Ever heard of NoMa? Don’t blame you, as most people wonder whether the acronym stands for some sort of medical condition. But if there’s a neighborhood that is on its way up (and I mean way up), it is NoMa, or what is otherwise known to non-hipsters as North of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC. The neighborhood is still work in progress, but with its spacious metro stop (NoMa-Gallaudet Station) and proximity to Union Market (the hottest market in town), the area will no doubt have a great future as a place to live and work. Three significant employers are smack in the middle of the neighborhood: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), National Public Radio (NPR), and the DC facilities of SiriusXM Radio. Add to this a public wi-fi network, clean streets, and a whole slew of small, affordable restaurants, and you can’t help but be impressed with this up-and-coming neighborhood. It won’t remain undiscovered for long.
I never thought that the lonely, cutting sound of a small chisel would cause such a great impression on me. After all, this is something we don’t hear or see every day. A cold chisel being driven by gentle, patient hands into a granite wall with the methodical rhythm of someone who’s intent has more to do with achieving perfection than with worrying about time. As I watched this artist work the stone I couldn’t help but think that this is the same level of patience and precision that goes into the making of top-end Leica cameras (which just happens to be what I used to take this photo). For some people this is boring stuff, and no doubt watching an artisan’s slow, methodical work interspersed with numerous periods of silent observation is not everyone’s cup of tea. For others, it is like watching a chess match by Grand Masters, where the long, tense silence is suddenly disrupted by a stroke of genius involving the subtle move of a chess piece to an adjacent square on the board. Beauty lives in the very simplicity of the act.
While most people around the country imagine the glamour of working at a big city like Washington, for many of the local bureaucrats the magic seems to have faded a little. Not that the so-called power lunch is a thing of the past, but rather that the road to the inner circle appears to require some time on a bench like the one depicted on the photo above. But in a city where who you know is more important than what you know, the distance from that bench to a table with a white table cloth and expensive silverware could indeed be a short one. Better keep those eyes open and that suit pressed just in case.
In today’s seemingly impersonal world, you would be forgiven in thinking that people just don’t care much about others, but I’m growingly convinced that this is just not the case. In fact, the more I come in contact with people, the more I see everyone texting, talking on the phone, and exchanging all sorts of information in digital form. Connection, rather than disconnection, appears to be the norm. That is, provided you have a strong enough signal.
Afraid to talk to strangers? Convinced that most people out there are not very nice? Well, think again, because my experience is exactly the opposite. Whenever I’m out an about with my camera, I do get my share of rejections when I ask to take someone’s photograph, but in most situations (and provided you ask nicely) people are extremely nice about it. Show some sincerity and tell them why you would like to take their picture. Never lie about it, and if necessary, offer to send them a copy of their photo. Over the years I’ve come to realize that the pre-selfie generation doesn’t appear in too many photographs. That you find them interesting and want to photograph them is quite flattering. Think about it. When was the last time someone stopped you on the street to say that you looked great and they wanted to take your photo? OK, never in my case, so that’s why I’m convinced that it would be quite flattering if someone did. I won’t hold my breath, though.
It appears to be a scientific truth that as we age our vision diminishes with the years. Technically speaking, this simple fact could lead us to conclude that diminished visual capacity means that we will all see less the more our hair turns to gray. I get this, but I’m here to tell you that the opposite is indeed the case. That is, if we are to accept that there is a distinction between mere looking and seeing, then aging could actually be a good thing for all of us. In fact, the familiar “being there, done that” claim that we are all so fond of using, actually holds the key to our ability to see more with age. Unconsciously, we all apply years’ worth of visual experiences to every scene we look at with our alert, yet tired eyes. The computer inside our heads forms a myriad of relationships to other similar scenes in our lives, as well as the outcome of those scenes. This is why an aboriginal who has lived all of his or her life deep in the Amazon jungles will always see a lot more than a city visitor when staring at a thick jungle. It is the visual advantage of experience and time spent outside. So as you age you need to keep on looking, and look some more, put on those glasses that vanity sometimes relegates to a hidden place, and celebrate the passing of time. You will be pleasantly surprised at how much more you will be able to see now that youth is not affecting your vision.
Ah, nostalgic pedicabs (i.e., rickshaws) gracing the city streets while helping to clean the environment. Pedal power, no CO2, humans helping other humans. Hmmm. This is generally the picture that emerges when we think of the great import that are pedicabs. Reality, though, could be a bit more earthy, shall we say. In many city downtowns with fast-moving vehicular traffic, rickshaws are more-often-than-not forced into sharing the same busy streets where a non-choreographed dance of polluting city buses, taxis, and POV’s are constantly trying to outdo each other to the next light. Needless to say, there’s a lot of weaving, sharp turns, and sudden stops involved in this urban kabuki dance. Strangely enough, I had problems finding collision statistics for the DC area (or for any other city for that matter). Who knows, maybe these pedicabs are safer than we think. Just in case, though, I think that I’m going to stick to walking for now. After all, I do need the exercise.
Ever feel that you got to a place a few decades too late? Well, I do, and that place is indeed the SoHo neighborhood in New York City. Not that I could hang out with the local fashionistas that strut the local streets looking “mahvelous,” but rather that upon setting foot on the place I had that all-too-common feeling of having arrived late to a party. I’ve been hearing about SoHo for far too long now, but for some reason or another (OK, like most tourists) I have primarily limited myself to mid-Manhattan and other “have been” attractions like Little Italy and Chinatown during previous visits. This was a serious mistake that I do not intend to repeat, though. In fact, several years ago I made the decision to leave most tourist places to time-starved tourist and just head out to the neighborhoods where no tourist buses are to be found. But this I applied mostly to cities abroad like Paris, Rome, and Berlin. One day in SoHo has made me realize that I need to do the same at home.
But I just didn’t just wake up one day and decided to go to SoHo. I was there to spend the day with the great folks of The Leica Meet group, who were being graciously hosted by the Leica store at 460 West Broadway. The people at the Leica store simply hit it out of the park with their great support for this event. Not only did they allowed the group to use their store facilities for the day, but they also coordinated a wonderful group lunch at the Hundred Acres Restaurant & Bar, followed by a visit with various great Leica photographers like Ralph Gibson and Adam Marelli. This sense of community is something that other camera manufacturers can only dream of, and SoHo was just the perfect setting for the event. It’s definitely great to discover a few more good reasons to visit the city that never sleeps more often – like taking a creativity vitamin, which I dare say, we all could use from time to time. I know I do.
What can I say, sometimes the unexpected turn leads you down the path of the unexpected photograph. Such was the case with this particular photo, which required me to stand in the middle a busy downtown street in order to get the best composition possible for the shot. Of course, this would not have been necessary if I were using other than a Leica rangefinder, but in the world of rangefinders zooming with your feet is all you’ve got if you want to get closer to your subject. Not that this whole movement was done in a hurry, mind you, as when I first took my position in the middle of the street there was no one between the tires. However, I was convinced that sometime before I got run over by a speeding DC bureaucrat, someone will walk right into the scene and make the shot I was imagining in my head possible. Perhaps there’s something to George Lucas’ famous quote: “You can’t do it unless you can imagine it.” I’m certainly not going to argue with that.
Once in a while you come across a restaurant where all the elements seem to click. I’m not referring to some drain-the-bank-account type of place, mind you, but rather to a restaurant that seems to seamlessly combine those little things like good service, elegance, and basic good food with a little flair. One such place is the Secret Garden Cafe in Accoquan, Virginia. Not that I knew about this place before today, or that I would have found it without my good friend Mark suggesting I check the place out (the entrance is down a short alleyway and the restaurant is at the back of a local business). What I discovered at the end of that short alleyway was one of the most quaint and charming places I’ve seen in a long time. The white-linen tablecloths and the soft, pastel colors inside set the tone for the type of clientele that is always looking for that little extra in a place. And when you consider that you can have a two-course lunch with enough freshly squeezed lemonade to kill a horse for less than $20, the place becomes even more attractive, specially for someone used to DC restaurant prices. Next time I’m in Accoquan, I know exactly where I’m going for lunch.
What a difference a couple of weeks make. As April started in the Mid-Atlantic region, freezing temperatures and a couple of inches of snow would have led you to believe that winter would never end. Instead of birds singing in the morning all you could hear was the unmistakable raspy sound of ice scrapers chiseling away windshields before the dreaded morning commute to work got started. Gladly, all that appears to be behind us now and those dreaded ice scrappers have been put away for good. This coming week should also be the peak bloom period for the famous cherry trees lining the Tidal Basin in DC. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival is in full force and the weather could not be more perfect. Time to get out and see the world waking up from its long, winter slumber. See you out there.
Don’t ask me why, but lately I’ve been pondering how much our environment affects our creativity. After all, painters gravitate to the south of France in search of the perfect light, creative writing courses travel to Paris in search of inspiration, and photographers don’t seem to be able to stop talking about the lonely pursuit that their craft demands. Remember Georgia O’Keeffe? Her artistic peak came about during the period in her life when she made the wide, open spaces of the New Mexico dessert her home. And how about the irrepressible Salvador Dalí and his incredible imagination that traced its roots to the small Spanish towns of his youth, Figueres and Cadaqués. And famous writers are all over the place, but invariably alone when practicing their craft. So what am I to conclude from all this? Perhaps that for solo creatives, solitude during the creative process seems to be a lot more important than any particular location. After all, the proverbial creative block doesn’t seem to care much about place. It is the simple act of “disconnecting” from the everyday that seems to be at the root of our creativity. What is must give way to what’s possible in our consciousness. And if getting there takes us to a faraway land, or just as far as the kitchen table, so be it. Our eyes and our hearts will tell us when we’ve arrived there, wherever there happens to be.
Royally holding court in a back room at the elegant Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, Virginia is one of the most incredible pieces of art in the entire DC Metro Region. Can’t blame you if you have driven past the historical Maury School building without realizing what treasures lie inside. After all, the imposing galleries and monuments down the road in Washington, DC are a much bigger magnet for area visitors short on vacation time. But if there’s anything that demands a separate road trip on its own merits, the golden Tiffany glass windows at the Arlington Arts Center must be it. Not that a photographer can claim any degree of poetic justice in describing such a magnificent piece of art, but as a hopeless romantic with a camera I found it impossible to enter this sun-bathed room without being transported to the elegant world of New York high society during the late 19th Century. There, covered by the glowing yellow light of an afternoon sun, I couldn’t help but feel a little underdressed. Shouldn’t I be wearing a tuxedo while waiting to waltz the night away with my beautiful companion? Have the cocktails been served yet? Will the horse-drawn carriages be on time outside to slowly carry us back home after the most marvelous of nights? I swear that all these thoughts crossed my mind before I had to swap memory cards on my camera, so maybe there’s really something to all those time-travel rumors we keep hearing about.
Incredibly, though, these Tiffany masterpieces, which are now part of the Arlington Public Art Collection, were almost lost to the wrecking ball fourteen years ago. After many years of neglect and disrepair, in 2000 the U.S. Navy took over the building, and before tearing it down, allowed Arlington County to salvage anything of historical value at the site. As described at the Arlington Arts Center Blog, the windows were finally discovered after having “been boarded over and long forgotten” in the long-neglected mausoleum. I can just imagine the faces of those tearing down the wooden planks hiding such incredible treasure. So much for a day’s work. So if you are in the area any time soon, pay the great folks at the Arlington Arts Center a visit. Who knows, you too may be transported to a world long since gone, but not yet forgotten. And in case you’re wondering, your carriage will be waiting for you outside.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that we’ve had enough of this winter. Not that the DC Metro area can compare with the likes of Norway or Hokkaido, but rather that we are just not used to this long, wintry seasons any more. Sure, they show up every three or four years, but this lack of consistency is not enough for anyone to justify those big winter purchases, if you know what I mean. Proof of this is the fact that a single inch of snow is enough to close all area schools and the Federal government (do they still get paid if they stay home?). Small businesses are affected as well when area customers gravitate to shopping malls and large retailers in order to stay warm while overcoming cabin fever syndrome. So, if by any chance Pope Francis happens to be reading this blog (I know, a long shot, but I’m going to take it anyway), I would like to ask him to do a little lobbying above his pay grade to see if this endless winter can finally be put to rest. And just in case, a million thank-you’s in advance.
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.