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Darrow Montgomery was walking down an alley off K Street NW when he looked up and saw a contrail. This is not a remarkable sight, but the little white streak in the sky between towering downtown buildings did make for a remarkable photo. That was five years ago, and Montgomery has been capturing contrails ever since.
As City Paper’s photographer of 32 years, this isn’t his first essay. He’s spent weeks, months, or years studying D.C. bus stops, the 600 block of H Street NW, disappearing commercial signs, people obsessed with their smart devices, and other topics. Contrails are different because he can’t control when he finds them. “You just have to be ready for them, and you have to do it right then or it will be gone—or it will be different,” he says.
He took the photos with his iPhone. “Most of these are from when I’m out riding my bike,” he says. “In the old days, I wouldn’t have gotten them because I wouldn’t have been able to bring a big camera with me.”
Some contrails in this collection are bright streaks against a blue sky, or billowed out airplane trails big enough for a toddler to recognize. Others are thin, disappearing stripes that catch sunlight as they slip in and out of the clouds. In one photo, a woman (who happens to be reading City Paper) and a boy unknowingly have twin contrails in the sky above their heads.
In a few photos, it’s hard to tell whether you’re looking at regular clouds or the remnants of a flight. But Montgomery didn’t count anything ambiguous. Look for the indisputable contrails. — Alexa Mills