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.
Why take in the sights when you can be staring at your mobile phone? That should have been the title of this post, for the epidemic of small screen fixation has by now reached astronomical levels. The day I took this photo, I had to literally move out of the way because a young woman went right through the space I was occupying a mere fraction of a second before, while her eyes were glued to her mobile’s tiny screen. Don’t think she ever saw me, or cared for the shadow that jumped out of her way so she could barrel through without a concern in the world. And as to the gentleman in the photo above, I stood next to him with my camera for nearly ten minutes, never to see him raise his eyes from his phone, or care for a second to anything that was going on around him, which obviously was plenty enough.
So what to make of this collective obfuscation that has enveloped our society? From a photographer’s point of view, it kind of makes our lives a little easier, as no one even notices you unless you appear digitally within their screens. But even this is a double-edged sword, so to speak, because as it becomes easier to photograph the phone zombies out there, the activities in which they engage while we click away are becoming a lot more boring. For too many people, the big picture has lost too much ground to the small picture. Life around them seems to have become too boring, specially when compared to the constant refresh of their mobile screens. People just don’t go away with the click of a button, and conversations will always require more words than texting. That small screen sure sounds a lot more convenient, not to mention less time consuming. The problem is that you just can’t fit enough of life into one of those tiny screens, and no matter what you do, those small screen will never love you back for that matter. It glows without shining a light on you, and for a price. A temporary necessity transformed into a constant one. A window to all but what surrounds you. And there’s always a lot going on around us.
I roam the streets a lot. I mean roam in the sense that together with my camera I’m always looking for that great moment when the time and effort spent in the search is rewarded by some great photographic scene. This is the case in pretty much every city I visit, but more so than most, in the area where I happen to live, which is a stone throw away from downtown Washington, DC. Looking at the thousands of photos I’ve taken over the past few years, however, has revealed some key information about my photographic taste, but more than that, about the places I seem to prefer when out with my camera. From this data, it appears that photographically speaking, my favorite place in the city is the Georgetown neighborhood. And no, it has nothing to do with the Georgetown Cupcake store, that pilgrimage destination for sugar lovers everywhere. Well, at least not entirely. Let me explain.
Georgetown could be a city in its own right. An expensive one, mind you, but kind of in the way that Rodeo Drive has its own identify that sets it apart from other places in LA. It kind of pulls you in, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the balance on your credit cards. The reason has to do with atmosphere, with je ne sais quoi, and with the undefinable vibe. Charm? Well, there’s plenty of that too. Ok, if you need to know, with endless coffee shops, slick restaurants, plenty of bars, boutiques, and great city views too. It’s all there. Toss in a never-ending parade of beautiful and disheveled people, and the unique neighborhood brew is completed. A photographer’s dream, even if most people there would rather you never photograph them. But if it is your glam side you want to strut in the city, Georgetown, with its swanky shops and riverside promenade is the place to do it. Just watch out for those sneaky photographers trying to take your picture.
Ever noticed how most travel photography seems to be sometimes about the same old things? Not that the world’s most famous landmarks are not worth visiting, on the contrary, they are, and we should all be so lucky to have seen a few of them. Finding them is also rather easy, as every travel guide in the world points directly to their location and to the logistics of making it there during the best times of the any travel day. All this is good and well, but just like our own countries of origin, there is a whole new world of undiscovered possibilities in every country that are totally ignored by travel guides and tourists alike. To a large extent this is quite understandable, as time and resources are necessities that most of us don’t have in great quantities. One single trip to Italy in your lifetime? Then it is time to choose appropriately and wisely as to what to see, and the well-trodden tourist path is definitely the way to go. And as we all know, there’s a guide book for that.
But there’s also another world out there, and one that hardly ever makes it into any travel guide, but which is full of rewards and undocumented beauty. Yes, Madrid has the Prado, but it also has off-the-beaten-path cantinas where locals will treat us as family if we are willing to relax our western stiffness for a second. Same in Copenhagen, Berlin, and Kyoto. But these off-the-city-center experiences do take time and somewhat of a personal involvement. Like making friends in our own neighborhoods, we are required to sit, linger, and be willing to engage in conversation. These are things that are hardly, if ever, addressed by travel guides, and if it were not by some very creative bloggers and YouTube folks, they would remain unknown to the world. Alternative media is where it’s at, if your goal is to get off that beaten path. After all, who needs to be eating at the Ritz in Paris anyways when you can be having a great conversation with the locals at a German currywurst food truck. Ok, that’s a pathetic stretch, but let’s just say that if you cannot afford the Ritz, then that food truck is a great place to hang out while meeting the locals and dreaming of the Duck a l’Orange at the Ritz.
Photographers are an unhappy lot. Or so it would seem from the amount of time they spend discussing equipment, projects, and the apparent success of others in the trade. See some great photos of the Amalfi coast with a golden sunset as a backdrop? Within seconds that sinking feeling of “what am I doing sitting here instead,” begins to take over like the morning fog along the California coast. These understandable worries seem to have their roots in the competitive nature of everything we do these days. It is the feeling that from the moment we wake up each day, we are in a constant race, with too many people seemingly sprinting past us in order to increase the gap that separates us by the end of the day. To a large extent, it has become increasingly more difficult to measure how far we have all come by simply looking at where we started. No, in the spirit of constant competition, the measurement of how far we have all come is growingly dominated by a comparison with others, irrelevant of the reality that not everyone started this so-called race from different starting points. It is the mentality of finite glory, of feeling so far from that Amalfi Coast scenery for us to find any sort of meaning and success on our own coast.
This professional anxiety may be taking its toll on us. At the very least, it stifles creativity by its very nature, and by leading too many people to what I will refer to as an “imitative state” of mind that focuses too much on the emulation of someone else’s success rather than on the development of a personal brand of success. It is the exact opposite of Robert Frost’s advice in The Road Not Taken, with all of the psychological dependencies that accompany the relentless pursuit of the imitative life. This is not to say, though, that the adoption of creative blinders is the answer to that which worries us. Rather, the distinction that I’m alluding to points to the difference between observing and learning from the creative genius of others, and the unaware psychological need of trying to emulate that which is the unique product of someone else’s creativity and genius. The perceived gap of the imitative life is where you will most likely find the roots of all our worries. The popular photographer Zack Arias referred to all these perceptions in our heads as “noise” standing in the way of our own creative actualization. Getting rid of this noise is not easy, for there is so much of it being bombarded into our heads every day. But perhaps the key of getting rid of all those worries and dependencies lies precisely on our ability to suppress that noise, or simply overcome it by singing our own voices louder above their level of disruption. We just have to grow comfortable with our own song and realize that it is as sweet a melody as anyone else has ever produced.
I should start this post by saying that I have nothing against shortcuts. In fact, I’ve spent a good part of my life searching for them, only to discover that there are very few alternatives to old-fashioned hard work available to us all. And yes, there’s the winning the lottery thing, but since that is about as probable as surviving a free fall without a parachute, I’ll disregard that particular shortcut for now. What I’m talking about is our human proclivity to try to find a shorter way to our destination, to compact time so that whatever it is that we’re engaged in, takes a lot less time than what life has already established as necessary. After all, this is the 21st Century, so why should be believe Henri Cartier-Bresson when he said that, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Don’t we get lots of “likes” in Instagram and Flickr? Isn’t that proof enough of our artistic excellence? Well, unfortunately it is not.
But something has undoubtedly changed. And that is that, in the advent of the digital revolution, fame and success are no longer so intimately tied to competence in any particular field. Call it the democratization of opportunity or whatever, but what could be happening these days is that while Cartier-Bresson may still be right in his observation, it really wouldn’t matter for a modern audience. Ever heard of Tardar Sauce? That’s the name for the famous mixed-breed Grumpy Cat that took the Internet by storm and made both cat and owners instant celebrities. No 10,000 photos were needed before the owners started cashing in on the cat’s celebrity status, and while Cartier-Bresson may be turning in his grave as a result, the cat’s photographs and paraphernalia may have achieved about as much commercial success as Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl photograph ever did. I tell you, if it were not for the eternal feeling of hope in us all, it would be enough to make you want to throw your camera away and get a cat instead. But such artistic surrender would not do anything for art in the long run. And just like in the case of the now popular gastronomic farm-to-table movement, it is every creative’s hope that the artistic excellence that they so painstakingly strived to achieve over time in their particular fields, will be similarly valued and compensated. That, at least, is the hope. But I’m afraid to ask what Grumpy Cat has to say about that.
Photographers are never a happy lot. If you are like most photographers, you tend to spend too much time reading photography sites and worrying about the gear you don’t have, or the photos you are not taking. Seldom will you check out a photo’s EXIF data and find yourself rejoicing. No, on the contrary. What’s more likely to happen is that all that technical data contained in those accompanying files will leave you with a sense of quiet desperation. One side of you will see that the great photo you’re looking at was taken with a more expensive camera/lens combination than what sits in your camera bag. Another side of you, and perhaps more painful to ego and wellbeing, will discover that the photograph was taken with a much cheaper camera/lens combination than what you dished-out for your precious. Whatever the case, your mind will immediately begin questioning your choices, and a raging war of words from pundits living in your subconscious will not waste a single second in turning your brain into a virtual battle zone. You need more, you need less, you need different, more time, more knowledge, more, more, less, less. It’s enough to get you committed to an institution. In the end, all you really need is the desire to take photos, and the ability to do so. Time and disposition are the key, and just like wine, whatever you think is good, is good enough. So best to purge those voices in your head and just go out and make photographs with whatever gear you’ve got. Believe me, I’ve been plenty envious of what some people are recording with their iPhones. But maybe it was because I didn’t have the right lens. Oh no, there again are those voices in my head.
Lately I’ve talked to a few folks that seem somewhat morose about everything that’s going on around them. You could actually see the burden on their shoulders, not to mention their cautious, hesitant steps. It is as if this hyperactive world is finally beating them down, leading to conversations long on medical tests and anxiety about a world that has seemingly gone mad. Too many travel warnings, too many terrorists, too many lying politicians, too many medications, and too little time to live a little. It’s all kind of depressing, to tell you the truth, and if you let these worries get into your head, it won’t be long before you convince yourself that life is nothing but a mad dash downhill to the end of the road. What’s so fun about that?
The antidote to all this is nothing less than focusing on always going uphill, rather than downhill. That’s right, struggle more, not less. Celebrate your ignorance, because there will be so much more to learn, but do get on with it. Look in front of you and plan your next move, be it learning something difficult or doing something challenging. Get rid of negative talk and fix your eyes on the hill ahead, no matter how high it is. Look at the stars above and not at the dirt below. Live for the joy of living, and never take that dreaded downhill road. Others have tried that route, only to discover that it leads nowhere. So cheer up, look up, and push up that hill with gusto, because it is along that road where great things always happen.
Today I would like to spend a little time praising the virtues of aimless wandering. I say aimless in the sense that such wandering is not constrained by any particular pattern of the type that leads to predictability of your course. No, the type of wandering I’m referring to has to do with selecting a general geographic area and then letting your feet (and curiosity) take you wherever they want to take you. Not for a moment, but rather for hours on end, and even full days in some occasions. It is the joy of day-after-day discovery, and a constant reminder that there’s a world out there that is both dynamic and exciting, not to mention the source of endless visions that will last a lifetime.
It was wandering that led me through a beautiful, ancient door and into a magnificent courtyard in Milan where lovers lazily embraced on a sunny summer day. It is wandering that has led me to discover the everyday lives of people in cities and neighborhoods that practically don’t exist in most people’s radar consciousness. Life reduced to a lover’s embrace, to a smile from a stranger, or to the asynchronous rhythm of a city coming alive in the mornings. There, between the silence which makes its last stand in the mornings and the inevitable noise of humanity mercilessly charging forward at the break of dawn, is where I find the tumultuous nature (and beauty) of living. Wandering, in small or large quantities, makes such discoveries possible. Drive or walk to work? Try taking a different route on a regular basis. Going shopping? How about trying that Korean store, or a farmer’s market for a change. Ditch the car and walk sometime, enter a restaurant where most people don’t speak your language, or hang around people who are not like you for a while. Visit a new city just because and get lost on foot for a few days. Travel and linger. Wander with a purpose, or without one, as places have a funny way of guiding your steps sometimes. Who knows, you may even discover that most people are alright after all.
You know those days when no matter how hard you try, it is virtually impossible to come up with any great idea for a photographic project? Well, today was one of those days. Nothing there. So as I have done so many times in the past when I am in desperate need of some photographic therapy, I grabbed my camera and out I went. I figured that a little street photography would do me some good by clearing up the Friday photographic fog. No plans, just random walking for as long as my feet could stand it. I’m glad I went out, thought, because everyone seemed to be in a good mood in this otherwise grumpy city. No doubt the Friday “I’m out of here” thing was beginning to sink in or something, but more likely it was the effect of a perfect spring day before a long holiday weekend. Whatever it was, it was definitely contagious. Over six miles of walking with my camera, a very enjoyable culinary visit to several of the local food trucks, and a quick stop for some liquid therapy at the bar in Jaleo, and everything was well with the universe once more. A great day after all.
Recently, I bumped into a local photographer friend of mine who happened to be hanging around an icy puddle of slush on a Washington, DC downtown corner. Noticing that he was kind of hovering around the area with his Leica rangefinder at the ready, it was obvious that he was waiting for something to happen, so I asked him how it was going. Without taking his eyes away from that puddle of slush for more than a second, he told me that he was waiting for the “decisive moment” when someone would hop over the puddle so he could capture it a la Cartier-Bresson. To say he was working the scene would be an understatement. Dodging people and nature while constantly shifting his position, he appeared to be moving with the grace of a Mohamed Ali within the confined amount of space allowed by a busy sidewalk. I don’t know if he ever got his picture, but if he didn’t, it was certainly not for lack of trying.
Working a scene is what appears to be at the root of any great photograph. When we look at some of the unbelievable photographs made by National Geographic photographers, what makes these photographs so special to a large extent is the unique perspective from which they were captured. Composition, angle of view, and masterly handling of light are not things that happen by chance. At that level, lots of considerations go into a photographer’s choices before that shutter is finally pressed, and luck, while always welcomed, has nothing to do with it in the vast majority of cases. It is visual decision-making at its best: when to hang tight, when to move, when to aim, when to shift left or right, when to squat, or climb a building–they are all the product of intense observation and quick reaction, even if the end result is to stand still and wait. While not perfect in any way, every single photo on this blog today was made possible by the simple act of waiting. Waiting for the cigar-smoking gentleman to look at me, waiting for the couples to show some tenderness, waiting for the grandfather to strike a teaching pose at the museum, and waiting for the waiter to approach the window. Waiting, and anticipating. Some may call this luck, and no doubt there’s some truth to the fact that the subjects could have acted otherwise, but the old saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get,” may also have something to do with it. Learning to see, combined with the patience that so often rewards anticipation, will pay great visual dividends after the shutter is pressed. So after hanging around two downtown blocks for an entire afternoon on a very cold day, here’s the photographic lesson that was reinforced in my mind: that it is OK to run when you have to, but when you don’t, then don’t. Great things may happen when you allow your eyes the time to do what they do best: to see.
Just about every street photographer you talk to these days is in pursuit of that elusive, candid moment when people are just being themselves, oblivious to anyone around them. The less romantic interpretation of this search has been equated by some to a “hunt,” which I guess alludes to a photographer’s self-perception as a chaser of some sort, always at the ready with a camera and with the index finger on the trigger (or shutter release in this case). Conversely, there is also a somewhat more romantic version of this street photography process. This particular version (which we will call romantic for lack of a better term) alludes to the search for endless, small moments of human expression which take place every day in every city around the world. At its core it refers to the desire to look for these fleeting moments in order to capture them in a photograph for all humanity to experience. These different artistic approaches have lately left me wondering whether they are nothing but mere “distinctions without a difference,” or whether the street photographers who fall in either one of these categories are indeed different creatures practicing different forms of photography.
Arguably, a hunt conjures notions of finality, of a limited lifespan with a discernible beginning and an end. At some level it implies that the relationship between the photographer and the subject is that of a pursuer and prey, with the final moment of capture crowning a day’s achievement by the mere act of having completed the capture. What’s more, it would appear as if any talk of a hunt places the photographer at a different playing field as that of the subject of the hunt, as if referring to different realities that by definition have produced two very different, and distinct characters. One is a chaser, the other the object of a chase.
In contrast, the romantic photographer doesn’t see the world this way. For him or her it’s all about evoking human emotion in perpetuity, a desire to share what unfolded before his or her eyes for only a brief moment in the endless continuum of time. These special moments are as random as they are unique, with only a split second decision standing as a stoic arbiter between moments that will be forgotten by history and moments that will be frozen for eternity. That incredible visual zenith in an unfolding scene is what they live for. For them, that “moment” like no other–the never-again visual second standing between immortality and oblivion. It’s dramatic briefness renders it almost impossible to record on a regular basis, but the seemingly impossible odds will never stop the romantic street photographer. On the contrary, they are the source of his or her passion–a passion which most will define by a handful of incredible “moments” captured over the course of a year out of the tens of thousands of photographs taken and thousands of miles walked during that year. Crazy? Perhaps, but not for that incurable romantic with a camera.
So next time you go out with your camera in search of those special, human moments that will visually reward you for the rest of your life, consider whether you will approach them as a hunter or as a romantic. Will you just watch a scene unfold before you from a distant, vantage point, or will you make yourself part of that scene in order to feel the pulse and rhythm of the human drama taking place right before your very eyes. Whatever you do, it bears remembering that you, the photographer, is what matters. The camera is merely the equivalent of a painter’s brush, an instrument by which to translate your creativity onto a canvas that others can see. In the end, it all boils down to the tireless pursuit of that short-lived moment in a scene when your eyes, your camera, and the strumming beatings of your heart line up in perfect harmony. It is as rare as seeing a comet, but just as rewarding.
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.
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.
Photographers are constantly reminding each other that taking pictures in public places is generally a legally-protected right. Like anything else, there are limits, and many cases where photographers have been arrested for exercising this right have been documented in the press. Bottom line: it’s a risky business no matter how you look at it. Of course, most people taking photographs out in the open are innocently recording everyday life, with their photos destined for their personal blog (like the case here). But to fully ignore, or disreguard for that matter, privacy and propriety considerations out there could be a risky business. The law is somewhat murky and perhaps designed so that a visit to the local courthouse is all but inevitable if you are not careful. This also gets a lot more complicated when you travel abroad, as different countries have different interpretations of what is permissible and what is not. Bottom line: best to do a little research and never leave common sense behind when stepping out with a camera. And when in doubt, don’t. Then again, that may take all the fun out of photography.