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.
Who buys paper books these days? Certainly, not me. I’ve gone purely electronic, for an Amazon Kindle with ten books fits nicely in your jacket pocket, but try to do that with paper books. It just won’t work. Paper books are chunky, unruly, lack build-in dictionaries, and demand a separate bag for storage. So, why not declare them dead once and for all and be done with it? Well, not so fast. From what I can see during my photographic roamings around major cities, paper books seem to be alive and well, and for one reason or another, lately I’ve begun to miss them. Looking through my photos I also discovered that while I tend to photograph lots of people reading books, I have yet to take a photo of anyone reading an electronic book reader. Why is that?
For starters, nothing beats the tactile feeling of holding a book. Their physical presence, while usually cumbersome, is also what keeps us engaged with its contents. We feel its weight on our hands, we see it, we judge it by its thickness, and we must actively secure it with one hand while the other gently waves its pages with a sweeping motion reminiscent of a professional harpist. And when we open a book, we experience that unmistakable exhilaration that comes from opening a window into a great view, a quickening of the senses driven by anticipation. The sweet perfume of a freshly printed book, a lonely title sitting prominently by itself on on a main page, and a first sentence to prepare us for the story that’s about to come. Yes, that first sentence that author Jhumpa Lahiri aptly described as “… a handshake, perhaps an embrace.” All of this I miss when holding my electronic reader. And every now and then, when nostalgia becomes too hard to bear, I too go out and buy a paper book, if anything to experience that warm embrace that never left my imagination. A feeling that has become collateral damage in a world consumed by technology, but one that hopefully will never die.
It was a cliffhanger, but the famous Tidal Basin Cherry Blossoms did manage to show up after all. A bit subdued mind you, but there they are along with the crowds. And while the cold, rainy season is kind of putting a damper on people’s mood, it is virtually impossible to walk amongst these wonderful trees and not feel some sort of uplifting, positive force that could can turn any sour Washington bureaucrat into a happy person. And believe me, that is saying a lot. Every year, this beautiful gift of nature appears to remind us that not everything is gloom and doom in this world. In fact, it is a reminder that the dark, cold days of winter don’t last forever, and that there will always be a spring, and flowers blooming, and lovers moved by nature’s spectacle. Life as an eternal cycle, with endless springs to come.
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.
Ever wonder whether we are all artists in some way or another? I mean, even if you have yet to express yourself publicly in some artistic form or fashion, it is not an exaggeration to say that within us all there is an artistic bend that has yet to be discovered, even by ourselves. Why am I saying this? It’s all because of the photograph above, or more precisely, because of the artistic expression that became the subject of the photograph above. You see, the lady in the photo was just spinning very slowly on the raised platform while every 4 to 5 seconds striking the same cords on the guitar. On and on it went, while the rest of us stood there at this famous museum simply staring and waiting for the next stroke to come on, even if it was not any different from the one that preceded it. And you know what? I thought it was great, even if right now I couldn’t tell you why. Suffice it to say that art is art, and the fact that someone may not admire a particular art form, does nothing to diminish this fact. It is creativity given expression through some mean, and just like a plate of food, someone’s dislike does not do away from the simple fact that it was actually food and someone else will like it. So it is perhaps high-time that most of us aspiring creatives just let loose out there. Paint if you feel like painting, write if you feel like writing, and sing if you want to let loose the song in your heart. And never worry about what others may be thinking. The lady with the guitar didn’t seem to mind, and still everyone stared admirably in silence eagerly waiting for her hand to move. Sounds absurd? No, it’s art.
Like just about every day, I went walking today with my camera. When I do this, I typically bury my cell phone somewhere in my camera bag where it is very hard to access. I do this because I’ve come to realize that the whole purpose of being outside is to see and feel what’s going on around me. I want to disconnect from electronics and connect with the world that keeps on moving in spite of our interest in joining it. Perhaps this is a photographer thing, but I don’t think so. More than that, it is a fascination with a world that is alive and in motion, a world where glances still hold unspeakable mystery, and where human energy continues to create all things wonderful and all things bad. Humans, in all their shapes, forms, and behaviors are the stuff of life.
That is why it is so hard to positive spin on the modern phenomena of the connected disconnected. The being there in society, but not there at the same time. Like the young man in the photo above, to be actively linked to the faraway world via a cell phone, but totally uninterested in the the world that sits just a few feet away. Connected, but disconnected. A statement about our modern digital generation, I guess. But perhaps, if he would have only glanced up from the screen for a moment like she did to make eye contact, a whole new world connections would have been possible. They shall never know, for at no time did he raise his eyes in her direction. Connected, disconnected. A new form of normal.
Like most photographers out there, I too spend endless hours looking for that perfect shot. And when I say perfect, I don’t mean that literally, but rather in the context of being able to stand out a little from the crowd of shots we regularly find in places like Instagram and Flickr. The sad thing is that no matter how much I try (and perhaps I’m speaking here for most wandering photographers), those photographs that elicit comments of the “you should take more pictures like this,” are very hard to find indeed. No doubt this is the result of multiple factors, from your timing as a photographer, your choice of venue, or the simple fact that not much is really happening around you. Whatever the case, the point is that while personal photographic and geographic choices have a lot to do with it, luck (yes, that same old variable) has a lot to do with it too. That is why photographers out there (myself included) look like human versions of 360-degree radars. We look right, left, behind us, up, down, and everywhere. We do this while crossing the streets, walking by a construction site, while drinking coffee, wherever. You can imagine the thoughts that cross people’s minds in a city like Washington, DC that is replete with intrigue and spies everywhere. Who is this person with a camera checking everything out and taking photos from weird angles? He looks Russian to me. Yes, that’s pretty much the thought pattern, but in reality what we photographers are after is that quick shot, that unique moment in time that make all those walked miles worthwhile. And that is the story of the shot above. Many hours and sore feet later, this scene revealed itself to me as I was headed for the metro and the comforts of home. My last shot of the day, and like they say in golf, the one that keeps you coming back, again and again, to the unpredictable streets of your city.
Speed. What a noble virtue. Its need is everywhere, from computers to transportation. It saves time, it shortens the undesirable, and it allows us to accomplish a lot more in the limited time we all have in our lives. It is an adrenaline rush too, quite dramatically illustrated in blockbuster movies like Top Gun and the myriad of action movies that inundate our daily consciousness. Smell the flowers? You kidding. Who has time for that?
Well, as it seems, a lot of people do. In the last few days I have been concentrating my photographic time on the number of people that I constantly see moving in what for lack of a better term I’ll refer to as “the slow lane of life.” To a large extent, this slow road exists in somewhat of a parallel universe in society, dictating its own rhythm, its own sense of urgency, and its own rewards. It is not characterized by what it manages to accomplish in a short period of time, but rather by what it manages not to do over a longer period of time. It is subtraction, not addition; forsaking, not gathering. It is finding time instead of lamenting not having any. It is admonishing Seneca’s observation that the lack of time has more to do with how much of it is wasted than with how little of it is available. It is a road as real as the busy one our lives travel on, and it is always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Interestingly, there was a time when I thought that the glorious “slowness” was only possible at life’s extreme ends. That is, when you were very old and financially comfortable (that is, whey you begin to talk about your days being numbered), or during your youth, when someone else took care of the bills and most of life’s worries (when we all believed we had all the time in the world ahead of us). In my mind, the middle was made for the fast lane, for the never-ending “too busy” lamentations, for the social fly-by’s, and for dreaming about that distant, slow lane. The rose garden? Nope. No time to plant it. Need to get going. And so it went for far too many years. And why not? Everywhere I looked people were traveling at the same rate of speed, down the same rocky roads, and in the same general direction. This was normal, and everything else seemed, well, abnormal, or at the very least, too far out in the future. It was all an exciting, zero sum, high-speed journey that if left unattended could have culminated many years later in a place that no one really wants to arrive at: the valley of regrets.
One day, however, I dared to take my foot off the accelerator in order to experience the effects of deceleration on the trajectory I was riding on. I slowed down, took a detour, acted on one long-neglected dream, and surprised a loved one in the middle of the day. Deceleration made it all possible, and clarity, its inevitable result, did its part in dissipating the stubborn forces of obfuscation and neglect. No longer would I drive past that farmer’s produce stand in order to lament later of not having had the time to stop. No, that story was changed to the great time I had while shopping at that very own farmer’s stand during my busy day. I also made it a point to never talk about that abstract walk in the park everyone talks about, but never takes. No, my story changed to how incredible it was to find the time to walk along the the carpet of fallen, yellow leaves that infuse such a bright, golden hue to a cold, autumn morning. Moreover, I made time for my friends so we could spend long hours at the dinner table solving the problems of the world over multiple bottles of wine. And without a doubt, it was a lot more meaningful to say “I love you” to the one I love while staring at her eyes rather than texting the words, Emoji in tow, over an impersonal data network of bits and bytes.
Time. Speed. Contemplation. Obfuscation. Neglect. Love. They all do battle in our busy lives. Some of their challenges will be conquered by speed, others by simply slowing down. And just as it seems impossible to always travel at high speed down the proverbial road, it appears just as unrealistic to spend a lifetime on that slow, off-the-beaten-path lane. The secret in dealing with this dilemma may lie on both sides of the spectrum–on the adoption of a “variable speed” approach to life. Never accelerating without a well-developed plan for deceleration. Never decelerating without accepting that in life, even the good things often require a little acceleration on our part. The concepts are not, and should never be, mutually exclusive. Perhaps, and this may be mankind’s eternal hope, meaning and happiness will be found somewhere along that continuum. And at every one of those critical junctures along the way, changes in speed, and the detours we dare to take, will dramatically increase our chances of finding the cherished moments that will weave the incredible stories of our lives.
It was the very talented Indian writer Faraaz Kazi who authored the words that introduce today’s blog. Recently, I just happened to come across a reference to this author, and upon digging a little on the Internet, I stumbled upon his full quote, which goes like this: “I inhale loneliness like it is the sweet smell of virgin earth conquered by fiery rain drops. Within me, I’m a thousand others.” Suffice it to say that I suddenly smitten when I read that last sentence. Six words, but within them one of the best depictions of the power of our imaginations that I’ve ever encountered. Moreover, I realized that these words were very applicable to some of my recent photos. For some reason or another, I found myself taking photos of people who in the middle of a buzzing city, appeared to be alone, or alone with their thoughts for that matter. Immediately after reading Kazi’s quote I started thinking of these photos and how his words seemed to apply to the scenes I had captured with my camera. Detachment, solitude, disengagement, and perhaps a thousand other realities becoming active in people’s imaginations. In those brief moments when I pressed the shutter, endless flights of imagination could have been taking place, hidden from the world and unencumbered by its limitations. At some level, the photos were merely an attempt to depict the kind of “me” time that only solitude can deliver, and where anyone can become anything they dare to imagine, even if that means a thousand other versions of themselves. Maybe this was not what was happening inside the minds of my photographic subjects at the time, but the romantic in me cannot hold back from wishing it was so.
If I ever were going to attempt to write romantic novels for a living (don’t worry, I’m not), there is no doubt in my mind that I would do so from a place like Como in Italy. This sleepy, little town by the shores of the lake that takes its name, Lake Como, is everything you can imagine of the romanticism of a bygone era, and then some. What is it with these northern lake regions in Italy and southern Switzerland? To say they are beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe them, because they are so much more than that. In fact, I had once heard a Swiss actress in America say that she returned to her small village in the area every year in order to recharge her spirit. And now that I have had some time to wander in the area from Locarno in Lago Maggiore to Como, I now fully understand what this actress was talking about. Life at a slower pace, natural beauty beyond description, and some of the most wonderful food in the world combine to form the perfect antidote to all that ails us in our busy, chaotic lives. I may not know how many places in the world possess such wonderful potion, but Como definitely has its share of it.
Como the town is not a big place, but three main areas seem to dominate the region. For starters, there’s Lake Como with its postcard-perfect landscape. This southernmost part of the lake is quite a busy place, with ferries taking passengers to other famous towns around the lake and lovers slowly strolling down Lungolago Mafalda di Savoia as if oblivious to the world. The lake and its indescribable scenery are nothing short of visual candy, and sitting by that shore on a perfect spring day will be all the proof you’ll ever need that it is possible to be happy in this life.
The other two main areas in town are the city-center square, Piazza Alessandro Volta, and the imposing Cattedrale di Como at Piazza Duomo. Both extremely impressive and surrounded by small shops and quaint restaurants where you could easily pass the hours away with total disregard to time. In between these two, an old-world paradise for the senses makes sure that you never move at a fast pace while you are in town (which the many cafes in the area would’ve guaranteed anyway). Stopping every few steps to gawk at some window display while stopping yourself from spending your retirement money becomes virtually impossible in Como. This is what Italy does to you, and we love her for it.
On the train back to Milan I couldn’t stop thinking of how beautiful this country is. Sitting in that train longingly looking out the window to the passing countryside before me, I couldn’t help but think that I had just been to one of the most wonderful places on this planet. And as the train got farther and farther away from Como, the famous words of composer Giuseppe Verdi kept replaying in my head: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” My sentiments exactly.
To be perfectly candid, I never go out with the intention of photographing chairs, or any other type of furniture for that matter. In fact, when I recently encountered this scene, I had already snapped hundreds of photos of people and architectural landmarks. What’s more, I have walked down this little, hidden street on too many occasions to count, and never had I seen this small table with a red chair before. What made it more interesting was that it was never my intention to photograph the young lady in the photo. In fact, when I started kneeling down to compose the photo, this person was not even in the frame. I never saw her, but suddenly she went past me from behind and there she was in my camera frame like an apparition. You know that feeling when someone you never saw suddenly appears from behind you? Well, that was my immediate feeling when I saw the lady. And the red shoes? Call that a photographic bonus, because I’m not sure this scene would have worked as well without those shoes, so I’ll take luck any day.
We have to sometimes wonder whether it is best to be noticed when we are out and about, or whether it is better if no one ever pays us any attention. After all, some of us do spend a little bit of time color coordinating, placing the hair just so, and making sure that there is not much out of place before we venture into the open world where self-anointed fashion critics lurk around coffee shops and sidewalk restaurants to mercilessly critique our threads and the way we wear them. OK, I’ll admit that this is a bit overstated, but hey, that’s the way it feels sometimes. Of course, I must admit that I’m using “yours truly” as a point of reference, which is all I’m an authority at, and that most of you out there are quite the head-turners (in a good way, that is). But be that as it may, the point is that while some people do deck-up so that at least someone notices them, other folks couldn’t care less about the unwanted attention. That’s a pity, because being noticed reminds us that we are alive and that we are part of the great human story of our times. So go out, strut your stuff, notice and be noticed. Take it all in, because these will be the memories of your life.
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.
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.