Yesterday, I decided to have a little fun with my Leica. After all, with the cold, flu-inducing weather refusing to leave us alone for the season, it occurred to me that what I needed was a little lighthearted photo day. My goal: to do a little tribute to the famous Leica photographer Ralph Gibson. This name may not mean much to those who are not Leica fanatics photographers, but to those who are, Mr. Gibson is somewhat of a Dalai Lama figure in the Leica community. When he talks, people listen. And his talking is mostly done through the lens of a Leica camera.
But why Ralph Gibson? The answer is that contrary to just about everyone I have come in contact with in the photographic community, Mr. Gibson is known (among many other things) for mastering the “vertical” photographic style. The world may be busy taking photos with a horizontal orientation (which admittedly allows for lots of forgiving cropping), but Mr. Gibson is a master of the vertical world, and has been for as long, long time. Easy? Not really. After a day of shooting only vertically to see what this would feel like, all I can say is that not only is this approach ergonomically hard, but it is also compositionally challenging. At the end of the day I felt I had gone through an entire paradigm change in my approach to photography. My photographic world had stopped revolving around avoiding people from walking into my scene and was now obsessed with a somewhat unfamilial vertical line along a much narrower visual alley.
The funny thing is that this approach to photography is also kind of liberating. Verticality, I realized, tends to exclude the superfluous, or at least most of it. It also reduces dramatically those distracting elements that force photographers to use the cropping tool to the point of overheating. But mastering this vertical approach to composition is definitely hard work. Shooting with a Leica rangefinder while trying to keep both eyes open as you manually focus is a challenge in and of itself, not to mention that your eyes tend to see a lot more horizontally than vertically when on a natural state (blame it on the eyebrows or something). That Mr. Gibson’s trained photographic eyes appear to live easily on that up-and-down, rangefinder plane is nothing short of remarkeable. That this verticality takes place up close in shapes and figures that most people don’t even notice, is even more astounding. After a day of attempting to grasp this whole vertical approach to composition by shooting exclusively “that way,” I certainly had a taste of the challenges and rewards associated with this visual approach. Hooked? Not sure, but I surely intend to tilt my camera from its traditional comfort zone a lot more in the future.
Is it possible to have a favorite street corner in the whole world? I never gave this much thought until a few days ago when I happened to find myself in a very familiar spot in Washington, DC. You see, I have a kind of strange fascination with the Penn Quarters section of the city, and in previous occasions this neighborhood has been the subject of this blog. What makes this occasion different is that I just realized how much I really enjoy walking around this particular spot on earth with my camera. No matter how many times I go out to photograph everyday life, I seem to always find way to this corner of 7th Street NW & F Street NW, and with good reason.
The place is a beehive of human activity, from panhandlers selling tickets to sports events, to elegantly-attired folks headed half a block up E Street to the imposing Shakespeare Theater Company. It is like the point where various rivers converge, resulting in waters that become both turbulent and majestic at once. For photographers and admirers of the human condition, this is definitely the place to be. And no matter where other roads may take me from time to time, there’s one thing I know for sure: I will be back to this raucous corner many times in the future. Not that everyone there is happy to see you with your camera, but rather that there’s so much going on all the time, that most people don’t notice you much amongst the constant flow of people that cross that intersection every day. It is the perfect place to feel alive, and that puts it right up there on my book.
I realize that I have posted photos of street musicians many times on this blog, but this time I just couldn’t resist. What caught my attention about these two young men was the fact that they were both impeccably dressed and that their music didn’t quite fit the vaudeville style we usually associate with street musicians. In fact, after watching and listening for a while, I had this great compulsion to write their mothers a thank-you note for raising such great young men. In an European capital they would have had about a hundred people standing around them enjoying their music, but for reasons I don’t even want to get into right now, here in America only about three of us took the time to stop and listen. Sure, people were indeed contributing some money to their act, but all while zooming by at speeds that reminded me of a toll booth on an interstate highway. No time for music, I guess. Thankfully, these detached monetary acknowledgements didn’t deter our duo, who continued to play as if they were about to receive a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. I guess that even when most people have no time to listen until the song ends, the music will still play on without them.
When was the last time you took some time to just walk about town to see what the locals are up to? If you haven’t done that for a while, I would suggest you give it a try, as you will be surprised with the range of human activities that occupy people besides their TV’s and overused computers. Take for instance this past Saturday around the Penn Quarters neighborhood in Washington, DC and the White House. Protesters manned the White House fence with signs demanding gun control laws, construction workers were working against the clock to build the reviewing stands for the President’s inaugural event, young men played concrete hockey in front of Lafayette Park, the Christmas market in front of the National Portrait Gallery was in full swing, and the incredibly colorful and jovial participants in the Naughty Christmas where caroling in front of the Natural History Museum. Songs, laughter, and smiling faces were everywhere. A contagious celebration of life that was as colorful as it was fun. Amazing what your feet run into when you put them to work.