I just love when a photo tells a story. Not in a video-like sense, where in most cases, they actually tell you what happened after an event. Rather, in the world of photography it is generally left to the observer to fill in the blanks, to complete the story or make it up through the power of the imagination. That is precisely what I like, that teasing of the imagination by a single frame, by that 1/500th of a second. As I stood there taking the photo above, the gentlemen in the photo never moved. Not once. One obviously relaxed and and resting, while the other seemingly at the border of despair. The short distance between them perhaps a lifetime away, an immeasurable life gap where endless choices, fates, and circumstances are grossly misrepresented by the emptiness between them. In a sense, they are us, and we are them. So close we stand together, and apart. A few feet, a million miles. Too often it doesn’t make a difference. But real or imagined, I have come to realize that it is not oceans or continents that account for that gap between people, but rather people themselves. Amusing, then, to say the least, that in an age where technology has made the closing of that divide between us about as easy as it will ever be, we have grown too comfortable with the physical detachment between us, with a space primarily punctuated by the lack of connection rather than by distance.
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.
I find very few things as satisfying as walking around neighborhoods in Europe to find out what people are really like away from the tourist spots and the hustle and bustle of city center. I’m talking about those neighborhoods that never make it to travel brochures, but which are teaming with ordinary life like the one I leave behind every time I embark on a journey. Interestingly, I travel thousands of miles, spend more money that is prudent to spend, and put my joints through grueling day walks, just to observe and experience the lives of ordinary people like myself living ordinary lives like mine. Now, I grant you that this is not everyone’s cup of tea, or that it ranks up there with what most people would choose to do with their limited time and money, but for me, this relentless pursuit of “distinctive sameness” (how’s that for confusion?) is what has fueled more than 40 years of travel around the world. You could say that I am simply fascinated by all that is the common amongst the people of the world, but at the same time different. A narrow line marking the distinction between cultures and people, but for me, a demarcation zone that has fueled the pursuit of a lifetime.
In absolute terms, human behavior and culture, are rather similar. We all eat, enjoy art, labor, love, pursue happiness, experience sadness, etc., etc, etc. We just go about it differently, and that is where my insatiable interest lies: on the “unique” ways we all experience all these common traits of humanity as a result of history, culture, and geography. The Japanese people bow deeply with tears flowing down their cheeks upon seeing someone dear to their hearts after years of separation, while the Italians hug incessantly as if trying to fuse two people into one. Same feeling, different expressions. And it’s the same wherever you look, be it in what people eat, or what they do with their free time. A beautiful river with incredible landscapes invites contemplation and romance. An industrial city replete of square, concrete buildings, perhaps not as much. Thus, the factors affecting our adopted behaviors are indeed many and varied, and there’s no better place to discover these behavioral distinctions than in the neighborhoods where people disarmingly engage in them without a care in the world. In the process, I learn a lot about them, and without a doubt, a little about myself.
Wide-angle photography is not everyone’s cup of tea. Ask any photographer out there what his or her favorite focal length is, and more-likely-than-not the answer will be other than a wide-angle lens. I count myself in this group, because throughout the years I’ve developed a real affinity for 50mm lenses. You could say that 50mm is my general visual comfort level, even if this sounds a lot less glamorous than the more technical explanations you’ll see on the Internet. But it is what it is, and no matter how many times I hit the streets with my camera, a 50mm is always inside my bag.
Having said that, it is also true that in the last year or so, I have also developed quite an affinity for the 21-28mm focal length. Perhaps because reality makes more sense when it appears in context or something, but ever since I acquired the incredible Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super-Elmar lens, my eyes have been opened wide, so to speak. These wide, optical marvels usually don’t come cheap (they can set you back as much as the cost of an European vacation), so my move into this area can best be described as hesitant at best. At least until recently, when I decided to give cheap a chance.
That’s where my incursion into the 24mm range comes in. It all started with a conversation that took place during my recent trip to Chelsea in NYC. During this trip I had the pleasure of meeting Olof Willoughby, one of the co-founders of the popular Leica Meet group. It just so happens that Olaf is quite fun of the Leica 24mm range (think European vacation here too), and the day I met him, that was all he was carrying. So, I started wondering that if such a distinguished photographer as Olaf loved that 24mm focal length, that perhaps I was missing something. Not that I haven’t dabbled into 24mm before. I have, and I was once the proud owner of the magnificent Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED lens. But weight and bulk considerations got the best of me, and after kind of abandoning this lens back at home for too long, I decided to part ways with it. Have I lived to regret this decision? Of course I have, but since that lens now retails for about $2,100 (which admittedly is way less than its Leica equivalent) I haven’t been too keen to replace it.
But here is where the “hiding in plain sight” story comes in. I’m referring to the Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D lens, a small gem originally designed in the 1990’s. Retailing for $391 and weighing a mere 270 grams (9.5 oz), it is no wonder why the lens has remained quite popular with travel photographers. Affordable, lightweight, and tack-sharp, this lens produces incredible results while ensuring you stay away from your chiropractor’s office. Nano crystal coating? No. Any aspherical elements? Nope. Class leading element/group combo? Of course not. Modern design? You must be joking. Great photos while saving you thousands of dollars you could put towards that European vacation? You bet. Modern glass, while unquestionably great, is not providing thousands of dollars worth of optical performance gain to justify their ever-growing cost. That is specially the case when you factor in the capabilities of modern processing software. Blasphemy? Not really, but perhaps a kitchen analogy will help explain it. It is often said that buying a modern knife will not necessarily result in making anyone a better cook. The secret to better meals is just to learn how to cook better rather than to keep spending tons of money on the latest kitchen gadgets. Too simple? Perhaps, but something that entire generations of Italian grandmothers figured out a long time ago.
As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind. I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday. I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history. It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward. Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future. This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness. Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future. Not sure. But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage. The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.
But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact. Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways. This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen. Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry. And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay. Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world. As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past. As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past. Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts. If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.
If there’s such a thing as understated greatness, the Buddy Holly memorial and Texas Walk of Fame in Lubbock, Texas must be such a place. Not that I traveled all the way to Lubbock with the purpose of visiting the Buddy Holly Memorial Park, but rather that it would have been inconceivable to travel to Lubbock and not visit the park sandwiched between Cricket Avenue (named in memory of this famous band) and the Buddy Holly Avenue. The classy, yet small, memorial to Lubbock’s prodigal son is actually quite impressive by its sheer simplicity. A statute and some plaques commemorating some of the area’s great artists is all you’ll find in the perfectly manicured park adjacent to the former train station that now houses the Buddy Holly Center. The somewhat isolated area at the edge of town seemed to receive an occasional trickle of visitors while I was there, but slowly and quietly they kept on coming to pay their respects to the musical legend. A humble tribute to a boy from Lubbock who died a premature death, but who’s music and artistic influence will no doubt live forever.
Stockholm is not an easy city to get lost at. With its incredible public transportation system and orderly rhythm, getting lost is something that you really have to work at when visiting. But like in most of the great cities of the world, the city can easily be divided into places where tourists hang out and places where the locals go about their everyday lives. It is the latter that interest most photographers and creative people, even if the touristy places are also a necessity if you are ever going to understand the history and grandeur of these famous cities. Such is the case in Stockholm, where visiting the busy Sergels torg and the beautiful, horseshoe-shaped Nybroviken harbor area are a must. But so are the more off-the-beaten-path places like the Katarina-Sofia hilltop neighborhood with its cobblestone streets and its quaint, tree-shaded parks like Mosebacke torg, always blessed by the lazy, yellow light of a northern summer sun. So it is possible to get lost in Stockholm after all. In the process you are sure to discover not only the beauty of an ancient city, but also the wonders of a life with a more humane rhythm and balance. It is nice to know that such places still exist and that such a life is still possible in this modern, hectic world. Maybe it has something to do with only having a somewhat homogeneous population of about 9.6 million in the entire country (about half the population of New York state), or the fact that most of the year the country remains sun-starved and indoors. Who knows. Whatever the reason behind that lifestyle is, there is no denying that it is there nonetheless. Just don’t try getting a pizza delivered to your front door at midnight on a weekday. That, my friend, is why the Swedes come to our neck of the woods for.
Do you nap? If you are like most people, you probably won’t admit to it, even if you secretly grab a “z” or two throughout the day. For some reason, the old siesta trend has never taken much of a hold in North America. Coffee, mid-day power walks, and slacker phobias make sure that this doesn’t happen. Where Europeans and Latin Americans see rest, people in the good-old USA see laziness. Not that a little rest nap is less needed in the USA than any other place in the world, but rather that in the name of über-productivity, you are not getting paid to doze off while on the clock. Oh, sure, you can chat all day at the office and waste time like the best of them while getting paid, but napping? Just forget it. But as these photos show, sleeping in public places may be a new, socially accepted trend in America. For the modern worker, this could be a much-welcomed development. Going out for lunch can now be combined with a quick power nap at a park bench. No park benches where you hang out? No problem. Any flat, solid surface will do, as the only requirement seems to be that the surface be uncomfortable (which will send the message that you are not trying to get too comfortable). Knee up or knee down? I would recommend knee up because it conveys a more dynamic pose, which implies that while you are flat on your back, you do intend to get back to something productive soon. Who knows, this may just be what you need to move your career to the next level. What level will that be? That I’ll leave to you to find out.
The weather report is forecasting a very cold, wintry day for tomorrow, but today the weather could not have been any better. A bright, sunny day with temperatures around 50 degrees made for a good day to walk the streets with your camera. The strange thing was that I found myself photographing once again around the Georgetown waterfront as if pulled by some cosmic magnetic force beyond my control. And you know what? There may be something to this after all, because if there’s a place that can exert such force on mere mortals, it must be the lollypop-shaped Georgetown Labyrinth. Never mind that on this day its primary purpose seemed to be to serve as a racetrack for a father and son combo trying out their dueling remotely controlled cars. No, I have to believe that this divine center of gravity in a city mostly known for governmental witchcraft and cutthroat politicians exists to elevate the human spirit above its mundane nature. Yes, that’s got to be it. The Labyrinth must emanate some sort of magnetic field that attracts imperfect souls to its bosom, to the circle of self-discovery and introspection in order to cleanse the spiritual attic of our lives of all its cobwebs and imperfections. There is no doubt that this is the reason why I found myself on this very spot today, looking at the skies from the center of the circle waiting for something great to happen. Well, I didn’t have to wait long for it. First, there was a swoosh, then another, then a rattling noise by my feet that I interpreted as my soul about to be elevated above the clouds to a higher level of existence. And then, there they were, circling around me at high speed, but never to be confused with stars and magnetic forces of any kind: two noisy electric cars moving at high speed in a nausea-inducing crisscross pattern, with father and son busily punching at their control boxes as if they were commanding a nuclear submarine. My spirit safely tucked where it had been all along, I made it out of the Labyrinth before the local Nascar duo had a chance to tromp all over it. I knew it; this place exists for a purpose, and it may well have to do with the bonding between a father and his son.
Think of last month for a second. How often did you share anything you’ve learned or own with anyone? I have no doubt that answers to this question will run the gamut, as we all engage in some form of sharing at one time or another, even without realizing that sharing is what we’re doing. Not that I’m advocating for anyone to give away the fruit of their labor, as this is surely the best way of guaranteeing that you’ll be out of business in a hurry. This is specially the case in photography, where most folks continue to bear incredible pressure to just give away what they have worked so diligently to create (not to mention the expense they incur to create those photos). However, in every trade there are many things that can be shared without having to worry about lost revenue or market infringement. In fact, some goodwill could go a long way in putting money in your pocket down the road. Don’t believe me? Then check out people like Scott Kelby, Vincent Laforet, Chase Jarvis, and Steve Huff, to name a few. All extremely generous professionals who like to share their knowledge and are rewarded by a loyal group of followers.
I have to admit that Sundays are my favorite days of the week, and not just because like the rest of humanity, I’m off that day, but rather because if Sunday didn’t exist, people would have to invent it. I like Sundays because people tend to relax while engaging on some well-deserved “me time” without too much remorse. Camera in hand, I usually head on out to the city parks and the neighborhoods with lots of outdoor restaurants because when the weather is as good as it has been recently, it is as if the whole city acquires somewhat of a zen attitude that is great to capture with a Leica camera. As we begin to get the first inklings of the cooler fall weather, with that lazy early light in the early hours of the morning, it is as if a million little fall rituals begin to take place all around us. And it all becomes so much clearer on Sundays, when we make very few demands of life and life makes very few demands from us.