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Interview with Photographer Colin Winterbottom

On November 9, 2015 National Building Museum curator Chrysanthe Broikos moderated a conversation between three distinguished D.C.-based architectural photographers—Colin Winterbottom, Maxwell Mackenzie, and Walter Smalling—whose work is well represented on the continuum from strict documentary and commercial work to artistic interpretations of space. The program, Picturing Buildings: Line versus Atmosphere was presented as part of FotoWeekDC to complement Scaling Washington: Photographs by Colin Winterbottom, on view at the Museum through January 3, 2016.  As a run-up to the program, Broikos interviewed Colin Winterbottom to learn more about his creative process. 

Scaling Washington

Chrysanthe Broikos: When did you first become interested in photography?

Colin Winterbottom: From childhood I recall having a sense I could take to the camera but something held me back. It wasn’t until I had graduated from college and moved into DC that the motivation struck: I was really excited to live in this amazing city. I would take walks through the city at night, and I got this sense of history, energy, and emotion that came off the buildings and streets, from the magnificent landmark architecture to the parks, circles, and simple rowhouses.

It really came down to wanting a poster or print I could hang on my office wall that celebrated that city, but all I could find were pretty photos of tulips in front of the White House and such. I did find some good black-and-white photos that were very skilled but almost to the point of academic study: so technically precise and refined that they didn't have the soulful energy I sensed when I walked the city. So after eight years of working as an economist, I finally went out and bought a camera—I gave into this sense that my real interest was photography.  

CB: You obviously had a keen sense of what didn’t speak to you, so how did you go about trying to capture what did?

CW: I wanted to do something different and something fresh in photography—I think we all set out with that goal—but I was determined to create a distinctive body of work: I wanted to make photos that retained that sense of excitement and the energy of historic architecture. So as I trained myself in photography; I set some rules for myself. When shooting a landmark in particular, I'd literally think of every way I had seen it photographed and would just avoid repeating that. I mean, I had just left a “sensible” career track to make artsy photographs, so the last thing I wanted to do was duplicate other people’s work.  

Another rule was to avoid the “obvious photo:” the photo that frames itself. I think of it as the photo that the architect made for you. I’d much rather make a photograph that showed an architect something he might not have realized about the space he designed.  An example would be lining up two areas of a building, or a building with the wider landscape in unexpected ways. In thinking of this rule, I think back to when Kodak created signage at tourist sites that would say, "This is the place to take your Tidal Basin photograph from, and here is the photograph our professional guys took," so that you could take that same picture. I always tried to avoid the obvious vantage points and to find a unique way to look at something.

Scaling Washington

CB: Interesting that you describe your work somewhat in opposition to the architect’s vision, I think that’s very telling. At times, it seems your primary focus is not necessarily what something looks like, but what it feels like to be there. Has that always been the case?

CW: That emphasis on feeling over appearance is key, yes.  But at times I’m also just being contrary—another rule is to defy expectation. The Washington Monument sets itself up for that sort of thing, because it's vertical and we're accustomed to looking up; so shoot it panoramic instead.

For the familiar landmarks that have been photographed thousands of times before, that can be the best way to make something new—play against the orientation. Another example, the C&O Canal… nice to shoot from the towpath, but have you ever been in the basin itself?  There are actually a few times each year that they empty some areas of it. This image was taken in one of our really, really cold spells a couple of Januarys ago, where this was frozen solid. I mean, obviously, during the rest of the year, if you tried to jump down in there, it would be a mess.

Another one of my rules is to just walk, walk, walk, explore and observe and wait until you see unusual things, and that's an opportunity I noticed during a leisurely walk.

Scaling Washington

CB: Do you have a list of places and circumstances on a “to do list”, or do you always have a camera at the ready?

CW: No, I don’t carry a camera everywhere I go, rarely, in fact. I think there's a particular mindset that I have to be in—a mood or spirit—to make my best work. And part of my challenge is always to recognize when I’m most open to that. The rest of the time I find it valuable to walk the city scouting for unnoticed angles I’ll photograph later.  Just having the camera on me creates an agenda; it changes my focus like I’m looking too hard.  Some of the best “unexpected juxtapositions” I’ve shot first came to me when I was walking around thinking about something else.

CB: You mentioned capturing the energy of buildings earlier, is there a rule or a trick that helps you do that?  

CW: I like to play with distortion. A lot of photographers, particularly people who are hired by architects to take proper Architectural Digest kinds of photographs, want to minimize distortion—and a great deal of their struggle is to keep straight lines straight and such. But I like to play with distortion, indeed embrace it. This image of Washington National Cathedral is distortive, but I think that huge “bend” accentuates the dramatic sweep that you admire in that space. So again, unconventional choice, but that works for me in this instance.

Scaling Washington

I also like, just going back to rules or challenges I set for myself, the idea of focusing the image on a secondary element. I find it can be very effective, especially if you can contrast that element with the primary subject you are playing down. It can heighten the drama and add energy.

CB: The project you’ve credited as your gateway to historic preservation sites is the time lapse sequence chronicling the rise of the scaffolding for the Washington Monument’s millennial refurbishment. How did that happen? 

CW: So, as many rules as I have about how to make images that are not like what you've seen before, you also just have to stay open and allow for exceptions. I read an article in 1998 that said they were going to put up scaffold to do refurbishment work at the Monument. And I remembered a great series of photographs that show the construction of the Eiffel Tower at different stages over time. Right away I realized this was as close as Washington, D.C. would come to an opportunity like that. So I revisited a given vantage point on the Mall as the scaffold went up and took photographs that for me were unusually straightforward, but it was the progression across time that made them unique. That series was seen by some of the folks who were engaged with that project, and so I was invited to go up.

Funny thing is, I used to be afraid of heights as a kid, and when they first approached me, I said to myself: “This isn't somewhere I want to go—no thanks!” Then I remembered, “I'm trying to make really unusual images of Washington, D.C.,” so I had to go! So that was my introduction to work on historic preservation sites, and work from scaffold.

Scaling Washington

CB: That led to an invitation to a preservation project at the Capitol where you made this photo. What made that experience such a game changer? 

CW: This is one of my more successful examples of playing with skewed angles. I considered a straighter composition, but this tilt made a much more interesting way to fill the frame. And I love to have here, the Capitol Dome with broken windows and all. To juxtapose it with this industrial scaffold, and the stacks on the horizon and some smoke rising, it really helps reframe the context.

I think it was during this project that I really started to get the idea that there was an important metaphor happening here, that we often think about the monuments and the landmarks as shining symbols of a perfected democracy that will always endure. But these photographs remind us that once built, these landmarks don't simply stand on their own, but like the democracy they symbolize these structures are massive and remarkable but also fragile, and in need of ongoing scrutiny and vigilant care.

SW 7

All photographs in this article are Copyright © Colin Winterbottom.  All Rights Reserved.


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