Thinking a lot about Washington DC Lately


I’ve been thinking a lot about Washington DC lately, as I’m sure many of you have. The Jefferson Memorial is one of my favorite places in DC and on my last visit in October, Jefferson’s words once again moved me, staring down at the actual Declaration of Independence and later at the memorial itself.

Jefferson Memorial. Washington DC. 1987. 4x5 black and white negative.

Jefferson Memorial. Washington DC. 1987. 4x5 black and white negative.

Going to Washington had always stirred deep feelings of love for this country and deep respect for its aspirations. It is at the same time a reminder of how far we have traveled to fulfill those promises, and how much distance there is yet to go. We have always been a great experiment. My photography doesn’t easily address these feelings.

I’ve always loved this photograph I made in the mid-1980s. It was my first excursion to Washington with my 4x5 and I made this photograph I which gave great pride. It was also a photograph where I felt I was able to distill the elegance of the memorial’s design into the composition of the photograph. I often use it as an example of leading line, movement, and counter movement.

As we are readying the lab for our Black and White Vision and Printing course Feb. 11-12, the photograph came to mind again as it was one of the first digital scans I made on the Leafscan 45 and was used often to test early digital black and white printing techniques. It was made into a poster in 1993 using the duotone feature in Photoshop I lobbied for and wrote the demo curves that ship with Photoshop to this day. In my 2006 book Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography, I devoted a whole chapter to Duotones.

For most of us, Black and White photography is where our first seduction by photography began. It is my first love of the medium and has been part of my work for 40 years. That my color work is more well known is fine, but the abstraction and stepping out of the literal into the monochromatic, remains fascinating. Perhaps even more so today because of the wild translations from color-filtered sensors into black and white now possible. Demonstrating some of those possibilities is the most fun of teaching the Black and White workshops. Of course, seeing a student holding a beautiful print of their work, in their hands, is the best.

Mixing the DC state of affairs with a photograph, a class, and a poster, all seems a bit odd. These are odd times. But in trying to live my life in the arts, everything that is in my mind ends up influencing the vision. Perhaps that is how it should be, but sorting out seduction and angst is not a clear path. It is about finding some direction that satisfies the aspiration to communicate, express oneself and feel that the art has the potential to make a difference. Any difference is usually small, but sharing witnessed beauty and its expressions is much of what binds us together.