Sunday, August 26, 2012

diner en blanc :: a worldwide phenomenon :: philadelphia debut

Thursday morning, at approximately 8 a.m., I received an email from my wife. The subject; photo op. My curiosity instantly began to rise as I immediately opened the email. The message described some kind of event to take place in Philadelphia on that evening of Thursday, August 23, 2012. The event, named Diner en Blanc was to make its first time appearance in the city.

Diner en Blanc? Loosely translated, dinner in white, is an event that began in France some 25 years ago. Think the flash mob is something new and trendy? Nope. This fancy French born flash mob may have been the first to perform such an enigma. The basics of Diner en Blanc are that some thousands of people, dressed in white, with white chairs, tables and a picnic basket filled with gourmet food and drinks, arrive surprisingly to a top secret location. The attendees then, like a orchestrated symphony, set the scene with careful placement of each seat and table arrangement. The covert operation then simultaneously takes their seats and toast to the event, signified by their waving of napkins in the air. Following the toast, the secret society of diners indulge in fine dining while sharing their rations with their guests. After the meal, the thousands of guest wave sparklers in the air, in unison, an indication that the eating is finished and the dancing to begin. After a beautiful and romantic evening, the guests then pack anything left behind and leave the scene without a trace of evidence that anything had ever occurred. Brilliant, in my humble opinion.

More after the jump...

My wife's email had me intrigued. After learning a bit about the classiest of flash mobs, I wanted to somehow, someway, discover their top secret location. But how? Well, where else does one find any and all information in the world? The internet, of course. I couldn't have been ten minutes after reading the email about the event that I started scouring the web, trying to find a clue of where the event would be held. I thought I could easily count on at least one person to spill the beans about the location. Nobody keeps a secret that tight lipped. Especially with such large numbers of pre registered guests. I've read of some cities with attendants nearing and exceeding the 10,000 mark. I had no idea how many were expected to appear in Philly but that's a whole lot of people to keep one very big secret.

Hours upon hours of social network searching, I came up empty handed. After further investigation,  I discovered that those to attend do not know the top secret location. Through a very specific process, the guests are only told primary meeting spots, across the city, where they are to meet at a given time and then, from the first spot, are quietly shipped to the actual venue. This was going to make my finding of the location a bit more difficult than I had imagined. I was frantically trying to think of something.

My initial thoughts were that the event, so large in numbers, had to be held in an area that was not only large enough but would be easily recognizable in photographs that would follow. The Art Museum? Rittenhouse Square? City Hall? Penn's Landing? These iconic sites were the first to enter my brain. I thought to myself that showing up to one of these spots would be a total crap shoot. The odds for this awesome photo op were definitely not in my favor.

I was endlessly spinning my wheels, trying to figure out a way to get me and my camera to the historic event. Sitting at my computer, I came up with one totally random, crazy, shot-in-the-dark idea. Validating the idea, I told myself that things like this don't happen too often, it was worth a shot.

The insane, far fetched idea would be to look for someone, anyone, dressed in white, around town, hoping that they may be carrying a picnic basket, and follow them to the secret venue. Then I thought to myself that this may not fly since they have to first go to a primary location before being shipped to the actual event.

I was driving home early that evening, really thinking about how awesome it would be to capture some images of a phenomenon that could later be called a work of art. I was driving up Walnut Street, when I was a bunch of Navy personnel gathered together on a street corner. I immediately thought that they could possibly be attending. Problem was, I didn't see one picnic basket. Decoys? Nah, probably just a bunch of sailors, dressed in uniform.

I hung a left turn on 17th, approaching home, when I saw an older woman, at the corner of Locust Street, head to toe white garb. Could she be the one? My ticket to some cool photographs? I would never know. I thought to myself that this was an underground (ish) trendy event. Her style wasn't too hip. Maybe she was just a woman dressed in white.

A few blocks later, I park, illegally as usual, in front of Rittenhouse Market, my local supermarket. After loading a couple bags of groceries, I continue up Spruce Street to begin my typical and horrific search for parking.

Heading up the 1800 block of Spruce (my old block), I notice a man in white, walking his beautiful pit-bull. Approaching a red light at 19th, I ask myself why this man was walking his dog at this particular hour (6 p.m.) while wearing all white clothing, topped with a white sports jacket. This was a man about to go out for the night. He had to take his pup out for a pee before leaving him home for the evening. This was my theory and I was sticking to it. Sitting at the light at 19th, about to turn left, I notice the man and his dog also turn left. I had to say something or my chances for this photo op would be destroyed.

Turning left, I pull to the side and throw the blinkers on. After rolling down my window, I get the man's attention. He may have thought I was crazy but it was a chance I had to take. The man in white approached my vehicle, acknowledging my call. As he neared, I looked him up and down, and asked him if he was attending a "dinner" that evening. He grinned and nodded in an affirmative motion. My heart actually may have missed a beat or two. There was now a hint of possibility in this impossible mission.

We spoke for probably about one minute. I knew this guy probably wasn't digging my strange approach. I knew this and drilled him for as much info as I could, in as little time as possible. I explained that I was a photographer, desperately trying to get a few images of the covert operation. Quickly, I beg for the location and just as fast he explains that he has no idea where it would be. He only knew that at 6:30 p.m., thirty minutes from that exact moment, he had to be at Broad and Oregon, deep in the heart of South Philly. That would be his primary meeting point. I thanked him for his time and wished him luck. He began to walk away and I became a bit unsettled.

Last chance, I had to push a bit further. Easing up on the brake, I came up on the man in white once again. At this point, I was a bit nervous to go for the Hail Mary. This is the point that I was expecting a big "F*** you pal, leave me alone!" I had to get creative. Getting his attention a final time, I offered the man ten bucks if he would text me the top secret location once he discovered it. He agreed to my offer, without taking the cash (that's aces in my book). I gave him my cell number and we parted ways.

As a born a raised Philadelphian, I had every doubt in my mind about this stranger texting me. Hell, I thought that he didn't even really store my number in his phone. I thought to myself, even if he didn't send that text, that it was cool that I was able to speak to one that was actually to attend the historic event.

After circling around for a while, a parking spot finally was freed up. I run home to do one last search, for anyone who may have leaked some information. Turns out this thing is better at keeping secrets than the CIA. Go figure.

The clock was approaching 6:30 and I was wondering about the man in white. Should I have driven to the South Philly meeting location? Follow the small group in stalker like style? At this point it was too late. No time for regrets now. I opted for my pajamas and a cold Belgian ale. My couch was looking extra comfy at this point.

Soon thereafter, my wife arrived home and I shared with her my day of investigation. We then threw on the TV to watch the news. Sure enough, once a flash mob of some thousands of people miraculously appears, the news would have to cover it. We rarely watch the news but on this evening, both of us were now just curious of where the event would take place. My bet was on the Art Museum.

It was just after 7:00 when I grabbed my iPhone to see if I had any missed calls. At that point my ringer was off, trying to enjoy a bit of a quiet evening with my wife. Swiping my index finger across the touch screen to unlock the phone, I notice one text awaiting my view.
No effing way!!!! I couldn't believe it, he actually sent the text. I didn't know what to do. Showing the message to my wife, her mouth dropped just as I expected. We may have just stared in awe for a moment or so before the two of us jumped up to throw on some clothes. I then ran to pack a small load of camera gear. Within minutes we were out the door, speed walking towards Logan Square (just over a five minute walk from our digs). Nearing Logan Square, we hear some nice classical music. We can only hope that this was indeed the big secret event that we hoped it was.

Upon arrival, we saw a sea of white. It was glorious! I began to prep my gear, throwing the ISO way up since the ambient was dropping fast. I had a couple Pocketwizards and strobes on standby, just in case the ambient became useless. Wife and I crossed the street, heading towards the park.

Closing in I could clearly see the privately based security guards sealing off every entrance to the venue. Hauling around big gear is a giveaway that you are not a typical person going for some snapshots. The two gentlemen immediately approached me and asked to see my press pass. I explained to them that in the frantic moment of discovering this top secret location, I was able to grab nothing more than my camera before running to the event. They didn't buy a word of my story. They kindly apologized and offered that I could take photos without actually entering the grounds. I sure as hell wasn't giving up that easily.

I thanked the guards and continued around the square. Without anyone able to see, I quickly disappeared up and over a grassy knoll. In ninja fashion, I make my way into the event with none the wiser. I motion for my wife to put her ninja skills into action as well. Within seconds, we were taking in the beauty of this historical moment. Diner en Blanc. It was breathtaking.

We spent about an hour or so, taking in the happenings of the evening, documenting as much as possible. I had about 300 frames, some better than others. At that point wife and myself decided it was time to head back home as we both had early starts the following morning.

Walking back on 18th Street, we both had so much to say without saying a word at all.

We did agree that in our near future that we would be the ones dressed in white, participating in Diner en Blanc, wherever that may be.

Man in white, thank you!

Enjoy and until next time...