Buenos Aires

If there is any other city that I “felt” closest to being in the Calcutta that I grew up – it would be Buenos Aires. A city that is ornate with past glory and grandeur but is a bit lost in today’s world. A city that symbolized modernity in its outlook, character and dereliction long before the rest of the world thought we were living in the modern age. I usually try reading about the place before I visit, usually some fiction. But this sudden trip did not give me much of a chance. I tried reading Borges once but it was a bit to digest his convoluted plots and storyline. So perhaps this time around, I will understand the literature better after visiting the place.

Buenos Aires is a walking city. The streets are full of action. It is filled with beautiful women and even men know how to dress well. Their is a certain classiness among people despite mass poverty and 40% inflation; where cash is still king, as credits cards are not accepted everywhere and ATMs are often drained out. There is a vibrant cafe culture, book stores in almost every block (and you can find a Sartre, Camus, Marx, Kant in a newspaper kiosk) and although I don’t understand Spanish, the limited exchanges I had with strangers were warm, welcoming, and refreshing. While walking in one of the side streets – I curiously asked a group of men what they were drinking.  It was Mate.  They poured me and said, “try it.” It was awkward to drink from the same cup (Mate), but they explained thats how it is.  You pour water into the leaves and then have to drink the entire pour, and then you pass it on to someone, who then gets a fresh pour. It is communal and social. For a moment I got a Zen-like shiver of human connectedness with a group of policemen (yes that group were plain dress off-duty policemen, which I only later found out). But you never know who you end up with, is what brings me out wandering in streets and by-lanes. Like my visits to Calcutta that ground me, people in Buenos Aires come across as enlightened, worldly and intellectual without a long tail of degrees or a wallet full of money. These values go beyond monetary pretension and indeed, there were times and places that exemplify that.

There is a joke about Argentines – more specifically, the Portenos, literally meaning the “Port People”, but a term used for the people of Buenos Aires by others. That they are originally Italians, who speak Spanish, but dress like the English and wish they were French. I think there might be some truth to that. I was told that every visitor needs to do three things – eat steak, dance Tango, and buy leather. I was able to do all three – thanks to some good suggestions offered by my local contact – Chim. Chim who is a Canadian and an alum of Drama Centre London, which has produced people like Colin Firth and many contemporary stalwarts. He left doing Shakespeare and now is a artisan shoemaker in Buenos Aires. He personally took me to the Recoleta cemetery, which I went with some reluctance. This place has a stature similar to the cemeteries in Paris. It was a fascinating experience as he explained the mix of faiths, especially the Masons, Judaism and Christianity as well as paganism. We had a long discussion on Eva Peron, the rise of today’s populism and even the current Pope. I left with more questions than answers.

It was an eyeopener to visit Pope Francis’ original church. Speaking to some of those who know him well, interestingly enough, I got an explanation of his openness, that I had heard but never knew why. “The credit goes to the previous arch Bishop, who mentored him as a Christ purist,” they said. The basic doctrine of love thy neighbor, tolerance and forgiveness. They showed me a set of pictures and newspapers cuttings of the Jewish center bombings in the 90s and the role the church played in solidarity with the Jews that would otherwise be unthinkable for the Catholics. There is also a painting of Madonna – where Mary is depicted as an ordinary “woman”, which is also unusual – as historic Catholic paintings mostly depicted women either as virgins or prostitutes. But hardly as ordinary women with needs, desires, and aspirations, interacting with the world.

I met Jerry and Lucia, a very nice couple; Jerry is Irish and Lucia is local, who are Tango teachers in the San Telmo area. They took me to a Milonga. It was a trip down the memory lane – with a room full of locals dancing and having a good time. The demographic was similar to going to a rock concert these days, heavily skewed to 55 and above; but a stolid reminder of a time when men behaved like gentlemen. In fact, there was this ~80 year old Toto, a legendary Tango dancer of the 70s, who still dances in an almost defunct style, which was designed to protect the woman from getting hurt from the accidental kicks from others in the dance floor. Communication between the man and the woman happens through the eyes. You glance at the woman and if she gives you a friendly glance back; you go and have a dance with her; if not, you “Tango on”. As they say, there are no mistakes in Tango and poetry. You just flow.

Jerry suggested that I should go to a particular Parilla (Argentine steakhouse), so I went. It was a no-frills place, except that in the lore you hear the long list of celebrities that they have served – from the Obamas to the Hollywood stars. Waiters are elderly and old-school and they act as advisers as much as servers. Customer is not the king here. There was an young American couple who were given a paternal reprimand for ordering too much. The waiter cut their order down by saying, “you can’t eat that much…just because you can (order) does not mean you should”

Cities like Buenos Aires make me feel alive. Make me a part of something larger. At will I can become a participant or just a bystander, like my last evening, after buying a pair of shoes –  I spent in the Davidoff lounge – sipping shots of espresso and watching people through the window. I felt like Baudelaire’sFlaneur“. And just as I came to appreciate Baudelaire through Buddhadeb Bosu, I felt closeness to Buenos Aires through my primal attachment of Calcutta.

Berlin – The Wild Side

The video of two members of the Berlinkidz gang slinging from a rope tied to the roof of a high rise building in Berlin has gone viral since it came out. In the twilight, when the lights of the Berlin sprawl create a mystical haze – these guys take just a few minutes to scribble a few characters that resemble an obscure South American ancient script.  We can see them standing up on the roof of a speeding U-Bahn – with arms stretched, crying the sound of victory, after spraying their mark on the trains.  Vandalism or art? That is the question.  Beating the sight of building owners, tenants, and the law enforcement, these kids would go to the extreme of danger to leave their “mark”.  Ego, adrenaline and the sheer excitement of the wild are the main factors driving them. This is a glimpse of the wild side of Berlin – the world that gets exposed to the mainstream through tagging, graffiti, and street art, and these days social media and youtube videos. For many this is considered as “breaking the law”, and a mere destruction of public space. But street artists would argue – that – so are the advertisements and the thousands of billboards across the city landscape. What is visual pollution and what is not – is a topic for another day.  But this side of Berlin has much to offer – raw and uncut. A pure expression of the human spirit.

Admittedly, this wild underground life of Berlin has toned down quite a bit in the last couple of years after a run of more than 20 years, since the Wall came down. So when the wall came down in 1990s, a large section of the central city area called Mitte opened up. During the Iron Curtain era, this was largely abandoned and fell in the no-man’s land within the eastern section. Being so close to the border with West Berlin – no one really developed it. So it was not surprising to find garbage and rubbish from WWII still remaining there. Broken jeeps, aircrafts, shells – not to mention the ruins from the war that were left intact. (Check out this book) . So people started making stuff out of it. Given that there was not much out there – the people who came to this area were mostly freaks and misfits. There was already the Kreuzberg area in the West that was thronged by those who wanted a safe haven to dodge the German military service (yes Berliners had an exception). A combination of all these factors gave rise to a subculture that brought out the “other” side. Cheap living supported by major gentrification push from the government, brought in people from everywhere – mostly artists who took to the streets as their theater. Today, many of them have gone to major commercial success. The Banksy effect is pervasive and Berlin has its fair share of commercially successful artists. Many street “purists” however, do not like them; and are not pleased with these commercial developments and would prefer to keep doing streets from the underground, away from material mainstream success, in stealth and incognito. Such folks breed anarchy at heart. And I admire them.

Now personally speaking, ensconced in the mainstream, this subculture was outside my radar until a few years back when a friend of mine in New York introduced me to Parkour and street art in the Bronx and Yorktown area. I will get into the connection between the two later but like second hand cigarette smoke I was still a bit removed from what really went on. Walking around Berlin with a former member of the 1Up gang was an eyeopener. My first lesson was to understand the distinction between tagging, graffiti and street art. Graffiti is an outline with fillings of color – almost always done to make a personal statement. It is meant for other gangs or groups – usually a statement of ego and vanity. As simple as – “mine is bigger than yours”. Tagging is a basic form of graffiti – mainly to demarcate territory. There is a hierarchy within the gangs that ought to be respected. 1Up was one of these gangs that has an elevated stature in Berlin that others rarely crossed. Tagging and graffiti also serve to contextualize the place. There are folks who keep tagging over and over again. Someone cleans it up just to get tagged again. Tags are also a mark of protest – one such was all over Mitte to make a statement against the commercialization of the area. Mitte today is so trendy and expensive that it is driving the poor artists away.  It has become a hip neighborhood now with art galleries and trendy coffee shops.

Street art, however has a very different purpose. It is mostly for the viewers consumption. I was told that the newer breed of artists that are coming in are treating the street as just a window into their virtual world of social media. So they use the street to just get noticed and then conversation on art and commercial terms continue via social media. This is driving some of the old school graffiti/sprayers to other locales as a path to commercial success. I am told opportunities are opening up in other places in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. I did see that in Budapest last year and in Chile and Buenos Aires earlier this year.

I walked around marveling at the details and learning the stories behind them.  Stories on the refugees migration, their ironical detention in the Tempelhof airport (which was used for the Berlin airlift), deceit, human rights, heartbreaks…they are all there. I was struck with the variety of materials that are used. The staple is the paint can. Usually a beginner starts with chrome and black paint learning to do outlines. They have to be clean, proportionate and obviously, have to be done quickly. It takes several months of watching, practicing outlines, and forms before they can give a test and join the group as an artist. Once they join, then go up the hierarchy. There are rules, and gangs have their own set of highly rigorous governance mechanisms. A group like 1Up! has about 100 members – with a large percentage of girls. (Approach them at your own peril; gangs are very protective of their girls, and there is no tolerance for sexism). Many artists use stencils. Multi-layered stencils are used directly when the artists want to keep the artwork for long. Others can do more complex work on stencils in the studio and paste the paper onto the wall. Of course, these wither, crumble and fade away sooner. The only thing apart from the materials that ensure longevity of the art work is the respect for the artist itself. The notion of transience and impermanence is central to the artist’s psyche. Whats pretty today will not be there tomorrow. Either will get overwritten or just gone and forgotten.

The most fascinating material I saw was the use of the fire extinguisher. It came to Berlin from the streets of Paris. Fire extinguishers are easily available – one just need to break and grab it from a public place. Fill it half with paint and the other with some medium – then pressurize it with compressed air at a gas station – and you are good to go. It holds a lot of paint – so one does not need to carry a ton of paint cans. There is a strict protocol not to leave any material behind at the site so with the extinguisher it helps keeping your paint gear light. It takes a lot of practice to master the use with the nozzle though, but it is very effective. Without mastery bad things can happen. Notice the scribble near the famous astronaut – it is one such disaster. Although the guy who blew it was quite senior, he was not experienced in the nozzle control. Following the rules of the gang – he was apparently demoted and had to suffer a reprimand course of training before he was allowed back.

The recent trend is to combine parkour and graffiti art. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it has resulted in many casualties and fatalities especially when trying to do the epitome of all public places – the trains. It is the ultimate thrill of action art. I always associated action art with someone like Jackson Pollock  but this is of course of a different league. No absinthe or LSD involved. Quite the contrary – the Berlinkidz don’t touch alcohol, dont smoke, or do drugs.  They are on a strict diet and exercise. Despite their dedication, the Berlinkidz are believed that they would either get hurt or end up in prison. Pushing the human boundaries to the limits of danger – both physical danger and danger from the authorities to make that personal statement is of course not everyone’s thing. One artist told me, “the street is a very humbling place. You need to learn the hard way and then get erased soon. We do not come from art schools, but we learn and express through this rough cruel way.” I found this to be quite a paradox. But then as with many things in life – I am too small to pass a judgment. I can see both sides to this quite vividly. It can be pursuit of an ego trip in a humbling way. The truth to me is to be able carry forward and bear these contradictions – co-existing with each other.

I learn a great deal from such excursions. Not the least of which is that beyond the apparent two dimensional view of what I see there is a third or even more dimensions that is not visible but it is there. At a minimum there is always a “story” behind these art pieces, which is not available to everyone. I am grateful that, even in a very limited way, I could get behind the visible and learn about some of these stories.

Note: Here is a collection of pictures – mostly taken with my iPhone and a few with my Leica M9.

The Home Look – DC

I have said this many times to many people.  I often struggle photographing in the Washington DC area.  I don find it to have the same vibrancy as New York or London, the color of India or Istanbul, or the character of Mexico city. Indeed, there are cities and places in the world that exposes itself as instant photography  As Woody Allen overused saying – one has to just show up and that will take care of 80% of success. DC not so! Not inspiring.  After all how many pictures of monuments can one take. Museum goers are interesting but to stalk them painstakingly for that one awesome picture is not easy either. It is not uncommon to draw people’s eyes and ire. And then there is the common issue, it is hard to detach from my place of work and family obligations to get into a certain way of seeing things around.  It is so much in the mind, and the mind is always occupied with something else.  So after overwhelming myself with all sorts of reasons and resignations, I let my cameras gather dust.  They are still gathering dust – but once in a while I force myself to go for a round. Every good photographer will advise to do a little bit every day – after all, we are using a tool that needs some motor skills. It is also getting the mind and the eye see things in a certain way which (trust me) is a lot harder to get into after a complete break. Yet I did not follow any of that.  But in those rapid bursts of forcing myself to go out there – I get something – not extremely thrilled but not garbage either, although most of the shots are garbage. It is all digital – so who cares.



New Years in Istanbul is an experience of a kind. One group of the population does not care about it – the other parties. My 10 days in Istanbul in late December/January 2012-13 was a fascinating experience – I have heard about the inherent confluence of cultures, times, and geography – all draped in layers of history. Yes these are the cliches that we all hear – but to experience it is another thing. And then to allow it to soak and sink in completely is of overwhelming proportions. It is a different world. In the last several weeks the places I so languidly strolled around – sipping on Ayran and Doner Kebabs have been razed with disturbance. Politics put aside – this is unfortunate. I hope immensely – things will become normal soon.

Farmers Market

There is a certain charm and specialty about the farmers market. It speaks not just about the produce but also the shoppers. It is not just about buying something, it is why you are buying too. It is about supporting your local farmers and buying local produce. You can call it is trendy but to many it is getting produce almost from an extension of your garden. There is more to buying vegetables here; you come to engage in a conversation, and if you come too often you may form a relationship. And within this relationship you try to conduct the transaction. There is an air of connectedness, a sudden deceleration into a make-belief pastoral times… and for some shoppers, the basket has to exemplify the whole experience.

Turkish Delight

The Turkish restaurant Alibaba terrace in my block is a place I go often for dinner. The good food is only matched by the friendly chat that I end up having with the regulars there. The head chef behind those lovely kebabs is Osman. He comes from north east of Turkey. He loves Turkish music and gave me a good list that he kept showing me in youtube when I made this picture. Some of his recommendations: Ozlem Oznil, Asik Daimi, Kainatin Aynasiqim, Baqar Sahin, Tulun, Sabahat Akkiraz, Asik Mahsuni Serif, Gokan Birben, and Rize.


Taking the streets of Los Angeles w/ Keith Skelton

I was looking forward to working with Keith Skelton for quite some time in the streets of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles is a big city with a lot of things happening.  Keith chose a day with Chinese parade in the afternoon.  In the evening, the plan was to go to Hollywood.

Street photography is more than just taking pictures of a place and its peoples.  It is is about capturing the right moment along with the usual parameters that goes on to getting the right picture.  What distinguishes between the good from the ordinary is the “eye”.  What would look nice in a picture – a two dimensional frame.  An ongoing debate on this topic – is that what the eye saw? I will share my view in another post.

The composition brings the feel and form that connects the viewer to the point the photographer has captured.  Sometimes, this feeling is intuitive — coming in a blink.  But, as the noted cognitive scientist Herb Simon and popular writer Malcolm Gladwell both reckon — such intuitive decision making ability comes to the trained eye in this case and not to the novice.  It comes with practice.  Spending few hours watching Keith Skelton go about doing his stuff gave me the opportunity to see this clearly.

Street photography is also about personality.  So much about being in contact with people.  And it is not so much being chatty and friendly.  It is about making others comfortable, so people keep doing their own business.  Shop owners keep looking for customers, and customers keep on with their transaction.  The photographer is just a silent non intrusive entity who keeps watching.  And when a prey-like subject appears or about to as in the case on the umbrella/hat store in Chinatown, he shoots it.  Keith says – do not stalk.  Well, I am not sure that I agree with that.  If I am unobstrusive, undisclosed, and following all the laws, whats wrong.  I observed how Keith handled the situations.  In many ways, he was up there, when I was a bit slow, like the girls who dressed up like divas.  Later, he was there with the tableau before others.  He, for once, appeared like that obnoxious photographer who jumps on everything unless pushed back.  But I got – that is what it takes.  If I did not see him working like that I would have considered my time wasted.  The other important learning was the camera to use.  He was using the Nikon D300 which by no means is a slealth street camera.  He also had a compact.  During the event, when there were a million people with cameras, there was no issue in people being photographed.  He used the D300 and it was slinging loud and clear.  He did the same when he was in Hollywood later in the evening  — when there were crowds and the place was touristy, he had the big camera.  But then, where taking pictures can land someone in trouble, he was using the compact.  This is an art that needs to be mastered.  Just like anything else, practice is the key to mastery.

Once back from Hollywood at dark, I was dropped by a guy named Danny at the Westin.  The Motion Pictures Reel awards were going on.  I had a drink and walked out to the LA live where after a couple of strides, I ended up in Rock and Fish.  Not so much of picture taking.  It was a moment of reflection — what the day was, what were the moments of lost opportunity.

The day had began with Keith going through a book by Henri Cartier-Bresson in Amtrak station of LA.  To perform and capture the “decisive moment”, there is much work and training of mind is required off-camera.  This was what I was wondering.   Street photography requires mastery of composition and speed to an extent that it comes second nature.  With that thought, I was slowly setting my mind to Yosemite.  In a few hours, I was about to take the bus with moments captured from my few hours spent in LA.  Thanks Keith.  Thanks to all you who were such a great company.