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For 10 years, photographer Marty LaVor has had a fascination with what’s over his head.
Marty LaVor is giving a tour of the photography displayed throughout his Alexandria, Va., home when he heads into the first-floor room that serves as his gallery. As he walks through the narrow, black-walled space, he identifies his photos with a quick flick of the wrist toward each: “Desmond Tutu. George Bush. Clinton. The stamps they made of my photo of Mickey Leland. Cardinal Keeler giving my book to the pope,” he says, as if he’s checking off items on a shopping list.
The place is a Who’s Who of contemporary politics, full of photographs LaVor has taken over the past 22 years. There are also plaques, awards, and other assorted keepsakes: a personal note from Bush Sr. here—”I loved the picture of Barbara!” is scrawled on the presidential stationery—a note of commendation from Bill
But this room isn’t meant to be the focus of the tour. Forget the political heavyweights—what LaVor really wants to talk about is upstairs. So we work our way up to the dining room, where the table is covered with stacks of poster-sized prints from LaVor’s new self-published book, Washington, See It Again for the First Time—Looking Up.
He flips through pages of photos that are abstract, kaleidoscopic arrays of colors and shapes. Some look like psychedelic puddles, others like geometric wonderlands. Chandeliers are splayed like spiders’ legs; panes of skylights appear like giant glowing blue grids; pillars are turned on edge. “That’s the Smithsonian castle!” LaVor cries, much more excitedly than he’d said any of the politicians’ names. “The Library of Congress! Union Station! The Supreme Court!”
Yes, what LaVor really wants to talk about is…ceilings.
For the past decade, LaVor, a freelance photographer who once worked as a Capitol Hill staffer, has been turning his fisheye lens to the ceilings of some of the city’s most famous buildings and monuments. Because the lens distorts everything on the periphery of what it sees, and because LaVor focuses on just a slice of each ceiling, the places are almost unidentifiable even to the most discerning Washingtonian eye. “I get great joy out of going into buildings and showing people a picture and saying, ‘Where is this taken?’” says LaVor. “And they don’t know, and I say, ‘It’s your building!’”
It’s that kind of surprise factor that has made the project so fascinating for the 36-year area resident. “One of the things I started to find when I began taking pictures,” he says, “was [Washington is] a very interesting city if you don’t have an agenda and you don’t have to go anywhere—when you just look.
“After I took 40 or 50 different buildings,” he adds, “I printed them up and put them on the floor and I said to my wife, ‘Where are these places?’ And she said, ‘I don’t care—I just really like the colors, the shapes, and the designs.’ Then she said, ‘These are really nice. Who took ’em?’”
Looking Up is just one result of the many unexpected twists and turns LaVor’s life and career have taken. “My life literally has been a series of coincidences, things that have just happened to happen,” says the photographer, who, post-house tour, has planted himself in his cluttered home office. The tiny room holds two computers, four monitors, a laptop, a giant printer, and two little desks. There are negatives, papers, and notebooks all over. On the walls are more than a dozen hats from countries LaVor has visited, along with a cartoon that reads, “God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. I am so far behind, I will never die.”
Indeed, LaVor always seems to be multitasking. As we talk, he scans photos he snapped at an event for freshman House Republicans that are to be posted on Rush Limbaugh’s Web site. LaVor makes his living covering events in the political and corporate worlds, still does the occasional congressional Christmas card, and has released three books of photos in addition to Looking Up—not bad given that he never planned for a career in photography.
LaVor was born in Montreal and moved to New Jersey as a child. He went to Trenton State College, graduating with a degree in industrial arts in 1958. He’d planned to become a phys-ed teacher, but only weeks before starting school he was injured in a car accident. For several months, LaVor had to wear a corrective brace that made strenuous physical activity impossible, so he took a job at a New Jersey elementary school teaching ceramics, even though he knew nothing about the subject. Soon enough, however, LaVor’s students were winning state art competitions. Later, he even published a step-by-step book on how to teach the art form.
Over the next several years, LaVor earned a master’s degree in special education, ran a program to train physically disabled women to work in the garment industry in New York, and received a doctorate in special education from the University of Alabama. After school, a friend got him a job with the Alabama Technical Assistance Cooperative, where he helped universities in the state prepare applications to receive grants from the federal government—and where he met his first wife. She had some friends in Washington, so, in 1966, she suggested that the couple move there.
Through another friend, LaVor found a job as an administrative assistant to Rep. Bill Dickinson of Alabama. But just days after he started working for Dickinson, LaVor was recommended for a better position with the House Education and Labor Committee. He spent the next 18 years working with Congress through that committee and later through the Senate Committee on Aging and the House Committee on Hunger.
All the while, LaVor was taking pictures, especially when he traveled, racking up hundreds of shots. When he didn’t like the way his local photography shop was developing his shots, he complained so many times that the store’s manager offered to sell LaVor developing equipment of his own at cost and teach him how to use it—as long as he promised never to come back.
By 1970, LaVor had begun traveling more extensively for his job, and his camera always came along, to capture everything from refugee camps to starving children. “If meetings started at 9 a.m., I would get up at 5 a.m. and walk around just to see local activity,” he says. “I would just walk the streets and point and shoot. I was fascinated by everything I saw. I’d go to places that people didn’t go to—I really got into it.”
In 1974, LaVor had just gotten back from a trip to South America and wanted to frame some of his prints. The shop he usually used was closed, so someone recommended another one, which was also a gallery. There, he stumbled into his first invitation to show his work, after the shop owners fell in love with it. “My life is a fluke on top of a fluke on top of a fluke,” he says, shaking his head. LaVor did at least 20 shows at area galleries while he was still working on the Hill. “That really kept me going,” he recalls. “When you work under pressure, it makes it easier if you have a hobby to come home to. I’d spend 30 or 40 hours a week on photography.”
LaVor’s second wife, to whom he’s been married for 22 years, pushed him to turn his hobby into a full-time career. “I said, ‘Thanks very much, but I can’t make a living at it, and I’m not sure how good I’d be,’” LaVor remembers telling her. But in 1980, after he began getting more and more photography jobs from friends on the Hill, he took her advice.
One Saturday afternoon in 1992, LaVor found himself waiting around at the Supreme Court with all his equipment, no subjects, and nothing to do. He’d been planning to take the Christmas-card portrait of Rep. Mike Oxley and his family. But the Oxleys’ Old English sheepdog had taken ill.
“The Oxleys were late because Woolly was sick. Are you gonna blow off a congressman if he’s late? I don’t think so,” explains LaVor. “So I was killing time with my new fisheye, and I just happened to look up. There was no thought in any brain cell—I just looked up.”
Before long, LaVor was spending his Sunday mornings discovering this new view of the city. “You drive around Washington and you’re rushing to get somewhere, you’re in gridlock, you don’t look at things. You’ve seen the books above Washington or above New York from planes, but think about it: Nobody’s ever looked up,” he says, sounding more than a little amazed. “Sometimes you just stumble into dumb luck.”
Though LaVor says he could’ve easily done an entire book just on monuments or churches or any other type of attraction in Washington, Looking Up offers a broad selection of the more than 300 D.C. structures whose ceilings LaVor has photographed: The Hart Senate Office Building, the Longworth House Office Building, and the U.S. Capitol share space with the Washington Hilton, the Willard, and the Four Seasons. Mazza Gallerie and Georgetown Park are neighbors on the page. Howard University, Georgetown, and Gallaudet are all represented.
The photos look carefully composed, full of rich colors and artful patterns, but LaVor actually produced them quite quickly. “Everybody asks me, ‘How’d you do this? Did you lay on your back?’ When people do architectural photography, they set up elaborate lighting systems—I mean, it is an art I cannot do,” he admits with a laugh. “I go in and I shoot fast. I either see it or I don’t.” LaVor uses only available light, doesn’t use a tripod, and claims he has never spent more than five minutes shooting any one spot.
He also aimed to shoot almost entirely places that are accessible to the public, with the exception of the chambers of the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, some of places he visited have become off-limits as security restrictions have tightened over the past year: When LaVor returned after Sept. 11 to the State Department to take another ceiling picture, he was sent away photoless. “The security guards said, ‘Are you kidding? We wouldn’t even know who to ask about that now,’” he says.
But even with tighter security at some of his favorite haunts, LaVor’s enthusiasm for D.C. ceilings has remained unflagging. Indeed, Looking Up took a decade to complete, partly because LaVor fell in love with the project and kept adding to it. “I was just fascinated by what I saw, and the fisheye was like a new toy,” he laughs. “It helps if you look at everything like you’re a little boy.”
LaVor ended up with more than enough material for Looking Up 2, but he hasn’t yet decided whether to produce a sequel. Of course, he isn’t much of a planner anyway:
“If I live long enough, I will do many more things,” he says. “But if you ask me what those things are, I don’t know. I just don’t know yet.” CP