I do my best photographing when I’m by myself. Being on my own allows me to be selfish to follow my instincts around a corner that would hold no appeal for the rest of my party, or to wait . . . wait . . . for the clouds to shift, or a car to move, or to awkwardly and conspicuously wait so long that I become inconspicuous again in a spot where I have a feeling something really good might happen, but just hasn’t happened yet.
In those instances, despite the fact that I am traveling without entourage, I do have sage company. Let me explain. I have studied art history seriously since childhood, when some of my most treasured books were my volumes of the Art for Children series by Ernest Raboff, but the history of photography had always been a gaping hole in my art history education. Since falling in love with photography a few years back, I’ve been making up for lost time, binge studying the images and writings and watching documentaries of my favorite photographers, and constantly discovering new ones to study. Now, sometimes, I hear these geniuses whisper to me when I’m out on my own making photographs, and I suspect I’d miss their messages in the chatter if I had live companions.
A little while ago I had a day to myself in Washington DC at the height of the cherry blossom bloom. Locals know that if you don’t get to the Tidal Basin close to sunrise it’s a sea of wall to wall people, and my time in the city was going to be closer to midday. There really was no point in bothering with the most famous cherries, but there are flowering trees all over the District on residential sidewalks, little triangular slips of parks, and gracing our many L’Enfant-designed circles and squares. So that was my mission – spring in the city without the iconic Jefferson and Lincoln Memorial sense of place.
As I was framing the next photo I heard one of my favorite street photographers, Garry Winogrand, whisper one of my favorite of his quotes, “if I saw something in my viewfinder that looked familiar to me, I would do something to shake it up.” Now, mind you, I don’t think Winogrand would ever make this set of photos. He loved the action and unpredictability of busy city streets, and I can’t think of any of his published images that don’t have a human element in them. These voices I hear, they help me apply the lessons of the greats to my own photography. It’s not about imitating theirs. And so instead of focusing on the magnolia carpeting the street with it’s blossoms, I pulled back and invited it’s audience, the improbable bust, into the frame.
And when I saw the native Redbud, one of the crazy ones that blooms in pompoms along it’s branches, in full fireworks mode, I decided instead of blurring the background to make the blooms pop, to anchor the image with the architectural detail across the street.
When I happened upon some of DC’s more famous cherries, I came in close to focus on the tiniest details, a few blossoms and these little red and white braids, called martenitsa, which according to custom, are tied to fruit trees in the spring to imbue them with a good harvest. If you peer closely into the canopies of cherry trees you’ll find these braids everywhere, though they are very easy to miss in the profusion of blossoms. This photo was taken on a little slip of land on Scott Circle, in front of the Australian Embassy, with traffic buzzing all around, but I think most people would just assume it was taken at the Tidal Basin if I hadn’t spilled the beans.
After a long day of photographing, I took the metro home across the river and walked along the trails, where I spotted a pink magnolia in full flower. I sat beneath it for a while trying to figure out how to hold the feeling of it’s magic in a frame. And there was that little voice again egging me to “shake it up.”
In the end, climbing the tree was the only thing for it.
Does anyone ever talk to you while you photograph? I would love to know what they say.
Keep your eyes wide open,