The Magic Of Great Halls

The majestic third floor hall at the National Portrait Gallery would give some castles in Europe a run for their money.
The majestic third floor hall at the National Portrait Gallery would give some castles in Europe a run for their money.

Don’t convince yourself that you need to travel to Old Europe to see some incredible architecture.  If you are curious enough, you can stick to some of your local attractions like this magnificent hall at the National Portrait Gallery.  Frankly, this photo doesn’t do the hallway justice, as the sheer magnitude and beauty of this colorful hall is simply stunning.  I guess when thinking about traveling is good to sometimes start thinking locally.

The Capital Wheel At National Harbor

Standing at 180 feet high, the National Harbor ferris wheel has become the dominant structure along the Potomac River.
Standing at 180 feet high, the National Harbor ferris wheel has become the dominant structure along the Potomac River.
The high-tech, environmentally controlled ferris wheel will give you the sensation that you are floating on air.
The high-tech, environmentally controlled ferris wheel will give you the sensation that you are floating on air.
Accommodating up to eight people, the glass-enclosed gondolas offer panoramic views of the harbor and the nation's capital at the distance.
Accommodating up to eight people, the glass-enclosed gondolas offer panoramic views of the harbor and the nation’s capital at a distance.
The heavy metal structure ensures that ferris wheel has the stability of an Egyptian pyramid.
The heavy metal structure ensures that ferris wheel has the stability of an Egyptian pyramid.
The huge structure has forty-two gondolas, allowing 336 passengers to enjoy the views at the same time.
The huge structure has forty-two gondolas, allowing 336 passengers to enjoy the views at the same time.

London has one and now there’s one within view of downtown Washington, DC.  As if Maryland’s National Harbor needed anything else to establish it’s leading development role in the area, here comes one of the most exciting structures we’ve seen in the land of boxy government buildings: the 180-foot high Capital Wheel right at the edge of the Potomac River.  This is an imposing structure, but it will no doubt cement the notion of National Harbor as one of the leading places to have some fun in the metro area.  In fact, there’s nothing in DC that comes even remotely close to this structure and the way it makes you relive the joyful days of another era.   And while I was there during the day, the friendly folks operating the wheel informed me that most of the crowds show up at night when the city and the harbor area are at their best illuminated selves.  Even better, the lively nightlife is just down the pier just beyond the sunken Neptune.  I guess I’ll be crossing that river from staid Alexandria a little bit more often from now on.

Escaping The Office Jungle For The Coffee Shop Jungle

Working at the local coffee shop these days may not bring the kind of quiet solitude that modern workers sometimes crave.
Working at the local coffee shop these days may not bring the kind of quiet solitude that modern workers sometimes crave.
The work ergonomics of a coffee shop will never match your former office at work, or your cubicle for that matter.
The work ergonomics of a coffee shop will never match your former office at work, or your cubicle for that matter.

A few years ago, and before coffee shops were discovered in earnest by modern-day workers, a somewhat bohemian fairy tale entered our lives.  This fairy tale described a world where everyone had a relaxed disposition, enjoyed a warm latte by the window, and toiled through the day about as far away as you could get from the office maddening crowds.  This very special place was an ideal sanctum where creative introspection, creativity, and unparalleled productivity could all be nurtured at the same time.  However, something appears to have happened since the inception of that bohemian dream.  Have you been to a city coffee shop lately in the middle of the morning?  I don’t purport to speak for every coffee shop in every city of the world, but after seeing the above scenes at a very popular coffee shop in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC, I’m beginning to wonder whether what people intended to leave back at their crowded offices ended up following them to the modern coffee shop.  Expensive lattes, canines, noise, uncomfortable furniture, you name it, and it’s there.  Not that sitting in any of these places while you finish your morning cup of joe has ceased to be a rewarding experience, but it’s beginning to look like everyone and their families is now congregating there where you intend to do your day’s labor.  Is this a necessarily a bad thing?  Perhaps not, but just in case, better not get too enamored with that bohemian lifestyle just yet.

Daily Rituals Outside The Supreme Court

When a decision by the Supreme Court is imminent, journalists descend on the building waiting to grab anyone coming out of the building.
When a decision by the Supreme Court is imminent, journalists descend on the building waiting to grab anyone coming out of the building.
Winers and losers alike can't wait to hit the microphones outside the court to express either joy or disappointment with the Court's rulings.
Winners and losers alike can’t wait to hit the microphones outside the court to express either joy or disappointment with the Court’s rulings.
For TV crews, juggling between the Supreme Court and Congress is as simple as crossing the street.
For TV crews, juggling between the Supreme Court and Congress is as simple as crossing the street.
In the interest of timely reporting, journalists deploy tactical desks with wifi connectivity around the Capitol grounds.
In the interest of timely reporting, journalists deploy tactical desks with wifi connectivity around the Capitol grounds.

It has to be one of the busiest sidewalks in the world.  Sandwiched between the US Supreme Court building and 1st Street NE, this small piece of DC real estate is a constant beehive of activity whenever the Supreme Court is in session.  Journalists with tons of expensive gear wait impatiently for litigants to come down the Court’s stairs either to complain or celebrate after the Court issues a decision.  If the issue being litigated is controversial enough, you will also see (and hear) advocates from each side of the issue trying to out-demonstrate each other with bullhorns, placards, and mannequins.  Real estate is at a premium, though, and it is usually a sight to behold to watch journalists, demonstrators, and tourists with cameras jockeying for position along the relatively short space in front of the Court.  Some journalists (as you can see in the photo) opt to set mobile offices on the Capitol’s grounds, busily relaying news items to major networks from their shaded suites.  I guess if you have to be at the office on any given day, this is about as good as it can get in DC.  Chaos and calm, or what otherwise passes as a normal day in Washington’s charged political climate.

Public Servants You Can’t Help But Like

Right outside Metro stations downtown Washington, DC you will find some of the friendliest and most helpful public servants in the city.
Right outside Metro stations downtown Washington, DC you will find some of the friendliest and most helpful public servants in the city.

Rain or shine, you see them outside many downtown Metro stops, reading maps with tourists and pointing in every direction possible.  They are the men and women in red and blue, Metro employees who’s friendly attitude and willingness to assist visitors with whatever they need puts them in direct contrast with local bureaucrats who buzz right past you without even noticing whether you’re still breathing.  Because of their uniforms, some people may think they are security officers, but take the time to talk to them and you’ll find some of the nicest people you will encounter anywhere inside the Beltway.  Washingtonians who actually look forward to talking to you, who would’ve known.

Shall We Fly?

Skateboarding in Washington, DC seems to be concentrated around the Penn Quarters neighborhood.
Skateboarding in Washington, DC seems to be concentrated around the Penn Quarters neighborhood.
Only those who can heal overnight would ever dare to perform these acrobatic moves.
Only those who can heal overnight would ever dare to perform these acrobatic moves.

Ever come to the realization that there are just some things that only the young can do?  Or should do?  Well, I have.  And while I would prefer to think of it in terms of growing older and wiser, I hate to admit that this jumping over trash cans and concrete steps was never “my thing.”  Not that I could not think of the mechanics involved in such daredevil acts, mind you, but rather that pain (or the possibility of pain) has never been something I willingly accepted as part of growing up.  These folks downtown Washington, DC didn’t seem to be too concerned with such mundane things as crashing, smashing your face against a trash can, breaking bones, or painting some of the pavement with their epidermis.  Nope, all they seemed to care about was speed and landing on that skateboard after soaring in the sky for a few seconds.  And they were pretty good at it too.  That they gave me the opportunity to try out a manual-focus camera on a fast-moving sport like skateboarding was even better.  Thank you guys!

The Young Make Their Mark During Chinese New Year Celebrations

Chinese Americans kicked off local celebrations for the year 4711, known as The Year of the Horse.
Chinese Americans kicked off local celebrations for the year 4711, otherwise known as The Year of the Horse.
The colorful celebrations in the Chinatown section of Washington, DC included traditional costumes and a local parade.
The colorful celebrations in the Chinatown section of Washington, DC included traditional costumes and a local parade.
Young Chinese Americans continue to celebrate their culture while the older generation becomes a lot less visible at these events.
Young Chinese Americans continue to celebrate their culture while the older generation becomes a lot less visible at these events.
Cultural changes were readily evident at the parade, as a younger generation communicated in English while the elderly population spoke only in Chinese.
Cultural changes were readily evident at the parade, as a younger generation communicated in English while the elderly population spoke only in Chinese.
A young woman wears the so-called paddie straw hat that is so common in rural parts of Asia.
A young woman wears the so-called paddie straw hat that is so common in rural parts of Asia.
A young, vibrant, new generation of Chinese Americans are beginning to make their presence known in the Washington, DC area.
A young, vibrant, new generation of Chinese Americans are beginning to make their presence known in the Washington, DC area.

You wouldn’t know from the young, vibrant faces of a new generation of Chinese Americans that this past weekend they were actually celebrating 4711 years of Chinese cultural history.  As the Year of the Horse dawned on us all, a small but proud Chinese American community in the Penn Quarters district of Washington, DC took to the streets to celebrate the cultural traditions that the elders surely experienced back in the old country many years ago.  In spite of the fact that DC’s Chinatown is a mere shadow of what it once was (the 2010 DC census shows 24.84% of the local Asian population as ethnic Chinese), year-after-year the dwindling community goes through great efforts to keep this colorful event alive.  With the relentless encroachment of the business community in the area, it is hard to say what the future holds for these types of events, specially as the ranks of the older generation continue to dwindle and a new generation looks to the suburbs to plant their roots.  Even local newspapers have a tendency to point you in the direction of the Virginia suburbs and Maryland if authentic Chinese food is what you are after.  That’s a pity, but perhaps somewhat typical of the realities being faced by similar communities around the country.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that notwithstanding this reality, as long as we keep supporting events like these in the various ethnic communities around the country, something very precious will be preserved for future generations.  And that, my friend, would be a good thing.

A Wintry Georgetown Day

The walk along the Georgetown Canal late on a wintry day is definite soup for the soul.
The walk along the Georgetown Canal late on a wintry day is definite soup for the soul.
The new breed of chic cafes along the many side streets in Georgetown will reward those with a vivid curiosity for the road less traveled.
The new breed of chic cafes along the many side streets in Georgetown will reward those with a vivid curiosity for the road less traveled.
In a scene reminiscent of Paris, the Georgetown neighborhood has the greatest concentration of bakeries in the city.
In a scene reminiscent of Paris, the Georgetown neighborhood has the greatest concentration of bakeries in the city.

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.

A Quiet Moment

Business people need their quiet moments too, and the Jaleo bar downtown DC sounds like the perfect spot.
Business people need their quiet moments too, and the Jaleo bar downtown DC sounds like the perfect spot.

I know, how can you ever find the perfect quiet moment when photographers sitting next to you can’t resist the temptation of pointing their cameras at you?  I get it, but to put it mildly, I couldn’t resist.  And if you’ve ever heard of the almost-silent shutter of a Leica M (Type 240), this photograph is living proof of Leica’s well-deserved reputation.  With only two empty sits between us, the subject of this photo never heard the shutter.  In fact,  I was so surprised at the lack of reaction that I ended up taking about 8 shots of the scene.  Quiet, inconspicuous, and excellent in low light, the Leica M is definitely the best Leica camera ever.  And just in case you’re wondering, the impecably-dressed gentleman turned out to be a distinguished President of a university.  The grungy guy was behind the camera.

Military Veterans Storm The Monuments

After removing the last barriers at the Lincoln Memorial, a veteran insists in planting a flag as as high as he can.  Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
After removing the last barriers at the Lincoln Memorial, a veteran insists in planting a flag as as high as he can. Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
War veterans from as far back as the Second World War showed up to support the opening of the nation's war memorials.  Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
War veterans from as far back as the Second World War showed up to support the opening of the nation’s war memorials. Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
During the demonstration, Park Police were everywhere, but always maintained their composure.  Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
During the demonstration, Park Police were everywhere, but always maintained their composure. Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
Only a brief scuffle took place when veterans started removing the remaining barriers at the Lincoln Memorial.  Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
Only a brief scuffle took place when veterans started removing the remaining barriers at the Lincoln Memorial. Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
A veteran carries one of the barriers away while a local Park Ranger tries to ignore him.  Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
A veteran carries one of the barriers away while a local Park Ranger tries to ignore him. Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
A silent statement was made by a double-amputee veteran.  Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
A silent statement was made by a double-amputee veteran. Leica M240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.

There is a phenomena that regularly takes place in Washington, DC that is perhaps rare in other parts of the country.  To put it as simply as I can, it goes like this: as the bureaucrats leave the District for the weekend, the protesters move in to occupy its streets.  The movement in and out of the capital resembles the movement of the waves, where the ocean must first recede before waves come back to the shore in force.  Such was the case this weekend when thousands of military veterans stormed the DC Mall’s memorials to make the point that citizens should never be denied access to our nation’s monuments.  From what my camera could see from the middle of the crowd, it all took place in an orderly (albeit sometimes tense) fashion.  Only one brief scuffle took place at the Lincoln Memorial when some of the veterans insisted in taking a section of a barrier from the hands of a Park Police Officer, but after some shoving took place and a nightstick made its appearance, everyone seemed to calm down.  But as better heads prevailed, the barriers were removed (to be dumped later in front of the White House) and the crowd made its way up the Lincoln Memorial.  It wasn’t exactly the liberation of France, but it was readily obvious the nation’s veterans know a thing or two about breaking down barriers and occupying the high ground, no matter the cost.  The days when they wore the uniform may be long gone, but you wouldn’t known from the way so many of them dragged their once able bodies to keep pace with their younger brethren on their way to bring down those metal barriers.  I’m sure that President Lincoln, sitting there looking at all that was taking place at his feet today, was probably repeating some of his most famous words to the nation’s veterans: “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”  And that’s what they did, Mr. President.

Photographers After Dark

When photographing at night without a tripod, any surface could be a cheap substitute.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
When photographing at night without a tripod, any surface could be a cheap substitute. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.

Where is a tripod when you really need one?  Like so many of you, I don’t particularly enjoy hauling a tripod with me when I go out with my camera.  Not that there’s anything wrong with a tripod (I actually own three of them and use them quite regularly), but rather that no matter how light and compact they are, they are just one more thing to carry when you are trying to reduce your load in the first place.  Of course, no sooner after you leave your tripod back at home or at your hotel, that you find yourself in desperate need of one.  That was the case with the shot above.  Finding myself walking through beautiful European cities at night, I couldn’t help but constantly regret leaving behind that tripod I had on my hands when the airport taxi showed up.  Yes, in order to “save some weight,” I put it down and walked out the door.

So what to do when you come to a scene like this one at night and your tripod is 3,000 miles away?  Answer: you desperately look for any surface you can find to support your camera.  In order to avoid blaming myself for being lazy, I have chosen to hide my shortcomings by referring to all sorts of support structures out there as photographic structural support compensation items.  OK, maybe not, but I guess my point is that there’s always a Plan B, even if it is not as pretty as Plan A.  What I have discovered about shooting at night without a tripod is that there are two elements that are absolutely crucial: patience and any type of support structure.  I say patience because speed and motion do seem to go together when night photography is concerned.  You have to look around checking for smooth surfaces, for people to get out of the way, for people to get in the way, for checking your breathing, and for slowly pressing that shutter release.  Not that patience can totally compensate for a good tripod, but if you take the time to adjust your position and angle based on whatever surface you have available to you, you’ll be able to get a fairly stable shot at a low ISO number.  But routinely counting on good luck and providence when shooting photographs at night without a tripod will always be a high-wire act.  Without a doubt, it will lead to a lot more rejects than keepers; and when you are out there for hours looking for that magical shot, having wasted most of your time is not the feeling you want to be left with at the end of the day.  That’s why that contraption is going with me next time I’m headed out with a camera after dark, whether it’s a mile or 3,000 miles from home.

The Tranquil Buda Castle Hill

The view of Pest from the famous Fishermen Bastion in Buda is always magnificent.  Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
The view of Pest from the famous Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda is always magnificent. Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
The Fisherman's Bastion is one of the most visited attractions in Budapest.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the most visited attractions in Budapest. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Fisherman's Bastion Cafe has arguably the best locations in town.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Fisherman’s Bastion Cafe has arguably the best locations in town. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Buda Castle Hill area has been recognized as a World Heritage Site and remains the gem of Budapest.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The Buda Castle Hill area has been recognized as a World Heritage Site and remains the gem of Budapest. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The narrow, residential road on the west side of Buda Castle Hill is a study in beauty and tranquility.  Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
The narrow, residential road on the west side of Buda Castle Hill is a study in beauty and tranquility. Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.

You just can’t miss it.  The Buda Castle Hill sits majestically over the city of Budapest as if protecting it like it did a few centuries ago.  Before arriving to Budapest I had read a few travel articles that downplayed this particular part of the city as being too “touristy.”  And yes, the tourists (to include your’s truly) were there, but frankly, I don’t think that some of these travel writers were doing much justice to this wonderful place.  The 360-degree views alone make this part of the city a “must visit” destination.  And if you get there around 7:00 AM like I did, you will have the hill practically all for yourself for a few hours.  And while public transportation can get you there in no time at all, it is a lot more fun to walk across the famous Chain Bridge and then up the hill through the various winding trails and sets of stairs leading to the castle.

But as great as the views were from the eastern, Pest-facing side of Castle Hill, my favorite part of this journey was walking along the promenade that borders the western part of the hill.  This quiet residential area with its tree-lined pedestrian road and incredible views of the Buda Hills at the distance reminded me of the quiet serenity one feels when visiting some of those old European cathedrals.  Walking that empty promenade during the early morning hours accompanied only by the soft light of a morning sun has to be the greatest highlight of my visit to this great city.  And while I may never see this city again, this wonderful morning stroll, lit only by the melancholy light of morning eastern sun, will remain with me forever.

The Static Photograph

Some everyday photographs remind me of paintings in a museum.  Leica M 240, Zeiss Ikon 35mm f/2 T* ZM Biogon
Some everyday street photographs remind me of paintings in a museum. Leica M 240, Zeiss Ikon 35mm f/2 T* ZM Biogon.

One of the great things about photography is its ability to hold on to a scene so we can take our time in analyzing it.  This is what photographers commonly refer to as “capturing the moment.”  Now mind you that this “moment” doesn’t really have to be publishable material, but rather it is a moment that has the effect of grabbing on to your attention while simultaneously precluding you from moving on in a hurry.  The phenomenon is commonly experienced when we flip through a photo book or magazine barely noticing much of its content, until something makes us stop and take notice.  Sometimes it’s bewilderment, sometimes it’s just plain old curiosity.  But we do stop and linger while our eyes and brains get in synch to make sense of what lies before us.  Not that this whole synching thing takes a long time.  After all, we’re talking Internet-era attention span here.  But unlike video, our “moment” goes nowhere and there’s never a need to rewind.  It is static, suspended in time until we are done with it.  It is a story onto itself, and we rarely know what happened before or after this fraction of a second in time.  An incomplete story where more often than not our imagination must fill in the blanks.  Perhaps that’s why we linger after all, to take our time in completing the story.