Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Violinist in the Metro

In previously postings I have mentioned Terry Robertson, a local photographer and educator. Terry occasionally sends notes out to his former students. This week Terry shared this thought-provoking story:

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousand of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the violin case and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

None of the passersby were aware that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest musicians in the world. He played some of the most elegant pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days prior, Joshua Bell had played to a sold out theatre in Boston at $100 a seat.

The Washington Post had arranged for Joshua Bell to play incognito in the metro station as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, o we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

This sounds like another urban legend, but it isn’t. Video and audio of the performance are available on the Washington Post website.

I strongly believe that one of the most important skills that a portrait photographer must possess is the ability to actively seek out and recognize a subject’s beauty. Skill in lighting, camerawork, and communication are all vital too, but of little use if you cannot see the essence of the portrait that you want to make.

When I first started my photography business, I thought about whether it should have a slogan. I soon abandoned the notion, but in the course of exploring it, the best candidate that I found was a quotation, which I used on my first set of business cards, and which in a few words expresses a closely related idea. The quotation was:


Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it. ~ Aristotle


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