It was a cliffhanger, but the famous Tidal Basin Cherry Blossoms did manage to show up after all. A bit subdued mind you, but there they are along with the crowds. And while the cold, rainy season is kind of putting a damper on people’s mood, it is virtually impossible to walk amongst these wonderful trees and not feel some sort of uplifting, positive force that could can turn any sour Washington bureaucrat into a happy person. And believe me, that is saying a lot. Every year, this beautiful gift of nature appears to remind us that not everything is gloom and doom in this world. In fact, it is a reminder that the dark, cold days of winter don’t last forever, and that there will always be a spring, and flowers blooming, and lovers moved by nature’s spectacle. Life as an eternal cycle, with endless springs to come.
Who would’ve know. Mention the Spanish Steps to anyone who enjoys travel, and immediately romantic images of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome with its fountain and multitude of lovers peering down the busy Via dei Condotti come rushing in. A stroll with your lover down the narrow Via del Babuino in late afternoon to the imposing Piazza del Papolo before catching a romantic dinner along the undulating Tiber River. The stuff dreams are made of. So, it is time to get those tickets and head on out to the Bella Italia and Old Rome in search of the Spanish Steps? Perhaps. But guess what? Just yesterday I discovered that right here in good old Washington, DC, we too have Spanish Steps, and you can get there by metro! Steps? Check. Lovers? Check. Views? Check. Tiber River? Well, would you settle for the off-color Potomac River? If yes, then check. Romantic dinner? There’s plenty of romance a few steps away at Dupont Circle, so check. Antiquity and beautiful architecture with narrow, cobblestone streets? Highly overrated.
So, yes, there you have it. Hidden away between S St NW and Decatur Pl NW a bit north of Dupont Circle, and sitting amongst a slew of foreign Embassies, lies our lilliputian version of the famous Italian landmark. And you know what, they’re kind of nice. Small, but offering the kind of privacy that sometimes makes all the difference. Very few people seem to know about this place, specially if they don’t live close by and have to traverse the area out of necessity. Beautifully out of sight in plain view. Brilliant. And while somewhat lacking the grandiose magnitude of its Italian distant relative, it didn’t seem to lack any of the romance for lovers occupying its steps. There were giggles. There were stares. There was a kiss, and a lover’s hand. When you already have all that, who needs Rome after all.
Ever wonder whether we are all artists in some way or another? I mean, even if you have yet to express yourself publicly in some artistic form or fashion, it is not an exaggeration to say that within us all there is an artistic bend that has yet to be discovered, even by ourselves. Why am I saying this? It’s all because of the photograph above, or more precisely, because of the artistic expression that became the subject of the photograph above. You see, the lady in the photo was just spinning very slowly on the raised platform while every 4 to 5 seconds striking the same cords on the guitar. On and on it went, while the rest of us stood there at this famous museum simply staring and waiting for the next stroke to come on, even if it was not any different from the one that preceded it. And you know what? I thought it was great, even if right now I couldn’t tell you why. Suffice it to say that art is art, and the fact that someone may not admire a particular art form, does nothing to diminish this fact. It is creativity given expression through some mean, and just like a plate of food, someone’s dislike does not do away from the simple fact that it was actually food and someone else will like it. So it is perhaps high-time that most of us aspiring creatives just let loose out there. Paint if you feel like painting, write if you feel like writing, and sing if you want to let loose the song in your heart. And never worry about what others may be thinking. The lady with the guitar didn’t seem to mind, and still everyone stared admirably in silence eagerly waiting for her hand to move. Sounds absurd? No, it’s art.
Where is winter? I know that not everyone around America is asking this questions at the end of January, but for the folks here in the Washington, DC area, winter is mostly something that has yet to happen. Sure, temperatures are kind of low and most trees are devoid of leaves, but the real stuff (you know, the white thing that fall from up above) has yet to show up in any meaningful way. Yesterday, folks were jogging in shorts around the local monuments, while other sat at park benches or the grassy sections of the Washington Mall. Did anyone cancel winter and didn’t tell the rest of us? Whatever. But one thing I do know for sure: old winter has a nasty habit of visiting the area with the same subtleness as the Katrina hurricane. First nothing, then all hell brakes loose. And just as unpredictable as the local weather is during these months of the year, so will be the forecasts. A few inches could turn out to be a few feet, mild temperatures could translate into frostbite and hypothermia. And if Trump … OK, none of that. I guess we will all have to sit tight and just wait for our uninvited, and unpredictable, winter guest to arrive. It always does.
This will be another of those “photographers are weird people” kinds of post. Its origin started with a recent realization at the Hirshhorn Museum downtown Washington, DC. I love museums, and that is why during one of the coldest days of this winter, I decided to visit (ok, if you really need to know, I needed a warm place) this eclectic museum to see their new exhibits. If you know the Hirshhorn, you’ll know that it is the kind of museum that challenges that strange part of your brain that is not used very much, but which when engaged, turns your reality into something that takes some getting used to. Translation: I love the place. But there’s where this sort of epiphany took place. You see, like the museum’s split reality, I too possess a kind of split view of the world: one with camera on hand, the other sans camera. With a camera, it seems I only visit museums to observe other people observing the museum art. People, all of them, become part of the ongoing exhibit, with one lacking any meaning without the other. Take that camera away from me and suddenly I become Joe the art critic, with eyes only for the inanimate objects (excuse me, art) found therein. Weird? Perhaps a little, but it is what it is. The camera, like a window for a writer, transforms you somehow. It pulls something from within you that affects your vision of the world around you. It makes you see the human ecosystem as if you were wearing X-Ray glasses. See deeper, see more. A walk through a magnificent visual door that will allow you to hold on to that saw forever.
Ever had the feeling that you were standing on top of a volcano? Then welcome to the club. Of all places in the world, I just happened to find myself in a place that everyone seems to have heard of, but few have ever visited. Mount Vesuvius? Nope. Mount Fuji? No. The infamous Mount Pinatubo? Not quite. In fact, nothing that dramatic, even if at times it did feel that way. The place I’m talking about is none other than Hot Springs, Arkansas. Yawn. Ok, no lava running down the streets or anything like that, but if you’ve ever imagined what it would be like to stand at a garden on top of a pressure cooker, then you’ll understand what being in Hot Springs feels like. Something is definitely happening under your feet, and the flesh-burning water coming out of the rocks, accompanied by ominous plumes of smoke spouting out of most city street drainage covers, is the stuff they make Hollywood movies about.
But just as in the valley adjacent to Mount Vesuvius in Italy, a wonderful existence takes place oblivious to the cauldron below. Steam, magna, sulfur, and who knows what? No worries, mate. On the contrary, health tourism appears to be booming, and to tell you the truth, I too felt my lungs happily expanding while getting a facial from all that steam. Well, it seems like they were expanding, but I better check with my provider just in case. But the point is that in some strange way, what takes place on the surface appears to be somewhat at odds with what’s taking place under the surface. Central Avenue downtown is downright wonderful, with the kind of great hangouts that once attracted the likes of Al Capone and friends. The bathhouses (of which yours truly did not partake), with their imposing structures, give the town a certain grandeur that makes you think of places frequented by royalty with their elaborate carriages. An outpost of health and beauty, but one apparently sitting on top of a boiling pot.
Why is it that we search for more meaning in a photo after we have taken it than at the time the photo is being captured? I’m sure that there are many explanations for this, but for me, it all has to do with frame counts. Let me explain. In the process of acquiring a particular photo, we observe the world as a continuous video, a sequence of fast-moving frames that get processed inside our brains with a refresh rate that mimics the speed of light (or so it seems). If we watch a person walking, we don’t particularly remember the uniqueness of any particular step, or gesture, or scene complexity. It just flows from one side to the other in a perpetual motion, and at the end we kind of remember the overall occurrence of having seen someone walking. It is a factual story that in all its generosity, allows our imaginations to rest without bother.
Photographs, on the other hand, disrupt our imagination’s slumber and literally compel us to “fill in the blanks” of the story. In true Sherlock Holmes fashion, it makes us leap from that frozen fraction of a second into all sorts of directions and plots. A delayed reaction from the moment of capture, for sure, but perhaps the essence of why we capture images in the first place. That is not to say that seeing life as a moving video is any less rewarding, but rather that just like we tend to remember particular scenes in a movie, photographs are the particular scenes of our visual movies. They anchor us to a place and time like no moving object can, and feed that which is the essence of us all: our imaginations. That is why in the photo above I simply do not want to know more about this couple, for it is more fun to “imagine” lovers on a sunny day reading from her latest writings and oblivious to the passing of time. Reality? Perhaps not, but as long as I look at that photo, I’ll pretend that it is.
Have you noticed the changes taking place all around you? It happens every year, and about the same time each year. Days get shorter, leaves begin to turn, and our attitudes get a little better. Our entire ecosystem changes, and with it, so do we. Walking around with your camera becomes fun again, if merely because the raging summer heat finally goes away until next year. Color is everywhere in the northern hemisphere, and we suddenly feel the urge to go out, to wander, and to live a little. In contrast to a mere month ago, streets and parks are no longer empty, and lingering has become fun again. Fall, that most wonderful time of the year, is upon us, so it’s time for a dramatic change in attitude to match the incredible scenery around us. Time to live outside, fetch that food truck, have lunch at a park bench, listen to an outdoor concert, dream a little, and proclaim our new, autumn personas. I shall be this or that, it doesn’t matter, for the the new pursuit will drive us. And we better hurry, because the infamous “winter blues” are more than a myth. So, I’ll see you out on the road then. You can’t miss me, for I’ll be the guy with the camera around my neck, and a smile on my face.
Like just about every day, I went walking today with my camera. When I do this, I typically bury my cell phone somewhere in my camera bag where it is very hard to access. I do this because I’ve come to realize that the whole purpose of being outside is to see and feel what’s going on around me. I want to disconnect from electronics and connect with the world that keeps on moving in spite of our interest in joining it. Perhaps this is a photographer thing, but I don’t think so. More than that, it is a fascination with a world that is alive and in motion, a world where glances still hold unspeakable mystery, and where human energy continues to create all things wonderful and all things bad. Humans, in all their shapes, forms, and behaviors are the stuff of life.
That is why it is so hard to positive spin on the modern phenomena of the connected disconnected. The being there in society, but not there at the same time. Like the young man in the photo above, to be actively linked to the faraway world via a cell phone, but totally uninterested in the the world that sits just a few feet away. Connected, but disconnected. A statement about our modern digital generation, I guess. But perhaps, if he would have only glanced up from the screen for a moment like she did to make eye contact, a whole new world connections would have been possible. They shall never know, for at no time did he raise his eyes in her direction. Connected, disconnected. A new form of normal.
Like most photographers out there, I too spend endless hours looking for that perfect shot. And when I say perfect, I don’t mean that literally, but rather in the context of being able to stand out a little from the crowd of shots we regularly find in places like Instagram and Flickr. The sad thing is that no matter how much I try (and perhaps I’m speaking here for most wandering photographers), those photographs that elicit comments of the “you should take more pictures like this,” are very hard to find indeed. No doubt this is the result of multiple factors, from your timing as a photographer, your choice of venue, or the simple fact that not much is really happening around you. Whatever the case, the point is that while personal photographic and geographic choices have a lot to do with it, luck (yes, that same old variable) has a lot to do with it too. That is why photographers out there (myself included) look like human versions of 360-degree radars. We look right, left, behind us, up, down, and everywhere. We do this while crossing the streets, walking by a construction site, while drinking coffee, wherever. You can imagine the thoughts that cross people’s minds in a city like Washington, DC that is replete with intrigue and spies everywhere. Who is this person with a camera checking everything out and taking photos from weird angles? He looks Russian to me. Yes, that’s pretty much the thought pattern, but in reality what we photographers are after is that quick shot, that unique moment in time that make all those walked miles worthwhile. And that is the story of the shot above. Many hours and sore feet later, this scene revealed itself to me as I was headed for the metro and the comforts of home. My last shot of the day, and like they say in golf, the one that keeps you coming back, again and again, to the unpredictable streets of your city.
I am a people’s person. No, really, I am. But it just also happens that as much as I love people, I also happen to love being alone just as much. This may sound like the beginning of another esoteric discussion on the differences between loneliness and solitude, but I assure you that it is not, as these differences have been amply documented by many others much more qualified to do so. Suffice it to say that my desire to be alone is directly related to the state of mind that comes with contemplation and creativity. Put another way, it is directly related to the wonderful byproduct that results from moments of solitude and detachment from the “noise” of everyday life.
The wonderful thing is that being alone doesn’t necessarily mean to be distanced from other people. I’m talking about the state of being “mentally” alone, of being in the zone, or something akin to an out-of-body experience. The phenomena is not necessarily physical, but mental. It is being in that moment when your reality is only yours, whether you are walking in a crowded city with your camera in hand, writing your next great novel in a crowded library, or pondering your next direction in life. It leads to a place where creativity, meaning, and purpose live in seclusion until we all dare to open the door and free them from that dark place. A state of mental (and sometimes physical) blitz that is as precious as it is short. Eventually, what the world will see of us is nothing but the result of what happens in those precious moments of solitude.
I should start this post by saying that I have nothing against shortcuts. In fact, I’ve spent a good part of my life searching for them, only to discover that there are very few alternatives to old-fashioned hard work available to us all. And yes, there’s the winning the lottery thing, but since that is about as probable as surviving a free fall without a parachute, I’ll disregard that particular shortcut for now. What I’m talking about is our human proclivity to try to find a shorter way to our destination, to compact time so that whatever it is that we’re engaged in, takes a lot less time than what life has already established as necessary. After all, this is the 21st Century, so why should be believe Henri Cartier-Bresson when he said that, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Don’t we get lots of “likes” in Instagram and Flickr? Isn’t that proof enough of our artistic excellence? Well, unfortunately it is not.
But something has undoubtedly changed. And that is that, in the advent of the digital revolution, fame and success are no longer so intimately tied to competence in any particular field. Call it the democratization of opportunity or whatever, but what could be happening these days is that while Cartier-Bresson may still be right in his observation, it really wouldn’t matter for a modern audience. Ever heard of Tardar Sauce? That’s the name for the famous mixed-breed Grumpy Cat that took the Internet by storm and made both cat and owners instant celebrities. No 10,000 photos were needed before the owners started cashing in on the cat’s celebrity status, and while Cartier-Bresson may be turning in his grave as a result, the cat’s photographs and paraphernalia may have achieved about as much commercial success as Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl photograph ever did. I tell you, if it were not for the eternal feeling of hope in us all, it would be enough to make you want to throw your camera away and get a cat instead. But such artistic surrender would not do anything for art in the long run. And just like in the case of the now popular gastronomic farm-to-table movement, it is every creative’s hope that the artistic excellence that they so painstakingly strived to achieve over time in their particular fields, will be similarly valued and compensated. That, at least, is the hope. But I’m afraid to ask what Grumpy Cat has to say about that.
Photographers are never a happy lot. If you are like most photographers, you tend to spend too much time reading photography sites and worrying about the gear you don’t have, or the photos you are not taking. Seldom will you check out a photo’s EXIF data and find yourself rejoicing. No, on the contrary. What’s more likely to happen is that all that technical data contained in those accompanying files will leave you with a sense of quiet desperation. One side of you will see that the great photo you’re looking at was taken with a more expensive camera/lens combination than what sits in your camera bag. Another side of you, and perhaps more painful to ego and wellbeing, will discover that the photograph was taken with a much cheaper camera/lens combination than what you dished-out for your precious. Whatever the case, your mind will immediately begin questioning your choices, and a raging war of words from pundits living in your subconscious will not waste a single second in turning your brain into a virtual battle zone. You need more, you need less, you need different, more time, more knowledge, more, more, less, less. It’s enough to get you committed to an institution. In the end, all you really need is the desire to take photos, and the ability to do so. Time and disposition are the key, and just like wine, whatever you think is good, is good enough. So best to purge those voices in your head and just go out and make photographs with whatever gear you’ve got. Believe me, I’ve been plenty envious of what some people are recording with their iPhones. But maybe it was because I didn’t have the right lens. Oh no, there again are those voices in my head.
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.
No matter how many times I visit the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC, there’s always something fascinating to be found amongst its many art chambers. And while I too admire its world-class exhibits, I would have to admit that it is the pursuit of the elusive perfect photographic scene that keeps me coming back to this wonderful place. Sadly, I haven’t found it yet, but sometimes I can’t help to think that I am so close to it, that I can feel it in the next chamber. Along I go, heart beating with the expectation of a 15-year old, and always hopeful that this time will be the lucky one. Mysteriously, and no matter the amount or level of disappointment, I never cease my quest. I know it has to be there, that perfect scene just waiting for me around the corner, with the backdrop of canvases and the magic strokes of long-gone masters of the arts. Yes, it has to be there, and no matter how much my feet hurt, or how tired I am, I can’t bring myself to stop looking, for to do so would amount to voluntarily extinguish the spark that lit the search flame in the first place.
The thing is, that no matter how hard I look, I really don’t want to find that perfect photograph. This may render my quest somewhat illusory, but in reality it is a case of enjoying the search (i.e., the journey) more than the idea of getting to what I’m after. It may not sound unique, but it really keep those aching feet taking one more step along the way. I will grant you that this whole notion resides somewhere deep in my mind, but after all, don’t we all live inside our heads? Photographers do, and that is why they wrestle all the time with the concept of visual meaning, or value for that matter. One minute they are happy with their work, the next they are not. The emotional and artistic yo-yo effect constantly pulling in one direction or the other. And all driven by the notion that next time, yes, next time, they can do better than yesterday. Self-dilusion or unbridled optimism? Take your pick, but I think I’ll stick with the optimism part for a while longer.