It’s been a long time, and yet, upon my return to the wonderfully busy city of Tokyo after many decades, I have found the city as enchanting as the day I left, if not more so. Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is packed with people and activity, with pedestrians crisscrossing each other with the grace and precision of professional ballerinas. I had read some recent travel articles describing the city as a monument to organized chaos, and perhaps that is an apt initial description of what a traveler encounters when taking the first foray into its busy streets. But once you get the hang of the city, you will just marvel at how precise and organized everything is. Even the seemingly intractable metro system is easy to navigate and quite logical in its layout. The smooth and on-time rides to anywhere in the city is something that people back home can only dream about.
But what makes Tokyo so special above everything else is the diversity of its neighborhoods. From classy, elegant Ginza to rowdy, loud Akihabara, the vibrant neighborhood scenes are a marvelous study in contrasts. Need more excitement, then head on to Shibuya with its world-famous intersection crossing and incredible array of restaurants. Camera and tech shopping? Then it is Shinjuku you want to visit, with the imposing Yodobashi mega store right outside the metro station and Bic Camera not far down the street. Not sure if there is such a thing as a technology center of the earth, but if there is, it surely has to be right here in Tokyo.
And then there is the more quiet, sedate part of Tokyo. Strolling along the Imperial Gardens and the forest grounds surrounding the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya you would be forgiven for thinking that you were in another world, a sudden feeling of solitude taking over your senses. This shifting landscape character, and the gentleness of its everyday people, are what make Tokyo such a wonderful city. Drumbeats followed by poetry. Like the silk in its famous kimonos, the city flows in a constant, rhythmic movement that is both captivating and disarming. A city not to be missed in a lifetime.
I love to travel in low season. Granted that not much is happening after the masses of tourists dwindle to a trickle in any part of the world, but that is precisely what I find so enchanting about going places. It is a way of finding plenty in the absence of rather than in the abundance of. And Homer, Alaska with its pristine environment, was such a place in mid-September. Almost barren of tourists and wanderers, the majority of local businesses closed for the season, and the first salvos of the inevitable Alaskan winter beginning to appear, the setting was nearly perfect for the advent of a much-needed, mind-clearing brew. Long, bundled-up walks by the rocky beach during the early morning hours, beautiful sunrises over the glaciers in Kachemak Bay State Park mountain range, and long, sumptuous seafood dinners washed down with California wines under the dark-blue skies of Cook Inlet, were the perfect antidote for this city dweller. Think of it as food for the soul, a reset for lives too occupied with too many “silly little nothings.” And the silence, whith only an occasional interruption by the high-pitched call of a passing seagull, or the rhythmic drumroll of the crashing waves. I’m not accustomed to hearing those sounds these days, and yet, their unpretentious melodies brought back memories of places far away, of lives already lived, and of times when dreams and the imagination were as unencumbered as the wind flowing down Kachemak Bay on a September morning. There, along those cold and desolate nordic rocks and the majestic ocean keeping guard over sleeping glaciers, I was reacquainted with someone I once knew, so very long ago. I guess sometimes it does take a distance of over 4,000 miles to arrange such a meeting with those we once knew.
Is it possible to find happiness inside a commercial shipping container? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on a whole slew of factors. But be that as it may, my interest remains on those who would actually answer “yes” to this sort of question. This is specially the case in big cities like Washington, DC where long, sour faces have become the modern Venetian masks of the average worker. Ever ride the metro during the rush morning or afternoon hours? You would be forgiven for thinking that smiling has been officially banned in the city. More than that, you could also be forgiven for thinking that you have become invisible, or transparent at the very least. No eye contact, no acknowledgement of your presence, and definitely no smiling. Strangers doing their best to ignore each other while sharing the same space, the same direction, and the same universe.
But then, when you least expect it and are about to give up on humanity, something different happens. Right there in the middle of grumpy city, and inside a hot metal shipping container, the very meaning of happiness and friendliness. No suits, no high-paying job, no ideal working conditions, and no high-flying college diploma on the wall. Just the mere presence of a photographer looking into the container was enough to do away with invisibility. As if being transported into another Second World galaxy, I was suddenly blinded by the toothy smile of an alien DC character and his incredible good attitude. An unsolicited display of friendship immediately followed, ending in a gladiators’ duel of who could express the most effusive “great talking to you” goodby. Walking away with my camera, I couldn’t help but think of the words uttered by the late Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh: “There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” A chance encounter, a lifted spirit, and a much needed shot of faith in humanity. Away I went with a little more bounce on my steps and a much needed reminder of the power of good attitude.
There is something refreshingly simple about visual isolation. Not sure whether it is because of what we choose to leave out or because what we choose to accentuate. But whether it is the result of subtraction or addition, our enjoyment of visual scenes seems to be directly related to this simple visual arithmetic. Everyone has their favorites, but for me, subtraction seems to win most of the time. That is not to say that my intent is to photograph a single object in a scene, but rather that in every scene recorded, I find it more appealing when something within that scene plays a dominant or prominent role. It could be a castle at a distance, or a gentle hand over a book, whatever. What matters is that the photo is clearly anchored on an object, or a theme, as opposed as having every item in the photo compete for your attention. Granted, though, that focusing on an object is not as complicated as focusing on a theme. A photo of flowers will always be easier to capture than a photo depicting melancholy. But something must dominate the thought process, something must stand out to be remembered, and if a photographer is lucky or skillful enough to capture both an object and a mood, then that is payday in a creative’s life. Easier said than done, but undoubtedly the magnetic force that keeps us on the eternal journey of discovery.
Everyone has his or her weaknesses. It’s only human. One of mine is a recurring one, and by recurring I mean like once a year, but not more in deference to my waistline. I’m talking about your traditional, run-of-the-mill county fair, where your shoes get dirty with God-knows-what, and where even the mention of new wave cuisine could find you fed to the animals for lunch. Not that I have a drop of farmer in my blood. On the contrary, as a self-proclaimed urbanite, you are more likely to find me eating al fresco at some city bistro rather than standing devouring a turkey leg with my bare hands while some unknown red sauce drips down my cheek. That is, most of the time, because come summer, it is the county fairs that get my attention (this year, the Loudon County Fair, to be precise), and I frankly couldn’t care much about those bistro. It is secret sauce I want, lots of it, and I want it on everything from greasy fries to corndogs.
But county fairs are a lot more than a food pilgrimage for me. They are also therapy. That is because there, amongst the people bathing pigs, parading cattle, and taking care of show goats, I will also find the kind of real people that you rarely see in the big cities. You can’t pretend much when you’re rubbing clean a pig and herding goats the next minute. Things are, well, what they are. No pretentiousness, no bragging, no posturing, no nothing, but heroes all in my eyes. As I see it, the farmers who take part in these county fairs are some of the key linchpins in that complex system which feeds every one of us. And that is why taking out a day to see the fruit of their efforts is something I never miss every summer. They don’t even mind being photographed, which is an added bonus. All I know is that it always feels good being out there learning about things I don’t know anything about and spending some enjoyable moments with people I have never met before. Just can’t wait for next time, and those corndogs better be there.
Ah, to be a gentleman. There are not many words in the English language that are mere doors into a larger context than the word “gentleman.” Not that the term holds as much connotation in the modern world as it did a century ago, but rather than its mere use gives rise to all sorts of controversial interpretations of its meaning. For some it is merely descriptive, or at the very least, representative of an era when well-dressed men with impeccable manners and taste, roamed the earth. For others, its mere use is the functional equivalent of a war song, a remnant of an era when men with all sorts of predatory faults dominated the earth at the expense of just about everyone else. The word just seems to flatter some while insulting others. Such are the times in which we live.
Are we to conclude, then, that the whole notion of a “gentleman” is being rendered irrelevant in a world consumed with informality and industrial-size social conflict? My first reaction is to say no, but I’m afraid that my opinion may be wrong, or at the very least, outdated. As a nostalgic compromise, then, I would like to say that while the concept may not be totally dead, it may have been pushed underground, so to speak (I guess wearing a jacket while carrying a dog residue bag isn’t helping matters much either). Whatever the case, the word is quite controversial in modern times, and it may have to do to a large extent in our ability to achieve a commonly-accepted notion of what a gentleman is, or should be. But even if we strived for a common definition, I’m not sure that the attempt would find much agreement amongst folks out there. In some sense, we all kind have an image in our heads of what a gentleman is, or how should he act (a milder version of James Bond perhaps?), but these thoughts may be heavily infused with heavy doses of nostalgia, movie characters, or some self-created misconceptions. So, what are we to conclude about a gentleman today? I’m not sure, and will have to admit that I rarely see anything approximating such a species. The closest I’ve ever gotten was this person who I recently photographed in Georgetown, but that bag he’s holding may just put him slightly short of the threshold. Or does it? I hate to admit it, but these days I’m not sure where that threshold is.
Who buys paper books these days? Certainly, not me. I’ve gone purely electronic, for an Amazon Kindle with ten books fits nicely in your jacket pocket, but try to do that with paper books. It just won’t work. Paper books are chunky, unruly, lack build-in dictionaries, and demand a separate bag for storage. So, why not declare them dead once and for all and be done with it? Well, not so fast. From what I can see during my photographic roamings around major cities, paper books seem to be alive and well, and for one reason or another, lately I’ve begun to miss them. Looking through my photos I also discovered that while I tend to photograph lots of people reading books, I have yet to take a photo of anyone reading an electronic book reader. Why is that?
For starters, nothing beats the tactile feeling of holding a book. Their physical presence, while usually cumbersome, is also what keeps us engaged with its contents. We feel its weight on our hands, we see it, we judge it by its thickness, and we must actively secure it with one hand while the other gently waves its pages with a sweeping motion reminiscent of a professional harpist. And when we open a book, we experience that unmistakable exhilaration that comes from opening a window into a great view, a quickening of the senses driven by anticipation. The sweet perfume of a freshly printed book, a lonely title sitting prominently by itself on on a main page, and a first sentence to prepare us for the story that’s about to come. Yes, that first sentence that author Jhumpa Lahiri aptly described as “… a handshake, perhaps an embrace.” All of this I miss when holding my electronic reader. And every now and then, when nostalgia becomes too hard to bear, I too go out and buy a paper book, if anything to experience that warm embrace that never left my imagination. A feeling that has become collateral damage in a world consumed by technology, but one that hopefully will never die.
Chances are that you have never set foot inside the Smithsonian’s imposing Arts and Industries Building. Not that the building is hidden away somewhere where no one can find it. It rather sits in plain view of us all, right next to the Smithsonian Castle and smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. The building is incredible large and a beautiful architectural masterpiece, not to mention that it borders what many consider to be the most beautiful garden in DC, the Enid A. Haupt Garden. But not too many people have been inside, as it has been in constant renovation for a while now (translation: empty and closed to the public). I have lived in the area for nearly two decades and have never set foot inside, and have grown accustomed to seeing the plain-paper “closed” sign taped to its magnificent doors. That is, until today, when by chance I happened to walk by and some great folks conducting a demo along Jefferson Dr SW who thought that I was a tourist and told me to check out the inside of the building. At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out to be that they were not.
From inside, the structure is nothing short of spectacular. A throwback to another era with the finesse and class of an old Parisian covered market. The metal ceiling and beam-supported upper deck reminded me of the central market in Budapest, but without the people and the cheerfulness that is typical in those markets. Empty, underutilized, and unseen by most of us, this Arts and Industries Building, like a queen in exile, sits royally at the heart of the nation’s capital in total silence. And that is a pity. Perhaps one day it will be yet another museum at the Mall, but if it were up to me, I would create a food market to rival some of the best food markets in the world. Sadly, this will never happen. Most likely, and in true local fashion, a city full of museums will gain another museum in the end, and another place where you are expected to be quiet. Oh, well. I guess once I set eyes on the place, it was more of a “laugh out loud” kind of vision that wedged itself inside my head.
It is a yearly ritual, and a loud one at that. The Rolling Thunder has rolled into town to once again honor our veterans during Memorial Day, and like in every previous year, there will be crowds cheering and crowds that can’t wait to get out of town when “them” people come rolling in with their unkept beards and noisy motorcycles. But whatever your attitudes towards this event are, there’s no denying that it is one of the most colorful and meaningful displays of patriotism you’ll see anywhere in America today. And if you are in the market for a motorcycle, there’s no better place in this town to check out your next, shinny purchase than at the Pentagon’s North Parking Lot. It is quite an incredible display, even if two-wheeled riding is not your thing (it certainly is not mine). Looking at all those wonderful machines, it was impossible not to see yourself riding freely into the sunset with your bandana firmly wrapped around your forehead and a pair of leather chaps flapping in the air along a desolate country road. Of course, there were also those less romantic thoughts of laying on a hospital bed in traction for six months that kept interfering with the riding into the sunset thing, but I guess it’s only natural to dream a little while your feet are firmly planted on the ground. Whatever the case, on this Memorial Day we join the thousands of riders descending on our nation’s capital in honoring the great men and women who gave their precious lives in the service of their country. Their ultimate sacrifice will never be forgotten.
“The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we — in a less final, less heroic way — be willing to give of ourselves.” … Ronald Reagan
I am not a macro photographer. Not by a long shot. In fact, with all the talented people in that field, I think it is a wise decision on my part to take my mediocrity somewhere else where it can be of greater use. But you can’t deny there’s something to those close shots that is kind of enticing. However, if you see me posting too many of them, then you can pretty much conclude that I wasn’t able to find enough interesting people doing interesting things out there to photograph. And lately, that seems to be the case. Don’t get me wrong, I love living where I live, but there’s no denying that people around here cannot be described as outdoorsy. In the metropolitan Washington, DC area things happen primarily indoors, and if it is Parisian lifestyle that you’re after photographically, well, then you need to get on a plane and go to Paris to find it.
Luckily, the absence of people doesn’t mean the end of photographic opportunities. There are plenty of shapes and colors to be had, specially during the spring and early summer. Local gardens are blooming like crazy, and the freshly painted doors in the area offer the perfect backdrop for all sorts of photo scenes (the best doors can be found in Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria). This kind of photography, however, almost begs for the tight shot, for the kind of subtraction that often distracts the viewer by creating visual noise. Easy, then? Well, not quite. For someone who normally looks for people in a scene, it takes a new way of looking, like substituting laser vision for the more generic pano vision most of us have been accustomed to. When we narrow our sight that way, we will never run out of photographic opportunities. And the best part? Plants and doors have never objected to you taking their picture, so there’s something to be said for that.
Today, I got in touch with my inner child. You know the one, that one which lives inside us all and which at times surprises us at the most unexpected moments. It lies dormant, and more-often-than-not suppressed, in some locked chamber inside our hearts. We are conscious of its presence while it lingers unattended under the watchful eye of those merciless wardens of our so-called happiness, adulthood and correctness. But try as they may on days like these, those vicious suppressors of spontaneity and childhood innocence lie helpless before the sight of hundreds of kites slicing their way through the April sky above the blooming blossoms of a glorious spring day. No chance, none at all.
That is because today was a special day, the day in which the great Smithsonian Institution celebrates the annual Blossom Kite Festival. Colorful flying machines flying in all directions with a cloudy canvas as a backdrop. Children whose eyes rarely left the sky while their parents desperately tried their best at a two-minute crash course on flying the unruly kites. Entanglements as common as the acrobatic displays by the most experienced flyers. Big kites, small kites, kites without a tail, kites with flags, and the wonderment of thousands of people who could not conceive of missing an event like this. And yes, there on that grassy field of wonders, someone I knew from my childhood showed up, unannounced and marveling at the celestial spectacle as he has once marveled on a land so very far away. He didn’t stay long, but long enough to remind me that flying a kite has never been about expertise, but rather about letting your dreams soar way up into the skies and then fighting like hell to keep them there for as long as you can. Something the me now sometimes forgets, but something the me then always remembered. And that’s what great days are made of.
Like happiness, it never last very long. That’s just the way it is, but while it lasts, it is nothing short of heaven. I’m obviously referring to the yearly spectacle that is the Cherry Blossoms blooming season around the Tidal Basin area downtown Washington, DC. That’s right, the same town where politicians have given new meaning to the word hate, but where nature, in spite of their attempt to spoil it, explodes in all its beauty for a few days in March every year. Around the grassy meadows of the Washington Mall, the eternal fights just a few blocks away seem as in a different galaxy. The beautiful bloom of these bendy trees remains as oblivious of the politicians as the politicians remain of their delicate flowers. In fact, the Cherry Blossoms are a happy zone, a zone where smiles and enjoyment of what life has to offer are potent enough to exclude any feeling of unhappiness and dejection. A zone where “public demonstrations of affection” are not only evident everywhere you look, but where they are impossible to repress amongst so much beauty. It is a yearly ritual that only lasts three or four days, but one that that is the clearest symbol of spring and of the beauty, happiness, and hope that still exists in the world. Nature, and people, at their best. The world could use a little bit more of both.