What is it about empty, lonely roads that we like so much? After all, we are there ourselves, at least physically there. But even when not technically empty, there is just something about those long stretches of road, devoid of masses of people and sounds, that simply appeals to us. And as easy as it would be to say that this appeal rests primarily on the absence of others, or other things, it would be somewhat inaccurate to claim as much. On the contrary, it seems to be the constant presence of others, of that relentless humanity around us, that makes us appreciate these empty roads that much more. As only noise can make those quiet moments that much sweeter, or daylight such a great antidote to those long, wintry nights, the solitude of these roads, and what they mean to us, would totally lack meaning if it were not for its opposite condition.
But while empty, these roads were never made for speed. Rather, they seem to have been constructed for the sole purpose of stretching time, and for the type of movement and grace associated with a Viennese waltz. One floating step after another, we slide down a circuitous trail along these straight roads, head looking left, then right, as if afraid to miss any of the emptiness along the way. And for a brief moment, those lonely roads are ours, and we become as reluctant to share them as we are reluctant to share our last breath. When the end of that road comes before us, as it always will, we will turn around and take that long, longing look at the well-worn road behind us, only to realize that only the roads ahead of us are empty and not the ones we leave behind.
As far as I’m concerned, imagination, or simple flights of fancy, are the stuff of life. I say this because no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to look at the world for what it is. No, not possible. Images, and the scenes I constantly see before me, are mere windows into an imaginary world. For some reason or another, I keep thinking of what I see as incomplete stories, almost begging for me to fill in the blanks with my imagination. A man standing at a corner is not just simply a man standing at a corner. This untamed imagination refuses to see just that. He must be waiting for someone, he has nowhere to go, time doesn’t matter to him, he is there because the events in his life, he seems to be in love, or appears to be totally devoid of it. Whatever. It just goes on and on, and there’s nothing I can do to control it. Imagination, like time, is simply impervious to boundaries.
And thus the photograph above. Is it just a picture of a man in a white uniform staring at passerby’s? Or a baker taking a break from the morning rush? I stood there for nearly ten minutes observing the ongoing scenes, and all that I could think of was the title of Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd.” What to make of this solitary man with his forlorn look, staring at a “madding crowd” of shoppers and consumers? Surely, more than twenty or so feet separate their world from his, and there is no doubt that he was being ignored by the very people who’s lives he was enriching by his labor. Did he envy these people? Or pity them? Did he aim to join them, or leave them? I wondered what his plans were for the holidays. Who would be waiting for him at home. Who misses him when he’s gone, while he quietly observes the crowds, not uttering a word to anyone and no one uttering a word to him. And so it goes, imagination trying to add context to the scene, something that photographer Duane Michals understood very well when he addressed the subject: “I believe in imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” I must agree, because therein, behind the raw data collected by our senses, lies the mystery, and the wonder of the things we see.
I have long been fascinated by the notion of capturing urban serenity in my photos. Not that I’ve always been successful in doing so, but rather that I enjoy looking for these types of scenes as if with the devotion of an astronomer looking for a new star. I know these scenes are out there, but my eyes don’t always see them. This is not for lack of trying,mind you, but rather that in the visually oversaturated environments of our modern cities, it is not easy to avoid visual distractions. Sort of like trying to write the next, great American novel in a room full of people who insist on constantly talking to you. Not easy, to say the least.
The challenge of capturing an image depicting urban serenity is compounded by the fact that most of these scenes can only be found in a portion of our natural field of view. That is, they hide in parts of what we see, not in all we see. Sometimes they may not amount to more than 10-20 percent of what’s in front of us, off to a corner and easily overshadowed by the more visually-demanding center of the scene. From the photographer (or the creative), these hidden gems demand a certain level of visual cropping–the ability to segment a scene into smaller micro-scenes that could stand visually on their own. It is the proverbial needle in the haystack challenge, and it’s never an easy one.
There is also a certain calm in those scenes. Like the quiet person in a busy room, they can’t help but attract your attention in spite of their best effort to be ignored. They attract us because they engage us, they make us think, or at the very least, imagine. And even if for a brief, but precious moment, what better place to live than in our imaginations.
I’ll start this post with a simple admission: I love walking the street. And to paraphrase Hugh Grant’s famous line in the hit movie Notting Hill, I mean that in a “non-prostitute” sort of way. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I grant you, but for me, the craziness of the street with its unpredictable, and always revealing human activity, is the stuff of life. Where else can you, and in the scope of a day, experience great art, creative people, international music, great food, Ethiopian coffee, incredible architecture, and dare I say it, a little flirting here and there. But even more than that, the street has a certain energy that is highly contagious. It is scenery that is always changing, and for someone interested in the human condition in any way, there is simply no other place to be than out there where the noise is coming from. Be it in Rio, Berlin, Shanghai, or Delhi, life on the street is simply a never-ending theatrical performance by momentary, wonderful characters. Crude at times, scary at others, but also happy and refreshing most of the time. Sort of like a human thrift shop. Haven’t experienced the streets and neighborhoods in your town yet? Well, you ought to try getting out there. Don’t just read about life, be that life. And don’t forget your camera.
You have to admit that some photographs are thought-provoking. This is more so when what was captured was the result of happenstance rather than design. In most of these instances you find yourself either walking into the scene by chance or visualizing the scene before it happens (in which case you just stand there waiting for the right moment). In those moments, and to quote the the famous photographer Chase Jarvis, “the best camera is the one that’s with you.” On this particular day, my best camera was the one that I threw into my pocket on the way out to the grocery store: the compact wonder that is the Sony RX100. Oh, and you may be wondering what happened here? Well, nothing did. The gentleman made it safely to the other side of the road and the UPS folks followed all the rules of the road. “All’s well that ends well.”
How do you know that spring is just around the corner? That is, besides peaking into whether Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow or not. I’m sure everyone has a personal way of presaging the arrival of spring, but for me, it is the appearance of music on city streets that unmistakably lets me know that it’s about time to start putting away those winter jackets. From violins to trashcan drums, I must admit I like it all and that I wait for those street sounds with the same level of fascination as the masses that assemble every year in Pennsylvania wait for that sage of a groundhog. To tell you the truth, I love street musicians, and I’m glad to see that traditions that were popularized in Europe have found their way into the streets of America. These performers give character to street corners and neighborhoods alike, and if you ever take the time to stop and listen (not to mention to drop a few bucks into their instrument box), you’d be surprised at how good they really are. So for now, I plan to enjoy their wonderful, musical contribution to our enjoyment of life, and some months from now, when the street music stops, I’ll know it is time to pull out that dreaded winter jacket again. Not particularly looking forward to it.
You know Washington, DC is a sports city when you walk around the White House on a winter day and you come face-to-face with flying hockey sticks and young men trying to recapture some of that High School glory. I have to admit that some of the hockey moves I saw there gave me some disturbing visions of medical traction equipment and year-long therapy sessions, but you have to admire anyone that can skate on concrete as if their feet were being moved by subterranean magnets. After all, I don’t think I could move that fast even if a tsunami were chasing me. But there they were, oblivious the the curious gaze of strangers, moving like Michael Jordan on ice (well, you get the idea), and reminding the rest of us of all the beauty and spontaneity of youth. Funny how that feeling never dies, or grows old, even if our knees are not what they used to be. I’m glad that there are things that time will never change.
In one of the coldest days of the year in Washington, DC I ventured into town to see whether there were any brave souls willing to challenge the bone-chilling temperatures from the previous couple of days. After all, this is a city where a mere one-inch of snow pretty much shuts down the entire metro area (OK, any excuse to leave work is good enough, but still). To my surprise, while most of the crowds were huddled inside the museums along Constitution Avenue, true fashionistas were out in force, proving that even when your fingers are turning black from the impending frostbite, it is still possible to look good. Of course, this seemed to apply mostly to to a certain age group (see the photo above). For those in my age group (no, I’m not telling), quadruple layering was the order of the day. Patagonia on the first layer, REI on the second, 300-thread fleece on the third, and a windbreaker on the fourth. Oh, and I almost forgot about that fashion statement thing. Simple: there was none.
I love PhotoWeek DC. Maybe I should restate that: I love everything PhotoWeek DC stands for. Since 2008 some very hard-working group of folks have labored intensely to bring us this celebration of all things photography, with tens of exhibits around town and lectures galore by talented photographers that are pushing the boundaries of their creative and business talents. All of us living in the DC metropolitan area who spend endless hours behind our cameras should feel very fortunate to have such a festival right here in our back yard, and we do. Nevertheless, recent developments in the world of photography have made me wonder whether there are some aspects of photography that are not receiving their fare share of time at these gatherings. Put another way, I’m beginning to wonder whether the world of large prints, large cameras, and traditional portfolio review sessions continues to be emphasized in photo festivals as a defense mechanism against the emerging world of stock photo agencies, Tweeter, Instagram, and digital publications.
There is no doubt that today everyone seems to be a photographer. And without getting into the never-ending professional vs. amateur argument (which by the way is a fruitless discussion, as a good photograph is a good photograph no matter who takes it), it appears that some leading national magazines out there are pulling the rug from under the professional photographers’ feet by growingly getting their photos from everything from stock photo agencies to Instagram. Case in point: the recent (and controversial) Instagram cover photo on Time Magazine. Now, I don’t know that this is the future or anything like that, but judging from the vitriolic complaints about Time Magazine’s moves coming from professional photojournalists, this must be a really sensitive subject, to say the least. An amateur with an iPhone or one of those point-and-shoot cameras getting published on the cover of Time Magazine? Heresy. Unconscionable. The death of quality photography. You name it; it’s been said. And yet, photography continues to be all about “being there.” That is, about capturing a moment that has some sort of meaning to those looking at the photograph. What you use to capture this moment really doesn’t matter at the end. The videos and photos of Muammar Gaddafi during his last minutes on earth are no less valuable (or powerfull) as historical documents as a result of being recorded on a cell phone. In fact, it could be argued that as photography becomes more secularized, as evidenced by the widespread use of simpler and easily-transportable recording devices, the world of photography will be transformed in new and incredible creative ways. Chase Jarvis, the incredibly talented photographer, alludes to this new world of possibilities on a constant basis. Even though he sits at the top of his professional photographic career, he continues to preach the mantra that the best camera is the one that is with you when that great photo opportunity shows up. In fact, Chase celebrates all that is new and innovative in the creative arts, and that probably explains a lot of his success and his large number of followers. The photo industry (and yes, some photo shows and festivals) have yet to catch up to Chase and the legions of amateurs and Instagramers who roam the world and who by virtue of simply “being there” are the ones capturing great footage of events while they are happening. At the end of the day my friend, and as it has been from time immemorial, getting that picture is all that matters.