Quick, think of Washington, DC and what is the first thing that comes to mind? No doubt, images of politicians, government, and power brokers galore. Below that layer most people will probably think of lobbyists, spies, embassies, and huge governmental businesses. Keep the conversation going for an hour or more, and perhaps, but only perhaps, someone will think of the incredible art scene that has made the area one of the leading arts centers in the country, despite all the more “serious” stuff that constantly goes around it. Really, dig in and you will find some of the best companies in the world, with local talent that would rival the best of New York. What’s even better is that most theaters in the area sit right next to some of the best restaurants you’ll encounter anywhere. These are not usually the kind where you have to dish out a thousand dollars for a meal for two, but rather the kind of trendy, modern, type that populate most travel magazines. At the risk of leaving some out, I would much rather not start naming them here, but check out here, and here, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s actually a lot of fun to be had in the city, provided there’s not a politician within a thousand feet from you.
When it comes to restaurants, it doesn’t get much simpler than the great American diner. And while restaurants come and go, all those magnificent diners that dot our great land are nothing but the rough diamonds of our culinary landscape. Too greasy? Yes. Too many calories? Sure. Cholesterol bombs? Definitely. Delicious? Absolutely. This culinary dichotomy (eyes raised to the heavens while placing one foot on the grave) is what makes these places a must while we spend time on this earth. Gravy on the biscuits? Must you ask.
But what is it that attracts so many people to the simple American diner? To a large extent, it is a large degree of nostalgia. Diners remind us of simple days, of small town America, of long-gone family time when you could dress casually while enjoying food that at some level helped to bind us as a people. What’s more, when go to a diner, we really don’t care much about how the food tastes. We already know how it’s going to taste. After all, how may permutations of eggs and hash browns can there be. No, going to a diner will always be about feeling differently when we’re there; about unpretentious servers who greet you as if they’ve known you forever. It is about the sweet “seat yourself” melody resonating in our ears, and about not being able to decide what to order because everything looks too good to pass. Heaven on earth, if you ask me. A place to be who you truly are and not the promotional version of yourself. I only wish I could turn back the clock a few decades or so, to a time when I could have added a couple of pancakes to my order. Next time, my friend, next time.
I’ve written about the Ricoh GR before, but the little wonder just never ceases to amaze me. This “backup camera” is simply one of those technological feats that when paired with its natural street photography habitat, could easily challenge any DSLR out there. Not that it will necessarily give you any more dynamic range or sharpness, but rather that when you consider what the little rocket brings to the table, its shortcomings are easy to forget. You see, when you are out and about trying to record everyday life and scenes on the street, the GR is almost unparalleled in its ability to silently move in, snap that photograph, and capture that scene. Quick, silent, and covering enough photographic real estate to make sure nothing is left out of that picture. With its snap mode and ability to quickly compensate for available light, this little camera and its large APS-C sensor will be about as close to ideal as you’ll ever get in the street photography arena. Perfect? Nope. But when I leave my Leica M240 at home for the day to hang out with the Ricoh GR, that’s telling you something. Will it replace the incredible Leica out on the street? Absolutely not, but it will surely be in my pocket when every time I venture out to capture bigger photographic game.
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.
I have walked by Fire Station #201 in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia many times before. After all, Prince Street is somewhat of a well-known street in Old Town, specially during spring when some of the best looking tulip plantings in the area can be seen barely a block away. Never had I seen the station doors open, though, or seen any of its personnel hanging out outside like they do in the movies. I guess this is a good thing when you think about it, because when firefighters are not busy putting out fires it means that some level of human and property suffering is being avoided. But today, as I decided at the last minute (and for no particular reason) to take the long way to where I was headed, I was pleasantly rewarded with the opportunity to visit the #201 Station by some of the nicest people I’ve met in a long time. The folks at the station were extremely friendly, informative, and obviously very proud of the work they are doing to keep the rest of us safe. For this roving photographer, what started as a quick walk on a sunny Sunday morning turned out to be a lesson in history, a walk of discovery, and a realization of how thankful we all must be for the professionalism and sacrifice of our great firefighters (of which my brother-in-law is one). I guess no day, no matter how ordinary it may look, is really ordinary. I met some great Americans today at a place that is both part of America’s past and of its present, and I am glad to report that we could not be in better hands when it comes to our safety and wellbeing. So, a big thank you goes out to the great folks of Fire Station #201 for their generosity and the great work they do together with firefighters from other stations to keep the rest of us safe and secure.
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.
Amsterdam is a city of contrasts. On the one side there is the city of great art and imposing architecture, while on the other there is a somewhat more earthy side, to put it mildly. What’s even more interesting about the city, though, is the fact that so much of what makes Amsterdam what it is seems to lie inside its somewhat uniform buildings. Sure, there are the marvelous canals crisscrossed by beautifully undulating bridges packed with bicycles of all kinds, but enter some of those building lining the canals and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find inside.
Such is the case with two of Amsterdam’s most famous attractions: the Van Gogh Museum at Stadhouderskade 55 and the old Heineken factory at Stadhouderskade 78. From the outside, the buildings housing these two local landmarks are a bit industrial in character, but what lies inside is quite remarkable and more than worth the time you have to spend in line before getting inside (which on a rainy, cold day made the Van Gogh Museum line to get inside a bit of a challenge for the hundreds of people inching their way to the ticket booth). But once inside, you are treated to some of the most creative art you’ll ever see anywhere. The four-story museum was divided according to the different stages in Van Gogh’s short creative life (about ten years total), from the days when he was perfecting his style in Paris to his mental asylum days in Arles and Saint-Rémy. A definitely troubled life, but an incredible creative one.
About a quarter mile from the Museum Quarter park, a somewhat different experience can be found at the old Heineken factory (which moved its production to a new location in 1988). What is now termed the Heineken Experience will set you back about 18 Euros, but it will be some of the best money spent in Amsterdam. The old equipment is still there, to include the still-in-use stables with the black Heineken horses. They even “turn you into beer” in a small theater where the audience is put through the beer-production process as if it were the liquid itself with a vibrating stage that is at various points subjected to heat lamps simulating the fermentation process. And to top it all off, there is the tasting room followed by an incredibly slick bar where you get the two beers that were included with the admission price (which also include a free canal ride aboard the Heineken boat and a souvenir at their downtown store). Not too shabby, and quite educational to boot. This city is definitely growing on me.
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 was fascinated by this scene when I bumped into it at the Javits Center in New York City. An oasis of quiet in a city that is not known for being quiet. The woman simply owned the spot, and from what I could tell, no one dared to occupy any of the empty chairs next to her. A perfect display of momentary solitude and territoriality. An unintended, silent commentary that no one dared to disrupt. I wonder if she knew she was saying so much with her silence.
Some photographs just speak for themselves. This is one of those. After seeing a group of people perusing photo books for sale at at the 2013 PDN Expo in NYC, I decided to take a photo with my Ricoh GR just to make up for what otherwise was a slow photography day. What I was not expecting was for the woman in the photo to suddenly turn the book page and be shocked by whatever it was she had just seen. I could’t quite make out what exactly she was looking at, but it had obviously caused quite an impression on her. Sometimes, that’s just how it happens. Just when you are about to press that shutter, someone within the frame of view will do something that will produce a much more interesting photograph. That’s what happened on this day, and it obviously transformed what was just an ordinary scene into one not so ordinary. That worked for me.
Yes, like all our recent Presidents and entertainment celebrities, I must confess that I too have succumbed and gone to Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant for a little 1,000 calorie snack. I wasn’t going to talk about it, but I started thinking that if I came out clean and made a full confession, that this somehow would help me with my caloric redemption. Since 1958 Ben’s has been serving some of the world’s greatest chili from its 1213 U Street NW, Washington, DC location, and to say that Ben’s knows chili would be a gross understatement. Get it in a bowl, over a whole selection of dogs, over fries, you name it and they have it. And the cheese covered fries? No comment, and I’m afraid that I must invoke the 5th Amendment. Total calories consumed during my short visit? Talk to my attorney, but if you have to ask, then you can’t afford it. All I know is that I’m headed back to Ben’s as soon as possible. Just need to do some prep work before I cross that U Street threshold again on my way to chili heaven.
Ever heard of the Shaw neighborhood in Washington, DC? Can’t blame you if you haven’t. Most locals haven’t either. And judging from my recent visit to Shaw, it doesn’t look like it’s one of the tourism hubs in Washington, DC either. But if you think this somewhat low-keyed anonymity means that you should ignore this part of town, you will be sadly mistaken. This wonderful neighborhood is home to Howard University and the incredibly popular Art All Night DC event, which takes place at the imposing building that was once home to the Wonder Bread Factory on S Street NW. And if the “Big Easy” label were not already taken, it would fit Shaw like a glove. Laid back, friendly, and not totally gentrified, Shaw is one of those places that once you visit, you’ll be asking yourself why you had never been there before. Not that the neighborhood can match its richer and more famous U Street neighbor a few blocks away, but rather that if it were noise and rowdy crowds I was intent in getting away from, then Shaw is the place I would head on out to. This is specially the case starting next month when the Right Proper Brewing Company opens its doors at T Street NW.
This is a post that I was not planning on writing, but someone asked me to post a few photographs from my trip to that great relic of the communist era in Hungary, the infamous Memento Park, so here it goes. For starters, getting to Memento Park is quite an adventure. You’ll hear that it is in Budapest, but it will take you a few bus transfers before you actually get to its remote location next to a dusty concrete factory of sorts. Your first reaction after being unceremoniously dumped at the small bus stop is confusion as to where exactly you have landed in Hungary. That’s because the bus stop is a few hundred yards from the park, and the somewhat industrial feeling of the place (even though there are houses around) is kind of disorienting. Only after spotting what seems like the top of a brick wall over some concrete-dusted trees behind you and across the street, do you realize that you’ve found the place.
The Hungarian people could not have done a better job in hiding all these relics, and the world could not have done a better job at ignoring them. While a mere 45 minutes away Budapest is a beehive of activity and excitement, the dusty Memento Park sits alone, desolate, and forgotten. Sure, a few curious souls do manage to trek there out of curiosity, but this communist resting place doesn’t appear to rank very high on most visitors’ to-do lists (on the day four of us visited, there was only one couple there taking pictures). When you think about it, though, Memento Park with its sun-drenched, sterile landscape and grotesque statues, is perhaps the right memorial for a failed ideology that enslaved millions of people a short generation ago. It is a graveyard of sorts–the last resting place of the symbols of coercion and subjugation by a political system long relegated to the ashes of history. That the people of Hungary endured and survived such historical catastrophe with such a positive attitude towards the future, is nothing short of remarkable. What surprises me is that Memento Park exists at all. Maybe the Hungarian people need a point of reference by which to measure how far they have come since those dreaded communist days. Whatever the case, this park is part of a Hungary that no longer exists. Today’s Hungary is enjoying itself by the Danube with its eyes firmly gazing at an Europe that not too long ago seemed like a far-away mirage. It is remarkable how times change.
We’ve heard it a million times: get a Leica or any other non-DSLR camera and you will become invisible when taking photos. It sounds kind of convincing, and like thousands of photographers out there, I too bought into this myth. I say that it is a myth because after endless hours of walking the streets with my assortment of small cameras, I have grown convinced that it is not the camera that makes you inconspicuous to your photographic subjects. Rather, it is the environment and the noise level that do the trick. Why is this the case? Because no matter how small that camera gets, the unmistakable fact is that you are attached to it, and like they say, “you is a big thing.” Stop within a few meters of anyone on the street when there’s no one else around and believe me, you will get noticed. Don’t you notice people within your peripheral vision all the time? It all boils down to how much you as a person stand out in your environment. The photograph above was taken with the famous Ricoh GR, the darling of street photographers. The gentleman was talking to the young lady trying to sell her one of this paintings, but somehow through his peripheral vision he became aware of my split-second presence with the diminutive Ricoh GR. It had nothing to do with my choice of camera, but it had everything to do with my 5’11” frame and muscular (OK, pudgy if you insist on exactitude) complexion. Had I had a crowd around me, he would never had noticed my presence, even if I had a large Nikon DSLR strapped around my neck. The same with noise. The sound level of a shutter release is a big deal in street photography. That loud click from your DSLR will get you all the unwanted attention every time. Here’s where cameras like the Leica M 240 and the Ricoh GR excel in a big way. They are nearly silent, and normal street noise levels will easily drown any sound coming from them. Noise, then, is all relative. It will only get you noticed if the noise you generate reverberates over all the other environmental noise around you.
So what’s the point? Basically, that all this invisible camera hype on the Internet is mostly just that, hype. The real secret is blending in with the environment and connecting with your subject. This last point was highlighted very well in Greg Koch’s recent article, where the virtues of connecting with the people you are photographing could not have been better stated. Too many photographers de-humanize the photographic process by merely pointing their cameras in the direction of their subjects, clicking, and then walking away. Sure, that works sometimes, but nothing beats establishing some sort of connection with these folks. A nod of your head, a V sign, some small talk, or whatever, it is all better than mere silence and a hasty departure. So blend in and be friendly and you’ll see that the type of camera you use will not matter as much.
We keep hearing that monumental changes are taking place in the world of photography today, and were we to judge these assertions based on the new breed of APS-C sensor small cameras making their market appearance lately, it would seem impossible to disagree. I certainly couldn’t after spending one day with the darling of street photographers everywhere: the new Ricoh GR camera. Small and totally inconspicuous, this computer-in-a-pocket wonder is not just fast, it is amazingly audience-friendly–a major plus when it comes to street photography. With an APS-C 16.2 megapixel-sized sensor (the size of what you typically find in most DSLR’s out there), this little camera delivers, and in a big way. Sure, the fixed 18.3mm (28mm equivalent) may be somewhat limiting if you want to cover all your photographic bases, but for what it was intended to excel at, the Ricoh GR may arguably be the best there is out there. From the ground up, this camera was brilliantly and unapologetically designed with one single purpose in mind: street photography (see Steve Huff’s great review here), and to say that Ricoh delivered would be a gross understatement. Will it replace the trusted Nikon or beloved Leica in my camera bag? Don’t think so, but it will never be left behind when I step out the door with its larger and more expensive siblings. Thank you Ricoh.