Photo journey: My quest for the perfect capitol shot

By Ande Jacobson

Artistic expression can take many forms, and so far, A Good Reed Review has focused on music, theater, and the written word. This essay expands that focus a bit and opens an ongoing, non-chronological series on my photographic journey.

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that is very true although the number of words can certainly vary depending on the story behind the picture. I eventually hope to write a book discussing my family’s photography given my parents had a keen interest and significant expertise in that art form and instilled a love of photography in me. While I’ve spent most of my creative energy in music and writing, I have a natural inclination toward photography as well as bit of an obstacle.

The natural advantage is due to a vision deficit. I have a congenital defect that prevented my vision from fusing, so I have monocular vision primarily with one eye and see the world the way a camera does. This gives me a leg up on setting up a shot, but I also have an obstacle to photography – I don’t like the great outdoors all that much and am rather averse to venturing out into the wilderness for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here. Still, throughout my life, I have used photography in various situations, and have at times been the de facto “staff photographer” for various groups with which I’ve been affiliated.

My mother gave me one of her Canon 35mm SLR cameras when I started college, and I wasn’t afraid to use it. Because I wanted to capture what I was actually seeing, I never got in the habit of using filters or playing any darkroom tricks. My grandfather used to have a darkroom setup in his basement, and he only worked with black and white film. I tended to prefer color, and that would have been far messier to deal with at home, so I never got involved in the darkroom side of photography.

Before I get around to writing that book someday, I wanted to start with some essays discussing some of my own favorite shots. The first in this series is my three-year quest to take the perfect shot of the capitol dome in Washington, D.C.

I took my first trip to Washington, D.C. in June of 1991 with my then boyfriend. Neither of us had ever been there before, and there are so many sights to see along with a good bit of history. We were there for about five days which isn’t nearly enough time to see everything, so we had to ration our time. Both being science nerds, we spent a significant amount of time in the National Air and Space Museum of course, but we also took time to walk the rest of the National Mall, see the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and visit Arlington National Cemetery while we were there. I also took my first couple of rolls of shots of the capitol dome from many vantage points and really thought I had captured a great shot.

Because I was using film, there was going to be a lag between shooting the pictures and getting to see the results because we had to wait until we could take the film in to be developed after we returned home to the west coast. It took a couple of weeks before we were able to get the prints back, and I got what I thought was the shot I wanted, so I brought the negative back to have it enlarged to frame for the wall.

When I got the enlargement back, I noticed a few defects that weren’t immediately obvious in the smaller prints. First, the statue atop the dome was too close to the top of the frame, so the framing of the picture was suboptimal. Second, there was scaffolding that was visible through the trees on the lower portion of the building. That wasn’t particularly surprising given many of the sights we visited were covered in scaffolding that trip. Third, there was a man repelling down the capitol dome that upon further investigation was actually visible as a speck in the smaller print. In any case, I couldn’t use this for the wall and needed to get a better shot.

My next attempt would be in the fall of 1992 when I returned for another vacation in D.C., this time with a longtime friend from my high school days. This trip, I couldn’t find my optimal spot, and while I took numerous shots of the dome from various angles, I never got what I considered to be a decent picture.

Later in 1992, I switched companies and ended up working on a project that would regularly send me back to the Washington, D.C. area for work. Had I known that I would be going there several times a year for the next twelve years, I might have picked a different vacation destination in 1992. No matter, I had lots of opportunities to return to the capital area and try to capture my perfect picture. I was there at all different times of the year, but it wasn’t until a trip in March of 1995 that I finally got the shot I craved.

I’ve used this picture in several articles on A Good Reed Review. The morning I took this shot, it was cold, right around freezing, so I kept my camera under my jacket after I got off the metro until I was ready to start shooting my pictures. I got through about a roll and a half when my shutter froze, so I hoped I had captured what I wanted because I wasn’t going to get any more pictures that morning. I did get some other shots elsewhere later that afternoon after things warmed up a bit, but I’ll save those for another essay.

This particular trip was a lengthy one, so I got the film developed locally and brought my bounty into work. When my team lead saw the picture, he asked me where I got the postcard. He didn’t realize it, but he’d given me quite the compliment as I informed him that this was no postcard, and I had taken that picture just a few days earlier.

This shot had something the others at other times of the year didn’t. With the leaves mostly off the trees, the branches formed a lovely, natural frame without the foliage getting in the way. I waited until I got back to the west coast to take the negative in to be enlarged. Even enlarged, the picture was good. There was only one small issue with it – there wasn’t a cloud in the bright blue sky, but I could live with that. I wasn’t going to alter the shot after the fact.

For many years, I kept a framed copy on my office wall, and to this day, I have a print hanging in my living room. Shots like these are what brings me back to my camera from time to time.


Additional photo journey essays:

Reflection obsession

South Meadow Fence Road


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