exact, but even if late to the game, the trip was still worth it.  I’m talking about one of the most famous communities in America: Little Havana.  After endless trips to Florida, I finally made it to the famous Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Miami.  And while perhaps the original flavor of the place has changed somewhat since the 1960-70’s, the Cuban latin vibe that made it famous in the first place is still there, even if perhaps in smaller quantities.

Coming from the somewhat sober Washington, DC area, it was more than refreshing to walk down a street while listening to the latin rhythm of bongos and enjoying the unmistakable aromas emanating from Cuban kitchens.  And while I had been forewarned about petty crime in the area, all I experienced were great, friendly locals who didn’t mind at all you taking their pictures.  Maybe the fact that I spoke Spanish had something to do with it, but I’m not totally sure.  My impressions were more of a very proud people intent on showcasing their cultural heritage while feeding you copious amounts of food.  And if it is great food at incredible low prices you’re after, go no further than the Nuevo Siglo (New Century) grocery store/restaurant, where you can eat lunch with various sides for less than $10.  I guess the domino-playing locals at the Domino Park were right when I asked them where would they have lunch today in Little Havana if they had to.  A little bit of Cuba and the Caribbean in America.  And for this roving photographer, a welcomed reminder of an island upbringing and the Spanish melodies that still, quietly reverberate inside his mind.

 

Empty Tables

There is something about empty tables that always stir the imagination.
There is something about empty tables that always stir the imagination.
Exploring behind restaurants can sometimes result in incredible finds.
Exploring behind restaurants can sometimes result in incredible finds.
Empty tables wait around the fountain in Old Town Alexandria.
Empty tables wait around the fountain in Old Town Alexandria.

I’m fascinated by tables. No, it’s not a clinical condition or anything of the sort, but rather that whenever I see a table with some chairs, it is almost impossible for me not to photograph it. Now, mind you, that I’m not talking about just any table out there. My photographic fascination lies with those unoccupied, lonely, waiting-for-someone kind of tables. Yes, yes, a bit awkward, I’ll grant you that, but I just can’t help it. Every time I see one, I am inevitably transported to an imaginary story of a secret rendezvous, a long wait for a person who never shows up, or the melancholic story of a table that remains unoccupied, night after solitary night. Yes, I can see it now: a long wait, nervous anticipation, an uncomfortable smile, a conversation, a tear. Who knows. All I know is that I’m no writer, but if I were, perhaps it would be at one of those empty tables where I would start my next great story, or end it.

 

The Perfect Season

The most colorful time of the year is upon us. [Click photo for larger version]
The most colorful time of the year is upon us. [Click photo for larger version]
Don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, there is no more perfect season than autumn. Sure, it’s wet, days are shorter, and you definitely need to bundle up a bit before going out. But that’s precisely what makes it so perfect. Nature’s colors at their best, sidewalks covered with fallen leaves, and chilly temperatures that elevate every quiet moment to the level of supreme enjoyment. The heat is gone, and so is the colorless haze that unmercifully mutes the summer colors. The sounds of life’s constant drums are reduced a decibel or two, and nature’s lights are dimmed a bit as if to force us to slow down and take in the transformation that is going on all around us. So here’s a salute to the perfect season: bring out the port wine, dust off the scarfs, put logs on the fireplace, and watch the reluctant sun barely raise over the horizon. Walk out, let the morning dew caress your face, count the colors of the leaves, and breathe the clear, chilly air of a perfect autumn day. Worry less, live more, sit on a bench, hold someone’s hand, and stare at the magnificent spectacle that lies before our very eyes. Let go, let in, and just be. Let nature remind you that every year is different, that you are different, and that in spite of the changes (or because of them), life will still be as colorful as the golden trees adorning the autumn countryside.

 

Visual Melody

An afternoon sun shines a spotlight on a majestic leaf. [Click photo for larger version]
An afternoon sun shines a spotlight on a majestic leaf. [Click photo for larger version]
Today I’m concerned with the notion of visual context. Yes, while the world goes to pieces, I’m worrying about context, and the lack of it. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about the rest of the world (because I do), but rather that after taking this photograph a few days ago, I came to the realization that everything around it, or external to it, only detracted from what I deemed to be unique on that lonely leaf. The environment in which this leaf existed seemed irrelevant at best, and obstructive at worst. I simply didn’t care about that environment because my eyes were so fixated on what I was seeing, that everything else was, at best, irrelevant.  If nature had a standing before our courts, I would’ve considered filing scene trespassing charges against it. The leaf was visual melody, the rest was simply noise.

 

A Summer Stop By The Windy City

 

One of the best things to do in the city is to take a walk down the Chicago River riverwalk downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
One of the best things to do in the city is to take a walk down the Chicago River riverwalk downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
The Theater District downtown allows for walking access to numerous Broadway productions.
The Theater District downtown allows for walking access to numerous Broadway productions.
Taking a break from their street performance, a couple remains in character even when relaxing.
Taking a break from their street performance, a couple remains in character even when relaxing.
The centerpiece structure at Dylan's Candy Bar will make sure you don't leave the store empty-handed.
The centerpiece structure at Dylan’s Candy Bar will make sure you don’t leave the store empty-handed.
Friends party down the Chicago River while fueling the trip with a couple bottles of champagne.
Friends party down the Chicago River while fueling the trip with a couple bottles of champagne.
While the Chicago River appears to be a big party venue, there are plenty of quiet spots still available along the riverwalk.
While the Chicago River appears to be a big party venue, there are plenty of quiet spots still available along the riverwalk.
While the city has plenty of formal dining establishments, informal hangouts remain the best places for enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
While the city has plenty of formal dining establishments, informal hangouts remain the best places for enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
The incredible cheese counter at the Eataly store is only one of the many wonders to be discovered at this Italian import.
The incredible cheese counter at the Eataly store is only one of the many wonders to be discovered at this Italian import.

The city of Chicago never ceases to surprise you. It seems that every time I visit (which, granted, is not too often), the place has significantly changed in one way or another. Unfortunately, these days, when we hear about Chicago in the news, the headlines have more to do with the escalating crime rate than with all the wonderful things that are happening in the city. That’s a pity, because without a doubt, this city has one of the most vibrant urban environments I’ve seen anywhere. Like in New York City, people are about at all hours of the day and night. Incredible restaurants dot just about every block downtown, and if you take the time to walk down the beautiful riverwalk promenade, you’ll be able to do some wine tasting while watching the never-ending boat procession sailing down the Chicago River. The negative headlines are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind in the beautiful downtown area, as the city simply takes your mind away from those concerns.

There’s also a lot more to the city than the famous Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile, even if that mile alone is worth a special trip to Chicago. After all, right smack in the middle of that mile you’ll find the out-of-this-world Dylan’s Candy Bar store, which is sure to induce a Pavlovian response from even the strongest mortal. But venture a few blocks west of this famous mile, and you’ll come face-to-face with such places as the incredible Italian import that is the Eataly food emporium. You could spend an entire week inside the place indulging in a joyous adventure of pure, unadulterated gluttony.

But with only a day-and-a-half to spare during this trip, I chose to spent most of my available photography time in a couple of areas: walking under the overhead Metro lines that shoot down N. Wabash Street and visiting the adjacent Theater District in the N. State Street area. These areas south of the Chicago River are perfect for street photography, and while not as busy as the famous mile north of the river, they provide ample elbow room for photographers to do their thing. Venture a few blocks east and you’ll bump right into the plush Grant Park, which also affords a whole slew of photographic opportunities. It is neighborhoods like these that make Chicago such a well-kept photographic secret. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if urban photography is your thing, then during the summer months Chicago has to be up there on your list of great cities to visit for great urban photography. The beautiful architecture alone merits its ranking on that list. Come winter, though, the Windy City will live up to its Arctic reputation, and perhaps you’ll be better off taking your precious self to a place where no one has ever suffered from frostbite. Fair-weather photography advice? Maybe, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.