Let’s face it, winter time in the Washington, DC area could be a very dreary time indeed. Politicians take lots of time off, and with them, whole armies of lobbyists and contractors who have carved an impressive symbiotic relationship with them. They don’t stay away for long, mind you, but that precious period of low tide in the city is both wonderfully quiet and a great opportunity for exploring the many world-class museums and galleries that dot the area. No need to stand in line for an hour to see an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum or at any other venue in town. And the often-ignored Freer Gallery of Art (pictured above) becomes even more magnificent in its undisturbed silence. To walk those empty, silent grand hallways and emerging into a room full of historical treasures is nothing short of bliss. The sound of slow-moving, tapping footsteps at a distance reverberating through those empty hallways, nothing short of music to our ears. This is more the case if you happen to find yourself at the museums the moment they open, when that feeling of having the whole place to yourself transports you into a world of ancient Chinese scrolls and golden figurines from centuries gone by. It is all wonderful stuff, and about as close as you can get to losing track of time, and of yourself.
Not everyone enjoys empty spaces. I’m referring to those empty rooms where maybe a sole couch sits, or a sole print on the wall. Sort of a Japanese Zen kind of room, devoid from visual distractions, but perhaps with a single object in it to demand your total, and uncluttered attention. It is really incredible how the Japanese have turned the absence of something into a thing of beauty. If only we could do that in this part of the world, where people cannot have enough stuff to cram into whatever space they have. Kind of what we do with our time, where society feels compelled to fill every minute of it with some activity, like checking a cell phone for that constant stream of those “insignificant little nothings.”
But when we search for creativity, empty spaces do seem to take an importance out of proportion from their normal selves. Perhaps it has to do with the visual isolation they allow, or perhaps with the fact that the less taxing our visual reaction is, the more our minds can wonder and compose. Whatever the case, it is in that desolate, empty distance separating feelings from the subject of our attention, where I find the glorious sustenance that feeds my imagination. That gap, that clear path where nothing lives and where obstacles don’t exist, is precisely where inspiration dwells. Nothing stands in the way of our eyes, thoughts, and admiration. It is glorious emptiness, where unable to be seen by the naked eye, incredible amounts of energy bounces back-and-forth without obstacles between the admirer and the admired.
What makes music beautiful is the distance between one note and another. What makes speech eloquent is the appropriate pause between words. From time to time we should take a breath and notice the silence between sounds.
The absence of notes and words makes “noticing” possible, just as the absence of obstructing things make beauty noticeable. A pause in a conversation. The expectation of the next note. A lone painting on a wall. And the empty space between us. I couldn’t help but notice.
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 sat at home yesterday thinking about the old saying that, “There’s no such thing as a bad day to take photographs,” and pondered the wisdom of going out with my camera to challenge the near-freezing temperatures outside. Don’t get me wrong, I am a tough guy. Well, above freezing temperatures at least, but I generally do not let a bad day hold me back from hitting the streets in search of the perfect photograph (which by the way, rarely is out there waiting for you). Nevertheless, out I went to Georgetown because I figured that if anyone would be outside on a cold day like this, it would be the always-there Georgetown crowds. To my surprise, though, the crowds were quite thin today, but the colors on this gray, overcast day could not have been any more perfect. And then there was the light, yes, the light. Not just any light mind you, but that creamy, yellowish, soft light that photographers dream of and which is generally only experienced during what is commonly known in the photography world as the “magic hour.” Who would’ve known, that on this gloomiest of days we would all be blessed with some of the most beautiful light these sorry eyes have ever seen. Go figure.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if this is the case, then my vague attempt to capture the street photography magic of Vivian Maier in a single photograph must be considered my private tribute to her work. After watching the great BBC documentary about her life and work (brought to my attention by Eric Kim’s street photography blog), I headed out on this non-descript day to see how easy it would be to imitate here style. Well, to save you some time if you do not want to read any longer, the short answer is that it is not easy at all. I think it all has to do with the times we live in and the simple fact that Ms. Maier looked down when taking her masterful photos. We’re talking pre-Internet and social media times here, when photography was not a globalized commodity to be feared and state-of-the-art Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras (like the one used by Ms. Maier) forced you to look down into the glass instead of across to the subject.
These elements must have played a role in her photographic life, but there is no denying that her incredible talent to capture the proverbial “moment” of a scene more than justify her posthumous photographic fame. Her eye for composition and light was nothing short of brilliant—a study of balance and symmetry that should be required study for any photographer. As depicted in the BBC video, many of her shots required her to be about three to four feet from her subjects, which in today’s über-paranoid world would not be an easy thing to do. I’m certain that sixty years ago Ms. Maier had an easier time answering the “what do you plan to do with those pictures” question, as the state of technology back then did not allow for instantaneous global distribution of your photos. But whatever the case, there is no denying that Ms. Maier got her shot when she was there with her camera, and in the end, that is all that matters. Too bad she never got to see the much-deserved outpouring of admiration from a thankful world.