For some reason or another, yesterday I started my day wondering why I kept going out with my camera to endlessly roam city streets in search of photographs. What is the purpose when you are not really earning any money from it, and fame is something that is surely something for someone else to enjoy. Tired feet, too much sun, dehydration, and lots of bad photos on top of it. Really, what’s the purpose of this obsession? The endless search for a masterpiece? Boredom? What? After all, I plan to do nothing with most of the photos I take day in and day out. They will lie dormant forever in my computer, hidden from the world in order to save me some well-deserved photographic embarrassment. Why then?
The answer may be depicted on the photo above. That is because no matter how tired I am, or the number of photographic disappointment awaiting me, or all the negative energy being generated in the world each day, there will still be an endless amount of wonder left for us to discover. It may not be the stuff of our every day, but in your heart, yes, very deep inside your heart, you know that nature, and human creation will still surprise you with their incredible creations. I know this because after having spent a life traveling with a camera on hand, I still look at the world around me with the same sense of awe as the lady in the photograph above. The search for that feeling is why we travel, because no matter how good photography is these days, nothing can substitute for the feeling experienced when standing in front of a natural or artistic masterpiece. Photography merely allows us to record that moment, to remember, and to thirst for more. As photographers, then, we really don’t invent anything, but rather freeze, in a fraction of a second, the beauty and wonder that was already there.
Chances are that you have never set foot inside the Smithsonian’s imposing Arts and Industries Building. Not that the building is hidden away somewhere where no one can find it. It rather sits in plain view of us all, right next to the Smithsonian Castle and smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. The building is incredible large and a beautiful architectural masterpiece, not to mention that it borders what many consider to be the most beautiful garden in DC, the Enid A. Haupt Garden. But not too many people have been inside, as it has been in constant renovation for a while now (translation: empty and closed to the public). I have lived in the area for nearly two decades and have never set foot inside, and have grown accustomed to seeing the plain-paper “closed” sign taped to its magnificent doors. That is, until today, when by chance I happened to walk by and some great folks conducting a demo along Jefferson Dr SW who thought that I was a tourist and told me to check out the inside of the building. At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out to be that they were not.
From inside, the structure is nothing short of spectacular. A throwback to another era with the finesse and class of an old Parisian covered market. The metal ceiling and beam-supported upper deck reminded me of the central market in Budapest, but without the people and the cheerfulness that is typical in those markets. Empty, underutilized, and unseen by most of us, this Arts and Industries Building, like a queen in exile, sits royally at the heart of the nation’s capital in total silence. And that is a pity. Perhaps one day it will be yet another museum at the Mall, but if it were up to me, I would create a food market to rival some of the best food markets in the world. Sadly, this will never happen. Most likely, and in true local fashion, a city full of museums will gain another museum in the end, and another place where you are expected to be quiet. Oh, well. I guess once I set eyes on the place, it was more of a “laugh out loud” kind of vision that wedged itself inside my head.
Today, I got in touch with my inner child. You know the one, that one which lives inside us all and which at times surprises us at the most unexpected moments. It lies dormant, and more-often-than-not suppressed, in some locked chamber inside our hearts. We are conscious of its presence while it lingers unattended under the watchful eye of those merciless wardens of our so-called happiness, adulthood and correctness. But try as they may on days like these, those vicious suppressors of spontaneity and childhood innocence lie helpless before the sight of hundreds of kites slicing their way through the April sky above the blooming blossoms of a glorious spring day. No chance, none at all.
That is because today was a special day, the day in which the great Smithsonian Institution celebrates the annual Blossom Kite Festival. Colorful flying machines flying in all directions with a cloudy canvas as a backdrop. Children whose eyes rarely left the sky while their parents desperately tried their best at a two-minute crash course on flying the unruly kites. Entanglements as common as the acrobatic displays by the most experienced flyers. Big kites, small kites, kites without a tail, kites with flags, and the wonderment of thousands of people who could not conceive of missing an event like this. And yes, there on that grassy field of wonders, someone I knew from my childhood showed up, unannounced and marveling at the celestial spectacle as he has once marveled on a land so very far away. He didn’t stay long, but long enough to remind me that flying a kite has never been about expertise, but rather about letting your dreams soar way up into the skies and then fighting like hell to keep them there for as long as you can. Something the me now sometimes forgets, but something the me then always remembered. And that’s what great days are made of.
One of the great things about living in the Washington, DC area is that you get to experience world cultures without having to leave the city. Of course, this is mainly because of the great Smithsonian Institution, which sits royally in the heart of the city and acts as beacon of culture that is second to none in the world. On this particular weekend it is Peru that has their attention, with a celebration of Peruvian culture and traditions at the Folklife Festival smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. In fact, after visiting several of these festivals in the past, it is my impression that this one is one of the best festivals I have ever seen at the Mall, and I’m not just saying that because of the copious amounts of Peruvian food I came in contact with. Really, they even have Alpacas there, which you can go check out after trying your dance skills at the sound of some rhythmic Andean tunes.
But what was most impressive for me was the sight of weavers and boat-makers who could turn simple threads and straw into incredible works of art. In a city where the first thing that comes to mind when talking about “ancient skills” is having to type on a manual typewriter, actually seeing people who can build something with their hands is a quite a big deal. And after several hours observing them at work, I never saw a single one of them using a cell phone. Amazing that people can survive without them. Gracias amigos.
Ah, don’t you wish that this type of building, with its beautiful gardens and undulating brick trails were part of your everyday life? Come to think of it, how do you like your everyday scenery? Are you moved by the landscape you normally come in contact with? Does the architecture in your town or city fills you with wonderment and dreams of faraway places? I frankly don’t know what has happened to architectural design these days, but if you make your world in suburbia these days, chances are that you have not been surprised by any architectural wonder lately. That doesn’t mean that creative architecture is dead at all, as evidenced by Apple’s projected new building in Cupertino, CA. Rather, it means that your average suburbia landscape could use a little TLC when it comes to beautiful buildings and pedestrian-friendly landscape. Less strip malls and a few more landscaped parks would be a start, not to mention getting away from designing boxes and referring to them as architecture. Of course, in some parts of the country this would be tantamount to defying gravity, but who knows, it may be as catchy as the trend started by the Levitt family back in 1946. Remember Levittown? It could happen.
The National Book Festival put together by the great folks from the Smithsonian Institution took over the National Mall this past week. As always, this well-attended festival is kind of a national reminder of the value of books and the great benefits that come from reading. I will admit, though, that in the era of Tweeter, Google+, Instagram, and Facebook, book reading as a national activity is not what it used to be. Most of us can be considered “occasional” book readers at best, even when technologies like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad have made acquiring and reading book about as easy as it can be humanly made.
But having recently returned from Paris, something very interesting caught my attention during this book festival. This was the contrast between the French and the American attitudes to book reading. The French as a whole are considered some of the most prolific book readers in the world, and when I say books, I mean the hardbound, physical, nice-smelling books we grew up with a generation ago in America. Walking the streets of Paris, book readers were everywhere holding books of all sizes while sitting at outdoor cafes or at the local park benches. No doubt their “bookworms” reputation is well deserved. But what I did not see in Paris were electronic book readers. Not one. Nada. Zip. In contrast, if you removed the bare-bones Barnes & Noble tent from the National Book Festival, there wasn’t a physical book pile to be seen anywhere (at least that I could find while walking around). And here is where the contrast with France appeared most evident: in the reality that digital distribution and consumption of books in America is rapidly overtaking the tired, brick-and-mortar sales model that appears to be alive and well in France. Old world vs. new world? Not sure, but while this distinction doesn’t mean that Americans are reading any less lately, it surely seems to point to the fact that most of us are not going to be flipping pages a-la-France these days. For most of us today, a walk to the local bookstore these days involves logging in to a digital book seller online and never hearing the friendly “great book” comment from the bookstore employee. Maybe this sort of human interaction is not needed these days, or maybe online reviews are a good-enough substitute for the old bespectacled clerk. Who knows. All I know is that if they could replicate that great book smell that hits you the first time you open a brand-new book, then that would be something. Ahaaaa! Well, in the meantime, I’m not going to hold my breath.