Monday, May 4, 2009

8 Shots from 8 Circles and Squares

Pursuing this project meant a search for the interesting. And the interesting almost always means people. Interesting includes the unusual, the humorous, the dramatic. At the places and times I shot, drama was rare; humor much more common. Beyond interesting, this project turned out to be very much street portraiture.
As the project progressed, I became much less reticent and much more adept at approaching people and engaging them as subjects. Of my final eight subjects there are only two that I had not engaged in conversation - the umbrella lady and the wrong way jogger. They and the "MBA for Dummies" are included because of their humor value. The other five shots I consider portraits even if the subject is not facing the camera. Based on my brief encounters, I believe something of the personality of each comes through.
This project reminded me how much I love living in Washington and exploring Washington neighborhoods. Most of the areas where I shot are experiencing gentrification; in some cases, like Capitol Hill, gentrification is virtually total. Even in Petworth, there are signs of incipient gentrification, though very small. And it was a shock to see how little the two parks I visited in that neighborhood, Grant Circle and Sherman Circle, were used. I think it's worth a return visit later in the summer.
I also intend to revisit Lafayette Square and Dupont Circle. My visits were too early in the day, on days too cold, for many people to have gathered. I'd like to develop a nice portfolio of 15 to 20 pictures for each of my circles and squares.

Lincoln Square

I visited Lincoln Square, a large park not quite a mile due east of the capitol, on a Thursday around lunchtime. I immediately encountered two young architects from Portugal who are "building a sentence," one word in each of a dozen cities, as they make their way across the US to a conference in New Mexico. Washington was their second stop. They planned to "plant" the word "expectation" in Lincoln Square. When I met them, they were cutting out letters from pieces of newspaper to use as a stencil. They planned to lay the paper on the ground and sow grass seed or flower seed in the cutout areas so that the word would grow over the next few weeks. They told me they had planted the word "absence" during their first stop, in New York. These were not necessarily the first two words in the sentence, however. The sentence will become clearer as they travel across the country. The first photo shows them checking their stencils. This is a link to their website that gives details about their project:

I had to cut short my first visit to Lincoln Square, so I returned on Saturday. I was amazed at how many dog owners and dogs were playing in the park. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for the architects' "expectation." There were several dogs running and rolling and scratching right where they had planted their seed. There seemed to be two major groups in the park, the dog people and parents with their children, either using the playground or riding bikes. The second photo shows an overview of the crowd at the park.

Aside from the dog folks and the kid folks, there were very few others in the park. The third photo portrays a very quiet young person who sat alone the entire time I was in the square.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Grant Circle & Sherman Circle

Grant Circle is in Petworth, a relatively poor area of Upper Northwest Washington. I visited Grant Circle on a Sunday afternoon and the circle was all but empty. The first photo shows two of the total of three people in the park, a father out with his son. The father had been talking about what a great tree graced the center of the circle. The third person was a woman who did not want to have her picture taken. I hung around for a while but no one else came to use the park.
I knew that Sherman Circle was only about four blocks away so I went there to see if anyone was about. Zilch! Not one person in Sherman Circle! I just drove around the circle a couple times scoping it out and did not even bother getting out of my car.
I decided a repeat visit was necessary so I went back on Monday at lunch time, stopping at Sherman Circle first. Again, it was deserted. There was one young woman reading a book who did not want to be photographed and two people walking through the Circle while I was there. So, off to Grant Circle which was also deserted. I took a few shots of the empty park and some surrounding buildings. As I was leaving, I noticed a woman walking around the perimeter of the circle. The second photo shows her using an umbrella to shade herself from the blazing hot sun.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stanton Square

Stanton Square is a park located just three blocks from the Capitol. I first visited at noon on a Thursday. The park was almost deserted except for children and their caretakers using the playground at one side of the park. I say "caretakers" because I'm sure some were mothers and some were nannies and in most cases I could not distinguish them nor did I try. I saw no men in the park except for a couple walking through. And I did not get many pictures because I don't shoot at playgrounds; people are very protective of their kids these days. I decided another visit to Stanton Square was in order.
My second visit was on a sunny, hot Sunday afternoon. Again, the playground was well used, this time by fathers as well. But there were lots of other people in the park - individuals, couples, small groups, and dogs walking their owners. With two exceptions, every adult in the park was twenty-something or thirty-something.
The first picture here shows a young man and his dog walking by a young woman engrossed in trying to get a head start on her MBA. The second shows the only African-American I saw in the park. The third shows a group of friends engaged in a lively and protracted discussion with the playground in the background.
A sociological footnote and inquiry: People really do watch out for one another, at least here. While I was taking pictures of the MBA woman, another young woman, and a young man, one of the playground moms came over to be sure they knew that I was taking pictures of them. (I had asked beforehand.) I wonder whether playground mom would have been so concerned if I had been a young woman instead of a middle-aged man?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Logan Circle

My fourth day of shooting was at Logan Circle, a little bit north of Washington's "downtown" area. Logan Circle lends its name to the surrounding residential area. Shooting in the early afternoon of a weekday in a residential area I guess it was not surprising that there were few folks at the circle. There was a small group of relatively young guys, seemingly down on their luck, and perhaps another half dozen folks enjoying the park singly or in pairs. As the afternoon went on more people passed through or lingered in the circle.
I felt a bit out of place, so to acclimate myself and get the folks in the circle used to my presence with a camera, I made a couple circuits of the park taking pictures of statues, flowers, and signs. After I started taking pictures of people, one of the young men told me in no uncertain terms that he did not want his picture taken, which I respected. I had actually been anticipating some resistance like this because in recent years Logan Circle has been the site of conflicts over public policy and neighborhood issues between the mostly young, mostly white, affluent newcomers who are remodeling and restoring the elegant Victorian row houses and the mostly older, mostly African-American longtime residents. The longtime residents feel that they are being priced out of what had been a traditional black middle class neighborhood and the neighborhood ambiance is being transformed in ways they do not like.
Nevertheless, I struck up conversations with several individuals and pairs of people in the park who agreed to let me take their pictures. The first two photos show a couple enjoying a break in the park and a pair of friends chewing the fat. The third shot illustrates the variety of people frequenting the park and provides a glimpse of the architecture around the circle.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Farragut Square

Farragut Square is in the heart of DC's business district. At last I wised up: I got there at lunch time on a delightful spring day. I expected to see lots of office workers enjoying lunch in the park or just taking a break or even a nap among the blossoming trees and blooming flowers. I was not disappointed. In fact, there were a few street people taking advantage of the benches, the grass, the shade. There were lots of couples and small groups, including families, enjoying a break in the park.

And then I got the big surprise: Farragut Square was biker central! At one end of the park there were over a dozen bike messengers having lunch and relaxing. One biker told me that messengers usually wait for their next assignment near where they made their last delivery. Since Farragut Square is near the heart of the business and financial district, lots of deliveries would be made in that area and lots of bikers would wait there for assignments. It was Good Friday and lots of offices were closing early for Easter weekend or simply not generating as much business as usual. The messengers expected to have a slow (i.e., not very lucrative) day.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dupont Circle

For my second week shooting, I went to Dupont Circle, the largest traffic circle in the District of Columbia, known as a crossroads for many demographic groups and various kinds of highbrow and lowbrow culture. Once again, I arrived too early on too cold a day. There were very few people hanging out at the circle. The few who were there seemed to have just come from an overnight shelter to stake out a spot on a bench for the day or they were hustling to work. The vast majority of people walking through the circle were plugged into a cell phone or an I-Pod (or both.) Who says it's hard to connect with other human beings? It's easy, as long as there's an electronic device involved! Just don't ask us to take off our headphones!

The two shots here juxtapose a street person who obviously does not want to be bothered by anyone and a tourist family, fortified at the nearest Starbucks, making its own little parade through the circle.