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As much as he loves running, marathoner John Skwiot has a hard time keeping his obsession interesting. Even competing in the Ironman USA Triathlon—which adds a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride to the 26.2-mile marathon—didn’t seem to mix things up enough. So about four years ago, Skwiot decided to get artistic: When he runs on area park trails, he now brings along a camera—and he doesn’t stop when it’s time to shoot.
It’s hard to determine Skwiot’s greater triumph: the fact that these photos actually turn out quite well—in fact, 19 of them are now on view at 7th Street NW’s Touchstone Gallery—or the fact that he pulls off his project without having any accidents or looking ridiculous on the running trail.
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“It took a lot of experimentation at first,” admits the 36-year-old computer programmer. No long-distance waif, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Adams Morgan resident had trouble handling the 3-pound single-lens-reflex camera he lugged early in his run-and-shoot days.
Skwiot eventually settled on a more compact, more advanced Nikon 35Ti. He also perfected his method of holding the camera with one hand and clicking away as his arms go through their normal running motions. Safe and inconspicuous, the technique gives Skwiot’s nature photographs from Rock Creek Park and the C&O Canal their characteristic swirls and amalgamated colors.
Leaving so much to the caprice of a body in motion, Skwiot is never sure what he’ll discover when he returns home from a trail shoot. “It’s definitely a combination of intent and serendipity,” he says, adding that he’ll often wind up with a shot of his foot or the empty sky. Sometimes his photos are so inscrutable that their source material is evident only to him, such as when he took a waterproof camera along to shoot the chaotic mass of bodies on the swimming leg of a triathlon.
Skwiot hasn’t always been so experimental, however. While taking postgraduate photography courses at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art during the late ’90s, he spent most of his time shooting other runners and swimmers like a normal sports photographer—from the sidelines. Unsure of what he was trying to accomplish, he took some off-the-cuff advice from one of his instructors: “[Your subjects] don’t have to be the ones in motion,” he recalls her saying.
As it turns out, once Skwiot got his own body in motion, he had to keep it in motion: He’s tried to run briefly past a particular scene or object—over just 20 feet of ground, say, to capture a certain oak tree—but those photos are typically his weakest. “It really doesn’t work like that,” he says. “My mood has an impact on it. I have to get into a rhythm.”
Skwiot considers his work an expression of himself as a runner, and he’s even included two shadowy, trail-shot self-portraits in the Touchstone show. But he says he doesn’t care whether viewers are conscious of his novel approach. “One woman told me it brought her back to her childhood, when she was a kid and rolling down the hill,” he says. “If I can bring somebody back to that moment in their life, it has nothing to do with running. But what people take away from it is theirs.” —Dave Jamieson
Skwiot’s photographs are on view to Sunday, May 9, at Touchstone Gallery, 406 7th St. NW, Second Floor. For more information, call (202) 347-2787.