Not everyone enjoys empty spaces. I’m referring to those empty rooms where maybe a sole couch sits, or a sole print on the wall. Sort of a Japanese Zen kind of room, devoid from visual distractions, but perhaps with a single object in it to demand your total, and uncluttered attention. It is really incredible how the Japanese have turned the absence of something into a thing of beauty. If only we could do that in this part of the world, where people cannot have enough stuff to cram into whatever space they have. Kind of what we do with our time, where society feels compelled to fill every minute of it with some activity, like checking a cell phone for that constant stream of those “insignificant little nothings.”
But when we search for creativity, empty spaces do seem to take an importance out of proportion from their normal selves. Perhaps it has to do with the visual isolation they allow, or perhaps with the fact that the less taxing our visual reaction is, the more our minds can wonder and compose. Whatever the case, it is in that desolate, empty distance separating feelings from the subject of our attention, where I find the glorious sustenance that feeds my imagination. That gap, that clear path where nothing lives and where obstacles don’t exist, is precisely where inspiration dwells. Nothing stands in the way of our eyes, thoughts, and admiration. It is glorious emptiness, where unable to be seen by the naked eye, incredible amounts of energy bounces back-and-forth without obstacles between the admirer and the admired.
What makes music beautiful is the distance between one note and another. What makes speech eloquent is the appropriate pause between words. From time to time we should take a breath and notice the silence between sounds.
The absence of notes and words makes “noticing” possible, just as the absence of obstructing things make beauty noticeable. A pause in a conversation. The expectation of the next note. A lone painting on a wall. And the empty space between us. I couldn’t help but notice.
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.
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.
Recently, I came across a quote by Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, that got me thinking about the things we say and the things we do. What made this quote even more puzzling for me was that it came in stark contrast with something I read in one of my favorite books of all times, “Cassanova In Bolzano,” by the famous Hungarian author Sándor Márai. The contrast between Carl Jung (a realist) and Cassanova (an idealist) could not be more stark.
Let’s start with Carl Jung. The quote I’m referring to goes as follows:
You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.
Jung could not be more blunt. A waiter, then, is just a waiter and not a writer. An office worker is an office worker, and there’s no use describing him or her as a painter. If you have a great voice, but don’t sing professionally, then you are definitely not a singer, according to Jung. No room for dreamers here, or for trying to convince anyone that you are really an artist trapped in the daily toil required to put food on the table. Plain and simple, no amount of talk, of dreaming, or wishful thinking will change what is obvious for everyone to see. A harsh reality indeed, but Jung obviously called them like he saw them.
And then, there was Sándor Márai, telling us through his character Cassanova that what you do does not necessarily defines who you are. That you, in your hearts of hearts, could be a painter even if you’ve never painted anything. That what defines a writer is not the product of his or her labor, but rather the poetry that forms inside his or her heart. What we think we are is what we are, not what the trappings of life and circumstance have forced upon us.
In his book, Cassanova is somewhat annoyed by his assistant (Balbi) questioning why he called himself a writer if he had never written anything, or gotten paid for it for that matter. For Cassanova, his life was, in a sense, his writing. It was just that he had yet to put it down to pen and paper:
… I am that rare creature, a writer with a life to write about! You asked me how much I have written? … Not much, I admit… I have been envoy, priest, soldier, fiddler, and doctor of civil and canonical law… But that’s not the point, it’s not the writing, it’s what I have done that matters. It is me, my life, that is the important thing. The point … is that being is much more difficult than doing… When I have lived, I shall want to write.
It would have been an event to remember to hear Carl Jung and Sándor Márai discussing this contrasting philosophies. I can’t help but think that at times I’ve found myself fervently ascribing to one of these camps or the other. That is why photographs like the ones above make me think so much about the nature of people, or at least, the nature of the people depicted on the photos. Who are these people? Are they what I see, or is there something more to them (perhaps their true nature) that is hidden from my eyes?
Unbeknownst to me, about a month ago I was standing precisely on the line of demarcation between these contrasting approaches. Upon visiting one of the major art galleries in Washington, DC (will not mention names here in the name of privacy) and walking down one of the empty, yet beautiful corridors, I came face-to-face with one of the security employees who hangs around the hallways making sure no harm comes to the artwork at the gallery. What my eyes saw was a security guard doing his job, and one that at first impression, did not look like a very exciting one. After a short conversation I discovered that he and his family had come to this country in search of the safety that they could not find back home in their African country. More than that, he confided that he had run for President back home and lost, but that it remained his dream to go back and try again when the conditions were right. He also gave me a short lesson in African economics and development, and all without me ever asking. Obviously, there was a longing in his heart and a vision of the role he felt he was meant to play in his life. I was just surprised at the trick my eyes had played on me. Now looking back at this experience, I can only wonder whether Jung and Márai, had they been in my position, would have seen the same man in front of them. The eyes, after all, can be quite deceiving.
I have started working out. Well, not working out as an olympic hopeful would work out, but rather something more like going for a walk with the intent of detecting any degree of perspiration. I even get to look the part, with my Pearl Izumi jacket, my New Balance walking shoes, my long-distance runner’s cap, and a great Timex triathlon sports watch. I’m definitely all decked-out, if you know what I mean. But while all of this is fine, what really makes my workouts so valuable is that I get to carry a camera with me to capture the unexpected photo. Of course, stoping to photograph every interesting scene I come up to does break my exercise rhythm (what rhythm?), but it is crucial that I try to avoid the post-exercise depression that could ensue if I miss the infamous photo every photographer misses when they don’t have a camera with them. My choice of camera for these cardio outings: the legendary Ricoh GR (read about this little wonder here). The problem is that even after a couple of times out on my way to becoming a mean, lean, fighting machine, I have kind of forgotten about the exercise part. Photography is just that enticing for me. Light, bracketing, composition, and all things photographic seem to conspire against muscle tone development. Definitely a tough going, but I guess no one ever said that this exercise thing would be easy.
Just when you convince yourself that our nation’s capital is a stiff place, along come events like the Tour de Fat to prove you wrong. Wacky, irreverent, and wonderfully weird, this annual cycling event by the Navy Yards is about as fun as they come. It must be, because how else would you explain why all these folks ventured out on a hot, 92-degree day to party while pretending they were there to bicycle. OK, maybe it had something to do with the post-ride “beverages” available to them, but whatever the case, no amount of heat appeared to dampen the enthusiasm of these revelers. Too bad that the venue chosen is somewhat off-the-radar for most people. Put this event in the Dupont Circle area or Georgetown and they are going to have to triple the amount of “beverages” available. But maybe that’s the whole point: to be out of the way so people can let loose a bit. Whatever the case, it worked, not to mention that it was a great day to be around with a camera. I’ll definitely be back here next year, and who knows, I may just dress-up for the occasion.
Let me start this post by saying that I love black & white photography. Not that I have mastered this medium by any stretch of the imagination, but rather that I have come to realize that there are some scenes out there that come to life when shot on black & white. In some strange way, the removal of color artifacts (or should I say, the substitution of these artifacts by different shades of grey) from the photograph kind of diminishes the judgmental interpretation of the photograph. No longer can someone point out that the red shirt was not that red in the real world, or that blues look over-saturated. When black & white photographs are involved, the observer tends to go through some sort of a mental shift as if being handed a different list of criteria by which to interpret the photograph. Without ever having heard of Ansel Adam’s Zone System, these observers begin to interpret the photographs in terms of those grey variations that lie somewhere in between absolute white and absolute black. What’s more, when black & white photography is involved, the whole notion of photographic composition seems to experience somewhat of a liberation to be analyzed without the distracting effect of color getting in the way.
But to what extent is the resulting photo the product of the photographer’s ability to “see” the scene in black & white prior to capturing it with his or her camera? Is there such a thing as “seeing” in black & white when it comes to photography, or is it all the product of post-capture manipulation with today’s advanced software applications? Frankly, I don’t have an answer to these questions, but I do venture to say that for most folks out there (and this includes your humble blogger here), playing with the software during post is where the action is. We try this or that like a New York fashionista until voilà, we know it when we see it. Having said that, I have no doubt that some talented photographers out there do have this ability uncanny ability to see in black & white. At the very least, in they are able to see in grey variations, à la Ansel Adams. For some, this gift will come natural; for others, no doubt the result of many years of photographic observation and practice. Whatever the case, I am just glad that black & white photography is alive and well and that companies like Leica pay it tribute with the introduction of such wonderful products as the Leica M Monochrome. We can only hope that other companies follow in their footsteps.