Pastpresentfuture travel

by Steve Brock on January 2, 2014

Getty PatioI typically try to avoid going back to places I’ve been to before. Doing so tends to be like eating the same meal for a week. After several rounds of leftovers, that once favorite dish is well…you know what it’s like.

In some ways, I wish I could be more like my dog. She eats the exact same dog food morning and evening and has done so for years. Years. And yet each time, she does her own happy dance, skipping and leaping around the kitchen as if she’s not eaten for weeks and I’m serving up filet mignon. Oh to be that excited by the same old thing.

One place that I do return to with my own happy dance, however, is the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. I get down there probably once a year when I’m visiting my in-laws as I was a week ago for Christmas.

Museums tend to be exceptions to the “don’t go back” rule because, like movie theaters, what is showing usually changes on a regular basis. The building may be old, but what’s inside is new.

On this trip, however, I had the curious experience of appreciating both the old and the new at the same time. Or more precisely, in my short visit there, past, present and future all combined to make for a remarkable trip.

The past: One of the main exhibits there “celebrates two rare masterpieces of English medieval art: stained glass from Canterbury Cathedral and pages from the St. Albans Psalter, an illuminated book of psalms.” Old windows and old books, all for 21st century visitors to see. It was beautiful.

The present: There’s something about seeing the same thing in a new way. The scene above is looking down on the Getty’s outdoor café. We arrived in the late afternoon, so the café itself was closed and only a single couple lingered. But this scene of tables and chairs, one I’ve witnessed a dozen times in the past, still fascinates me. Simple changes in timing, light and activity make this place I know well fresh each time I’m here. Same with the photos below of the fountain or, further down, the special holiday lighting.

Getty Fountain at Dusk

The future: Here’s where it gets hard to explain. We visited the exhibit of Abelardo Morell and his exquisite photography. I had not seen his work before, but now I want to find out as much as I can about it and him.

What happened is something that occurs on the best of trips. I was totally present to – engrossed in – his photographs. But even as I’m viewing them, I’m reminded of past images and at the same time, I’m inspired to think about my own photography and future ways of making better photos. Past, present, future all at once.

Getty holiday lightingHave you ever had that experience? I think it occurs when we encounter places, events, people, art or just something of beauty that deeply touches us. It moves us because it resonates with some past memory, often available only to our subconscious. It makes us pay such attention that we’re lost to anything but that present moment and place. And it leads us to dream of what might be even as we’re engrossed in what is.

It’s a wonderful place to be but a rare one to find. I doubt that the next time I return to the J. Paul Getty Museum I will have the same experience.

But it won’t keep me from trying…

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