The Familiar, Redefined

You want to take a picture of some landmark or scenery that everyone else has taken a picture of.  That’s okay.  Each picture is indeed different, to some degree or another.  The thing is, you can make something a little bit more interesting by taking the picture at different times of the day, different seasons, a slightly different perspective.  You can make something familiar just a little bit different so that it becomes something that you own, so to speak.  Here are four pictures of something that everyone has seen before – the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, from the vantage point of somewhere in the Lincoln Memorial.

In the morning, after sunrise.  Don’t over saturate the colors to make it look unnatural. Some clouds to make it more interesting.  A silhouette works fairly well.

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In the middle of a cloudy day, go low, go for contrast, accentuate the clouds.  Black and white works well for this kind of picture.

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In the blue hour, add an interesting element to the composition (people having their picture taken).  With the lights on, the monument stands out against the bluish background. (The scaffolding makes it more interesting as well).

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In the evening, the Washington Monument, with the Capitol in the background, really stands out.  Make sure the lights in the walkway can be seen to add interest to the scene.  Try black and white for the night photograph.

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Four pictures of the same thing, from the same place.  Are these pictures unique?  Not really.  If you really must have that picture of the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool in the mid day sun, have at it.  A little variation, however, can make the familiar a little more interesting.

I’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area for decades.  I have been looking at the pictures I have taken in Washington D.C. in the last decade or so.  Surprisingly, I haven’t really taken that many pictures of the familiar landmarks in isolation.  Sure, I have taken a lot of pictures of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol.  More often than not, these landmarks are not the focal points of the photograph.

I have taken the beautiful things around me for granted.  How many people travel halfway around the world to see the Washington Monument from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?  I have taken countless pictures of countless people with these iconic monuments in the background.  I show my friends and relatives the sites that I know are beautiful, all the while not really seeing the beauty before me.  Wonder is transformed to banality.

As a matter of course, I always read Lincoln’s words when I visit the Lincoln Memorial (several times a year).  The words never lose their meaning.  It’s time to look at the familiar in the same way.  Beauty is not only in what we see, but also in what we think.  The thought for the day.  Familiarity is not an impediment to creativity.  Complacency is.

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Lose Yourself at the NGA in Washington, D.C.

Art museums.  Many cities have art museums.  In art, we see the best of humanity expressed through the mind and vision of artists from all over the world.  They move us, teach us, inspire us.  We see love, sorrow, joy, curiosity, madness, genius.  The art filled rooms allow us to travel to places we have never been and we leave hoping to see, in our own way, the places that somehow have gained a little familiarity.  History comes alive, in the faces of people who have receded into memory but forever remembered in transcendent images of artists who captured a moment in the lives of the people that they knew, even fleetingly, in their lifetimes.  Sometimes, we see a character from a book, holy or secular, come to life through the imaginative brilliance of a Rubens or the transcendent luminance of Raphael.  We see saints, politicians, kings and queens, emperors, men and women, boys and girls in portraits painted by Rembrandt, El Greco, Cassatt,  Picasso, Vermeer.  We see the landscapes of Turner and Van Gogh,  the flowers of Monet ,  the dancers of Degas.  We see life depicted by Renoir and Cezanne.   Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, one of the crown jewels of the gallery’s permanent collection, is the only Leonardo portrait in North America.  A list of names, known and sometimes unknown, mounted next  to countless works of art, to be studied, admired, seen.  To be in an art museum is to lose yourself in an ocean of color and creativity.

When I was younger, I went to art museums as part of my elementary or high school class.  We were supposed to learn something about a time in history, learn about a particular type of artwork, or perhaps learn something about a particular artist.  Like many people dragged to the museum, I didn’t really pay attention to the greatness around me.  I came with pad and pencil in hand, made notes (sometimes), tried to remember something that I could write about when that homework assignment inevitably came.  I was there in body, but the spirit remained unmoved.  I remember shortly after finishing my undergraduate studies going to the National Gallery of Art to look at some paintings by Mark Rothko.  My cousin was visiting from out of town and she wanted to see Rothko.  Well, she knew what she was looking at.  She appreciated the colors and the palettes that she excitedly gazed at.  What did I do?  I asked the guard, sarcastically, if a painting on a nearby wall was “Orange and Yellow.”  A sly smile greeted me as he told me to take a look.  Sure enough, it was “Orange and Yellow.”  I didn’t get it then.  I’m not sure I get it now.  They say that art appeals to the soul, but that not everyone is drawn to the same thing or place.  Someday, maybe.  I keep an open mind.

Rubens, on the other hand, with the great painting “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”, is an artist many art lovers truly appreciate.  This painting, which is part of the collection at the National Gallery of Art (West Building) is a true masterpiece.  From the standpoint of the lighting, the composition, the drama imbued in the painting, this work of art speaks to me.  A photographer can learn a lot from this picture.  From the adherence to the basic rule of thirds, to the use of light to accentuate the already dramatic pose of Daniel, to the use of colors and contrast to create depth, to the way the lions are “posed” to create shapes in the canvas, this painting is a brilliant inspiration to layman, artist, agnostic, or believer alike.

Then there is the set of four paintings by Thomas Cole.  Collectively known as “The Voyage of Life”, you see a child on a boat, an angel beside him, moving in calm water.  As a youth, the boy is alone in the boat, the angel hovering some distance away, as if to say that each of us is given control of our own destiny.  In Manhood, the boat is beset by rough waters, the man facing challenges that we all must face, even as the angel watches from heaven above.  Finally, in old age, the waters are calm again, and the angel once again is beside the man, accompanying him in the last part of his journey.  In four paintings, Cole is able to encapsulate the adventures, joys, challenges that we all go through in our own lives.  The use of light, color palette, dimensionality, to tell a story as grand and magnificent as anything that a Tolkien or George R.R. Martin has ever written, shows us that at our best,  in spite of the difficulties we encounter in our lives, we are indeed the fit custodian of the rock that we live in.

Such is the power of art that when it truly moves you, you will find meaning in the artwork even without realizing what technique or what material the artist is using to create that piece of art.  The hope, of course, is that these great works of art will not only bring a sense of wonder and awe to the viewer, but that some will be so moved as to want to study art and begin their own journey as an artist.  I didn’t know much about art and my limited knowledge may have remained even more limited if not for a visit of some friends and their father to the D.C. area.  He wanted to take his daughters to the museum.  While we were there, we happened upon an exhibit of sketches by Leonardo da Vinci.  He started to explain to me about perspective, depth, composition, the rule of thirds by first looking at the drawings of Leonardo.  And then through the paintings of various artists of different eras.  He explained why the pre Renaissance paintings seemed rather flat and lifeless (in reality, they are not).  His enjoyment and knowledge of art was infectious.  I am forever in his depth for kindling, within me, a deeper appreciation of art.

We in the Washington D.C. area are fortunate to have one of the great art museums and art collections in the world within easy reach.  Unlike other museums in other parts of the world, the Smithsonian museums and the National Art Gallery do not charge admission fees.  The collection is amazing; the curators have made the collection even more accessible by making an auditory guided tour to the more notable works in the museum available at no cost.  For the curious, there is simply no excuse not to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

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