Monday, March 31, 2008

Springtime in Washington DC

Spring is my favorite time to shoot and springtime in Washington is an absolute delight. The end of March is cherry blossom time in Washington. On my first weekend, the trees were just beginning to bloom. The local experts assured me that the following weekend the cherry blossoms would be at their height. I explored the Tidal Basin to get an idea for the best shots, then wandered around the great mall.

On my second weekend, I was astonished at the number of blossoms. The trees around the Tidal Basin were laden with pastel pink and white blooms, a cotton candy-topped forest.

At sunrise, the sidewalks are overflowing with tourists and joggers dodging between the trees while picnickers settle in wherever they can to enjoy their coffee and the view. Getting a good photo can be a serious challenge.

Thousands of photographers compete for the best angles. After spending a few minutes setting up a shot, you can bet that someone with a cell phone camera will step into the frame to get an artistic closeups of the branch you were focusing on, but it's all part of the challenge.

Tripods are a rarity today, but there were plenty of professional and serious amateurs photographers making good use of them. I like to watch these folks in action because it can take a few minutes to properly compose an image. During that time, you get an idea what the photographer is going for. Seeing through another artist's eyes is an excellent way of getting a different perspective on a scene.

An Associated Press photographer I met carried a small step ladder in order to get angles no one else could. He let me try it out, but while the view was good, the photo was uninspiring. Other professional photographers took advantage of the flowering landscape to shoot wedding "love story" portraits (including, fashion shoots (with Lululemon Athletica) and informal portraits.

While there are plenty of photo opportunities in Washington, I am unashamedly drawn to the most famous views. I know there are thousands of other images identical to mine, but these are my images. When I look at them, I remember the place and time and maybe how long I had to wait before the conditions were right. The photo, then, becomes a figurative key to a locked memory.

On my third weekend, the weather was not cooperative. The sun struggled through an overcast sky. While good for portraiture, it was not as impressive as photographing the pink flowers against the brilliant blue sky of the week before. Sunrise and sunset lighting was practically nonexistent.

There were fewer photographers with tripods that weekend, but one artist stood out. I imagine that decades ago the Tidal Basin would have seen dozens of his sort, but in the past few weeks he was the only one I saw in the whole city - a painter. He was chatting with a woman about his technique when I joined the conversation. His painting showed a long stretch of sidewalk overhung with cherry blossoms.

I pointed out that he had no people in his painting. "One of the problems I have with photographing these scenes is that there are so many tourists walking into the frame. How did you mange to get this image without a bunch of people in it?"

The woman looked at me like I was totally insane, but the artist didn't miss a beat. "Oh, what I do," he said dramatically, "is edit out the people ... or anything else I don't want."

"Impressive," I responded, gravely nodding my head in understanding.

The ground was covered in petals. While still spectacular, the pink haze that covered the walkways had diminished. So too, had the number of tourists. It was a bit easier to capture a scene without passersby wandering through the scene. Little did I know how much easier that would be when I hiked to the Tidal Basin on a drizzly Sunday morning.

A foot race blocked most of the vehicular traffic. There were so many runners that it was difficult to cross the street.

When I arrived at my favorite spot, there was only one person in sight! Not only could I set up my shots, I could take my time. Of course the misty rain made trouble for me as I attempted to keep my camera and lenses dry. I discovered later that one errant drop found its way onto my lens and managed to spoil quite a few shots. I am ever so thankful for PaintShop Pro for making it easy to fix.

Another favorite photo location on the Tidal Basin is the FDR memorial. It's understated and full of waterfalls. For my money, it's the most interesting memorial in the city.

Of course no trip to Washington DC is complete without a trip to a museum. I decided to go somewhere I've never been before. Although portraiture is my favorite type of photography, it had never occurred to me to visit the National Portrait Gallery. I mistakenly assumed it was full of dusty dull presidents, but it was actually remarkably good.

I should point out that the only reason it occurred to me to visit the museum this time is because Stephen Colbert's painting was hanging there. Not officially, of course, Colbert pretty much talked them into hanging it. They obliged by hanging his portrait in the toilet vestibule. Few other portraits had an much attention as his. Few others had as much truthiness either.