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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Relaunch!

Three or so years ago, I started this blog with the intention of regularly posting my musings about photography and other random things that interests me.  Even with the best intentions, that never happened.  I had fifteen posts, a short burst, a brief follow-up, and then nothing.  Silence.

Since the time of my last posts, I have become an even more avid photographer.  I’ve become a “birder” – which means I like taking pictures of birds.  And other wildlife.  Now, if you ask me to identify a bird that’s sitting on a tree or wading in the water, you will be sorely disappointed in my scope of knowledge.  I can probably identify less than two dozen birds without having to consult a book or a web site.  And this includes chickens, geese, turkeys.  And some variety of raptors (bald eagles, ospreys), water fowl (wood ducks, mergansers, mallards), waders (egrets, herons) and some warblers.  There are a lot of birds out there.  I’ll take pictures of them, especially if I can spot them (just because I can hear them does not mean I can find them).

I also love macro photography.  The small world around us is utterly fascinating.  You can take pictures of bees without being stung.  Hornets and wasps?  Well, take your chances.  I know I am weary.

I love landscape photography.  I enjoy going to national parks, taking pictures from the various viewpoints, hiking to other spots to around the parks and refuges that allow one to fully bask in the beauty that surrounds me.  I love sunrises, I love sunsets, and I want to sleep at mid day (when I have my camera).  And yet.  The interesting things in life are somewhat unpredictable, and so are the interesting things that happen when you have a camera in hand.  I keep saying that to myself, but heck, when there are no shadows and the light is harsh, well, it can be a challenge.  And an opportunity.

Though I now shoot with digital cameras, I took my first picture with a plastic “Diana” camera that used 120 film.  Then I used my grandfather’s twin lens reflex camera.  My first picture with that?  A cat.  Oh, I can tell you this.  I don’t take many pictures of dogs.  Or cats.  There are a lot of pet owners out there who take amazingly great pictures of dogs and cats napping, jumping, lying down, looking coy – the whole myriad of expressions that an animal can show – someone has captured that.  And posted it on Instagram.  If I REALLY need to see (or want to see) a picture of a dog or cat, I can safely say that there will be no shortage of well shot, awesome, amazing, inspiring pictures of dogs or cats that I can readily see just by typing a few words and clicking my mouse button once or twice.  It just so happens that my desire for doing such a thing is minimal to non existent.

My father bought me my first real camera, a Fujica ST-705 screw mount camera.  I soon replaced it with a Pentax KM.  Then in college, I saved some money and bought a Minolta XD-11.  A fantastic tool.  It felt like an instrument that would last a lifetime.  And guess what?  I still have it.  I need to have it fixed (a little), but it still works.  I then graduated to a whole slew of Minolta auto focus cameras.  I started with the Maxxum 7000i.  I bought a Maxxum 9xi which I brought with me to my honeymoon.  I still have that great camera.

Then digital cameras became affordable.  So now, with my Sony digital cameras, I am constantly using them and post processing the images that come out of them.  In the old days, when I was going broke having film developed, the “one third keepers rule” worked wonderfully well.  For photo finishers.  Yes, one third of the pictures in the roll were worth keeping.  I always wanted the better shot.  Shoot more film.  Get them printed.  Or shoot slides.  Look at them on a light table.  Have a few pictures enlarged.  A cycle that ended when digital cameras became the main tools for image making.

Now, it’s easy to shoot hundreds, even thousands of pictures in a day.  I do it.  Everyone does it.  And then I copy the pictures to my computer and start looking at them.  The good ones are post processed.  The rest of them?  The marginal ones are saved, the terrible ones (a great majority of the pictures) are deleted.  That old “one third keepers rule?”  If you’re lucky, you’ll keep one third of one third of the images that you take.  It is so easy to click and not think about what you are doing.  It’s wasteful, really.  Not of pictures or camera clicks.  Of time and experience.  When it’s easy to delete, it is easy to think that something wonderful will be in the midst of all those clicks.  Sometimes, one loses track of what one is doing with a photograph.  One gets lazy at times.

Now, mind you, when you take pictures of flying birds, a whole lot of the images are of marginal quality at best.  Still, now that I have gotten the macro photography bug, the attention to detail that macro photography forces you to do has improved my image taking process somewhat.  I think, I look, I see, I imagine, I visualize, I click.  Still a lot of marginal images.  The difference, I think, is that instead of pressing the button when I see something interesting with my eyes, I look at something and try to see what’s interesting in the thing before my eyes.  That additional process, thinking about what you are looking at.  It makes a big difference in my photography.

For this second attempt at starting a blog, I am posting pictures taken with my film cameras.  I have my film processed in the one remaining photo processing store that’s within five miles of my house.  I take the negatives and use my macro lens attached to my digital camera and take a picture of the negatives.  I then process that digital image using Photoshop.  It’s not nearly as messy as processing the old Tri-X in smelly chemical solutions in an improvised darkroom, but the joy of a good photograph is as exciting now as it was when I first took a picture with that first camera decades ago.  Here, then, are some of the black and white images taken with my Minolta film cameras.

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The thing about film photography is that it forces you to think about the image that you are taking.  To think about the image you want to take.  To pre visualize.  Maybe even plan.  When you turn the focus ring to focus on the subject, that split second of extra time you spend looking at the viewfinder while the world focuses before you makes you think of what you’re looking at.  And then think how you will process that image to make it come alive.  Even before you press the shutter button.  When I first started to shoot film again, I was pointing the camera almost randomly and pressing the shutter.  It was disappointing to look at the first few rolls and realize that some bad habits have creeped into my image making process.  I stopped looking AND thinking.  I saw.  I clicked.  I deleted.  Film photography forces you to do things differently.   A few film rolls later, I’ve learned to slow down, take a deep breath, think about the image that I want to create, look at the world before my eyes, and then press the shutter button.  Analog in a digital world.  Try it sometime.

The “one third keepers” rule is alive and well.  The big difference that digital technology brings is that I can actually process the pictures the way I want them to look.  It would have been great if I had Ansel Adam’s skill as a master printmaker (not only was he a great photographer, what he did in the darkroom was equally impressive), but with Photoshop, I don’t have to mess with the chemicals, darken the room, turn on the safe life, turn on the enlarger, dodge and burn, etc.  The computer as my darkroom.  Where what I saw and what I imagined come to life.

When I wrote my first computer program so many years ago (tic tac toe anyone?), little did I know that the computer and the camera, together, will be the impetus for a tool that has become as ubiquitous as the automobile.  Holy iPhone, Batman!