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Jake Watling is recasting Georgia Avenue’s streetscape.
In many ways, Jake Watling resembles the pictures he takes. He’s tall and slim, a virtual perpendicular stroke in space, with a thick scrub of auburn hair that leans into a three-dimensional widow’s peak. On the night before his gallery opening, he’s dressed like a study in color composition, with a soft green jacket over a zipped forest-green sweat shirt over a silver button-down over a black tee. He speaks softly, in a detached monotone.
Those same qualities—primacy of line, unlikely intersections of color, coolly aloof rapport with the subject—inhabit the batch of 11 Watling photographs now hanging at the Painting and Sculpture Studio, a refinished carriage house in the alley off 17th Street between S and Swann Streets NW. Someone at the exhibition’s opening observed that the pictures hew closer to Mark Rothko’s watercolors than to traditional photographs.
The most Rothkonian work in the space is the simplest in the litter: a grainy field of yellow and green with a bright-green stripe across the top and a thin black tide anchoring the bottom.
Hard to believe it’s the side of an apartment building.
“I’d seen it a few times, and I wanted to stop by,” Watling says. “It’s right up on Georgia Avenue. There’s a Shell station that wraps around to these storefront apartments. A guy walked out right after I’d taken a couple of photos; I was down on the ground trying to get the picture I wanted. He said they’d decided to paint the building the same color of the gas station. They wanted to blend in.”
With titles such as 1900 Georgia and 2118 14th, each picture in the series depicts a different District edifice. Most frame a few square yards of wall but forsake the obvious identifying marks of a building; there are no discernible stoops, roofs, or windows. One print shows a stack of thick candy-red and white stripes, split by what looks like a lustrous red-and-white-toothed comb. It’s a laundromat’s facade (the comb is an awning), turned on its side 90 degrees.
“I didn’t want people to think of it as an awning right away,” Watling says. “With a lot of this stuff, I don’t want people to be able to tell what it is right away. I’d prefer that they look at the color relationships and the textures instead of the overall pictures.”
Actually, they have no choice: There is no space for context and backdrop in these pictures. Old reds, gossamer greens, and pool-bottom blues scrimmage against one another with such natural balance that you forget Watling’s collages are captured and not created. They make you want to taste Georgia Avenue again for the first time.
“Watling reminds me of the abstract artists—his sense of color and the fact that he doesn’t show the whole building; he just lets you see an abstract part of something,” says Painting and Sculpture Studio gallery director Richard Siegman.
Watling may be the first abstract photographer whose muse resides in the cleaners, mechanic shops, and boarded-up and lived-in houses that line Georgia Avenue and 14th Street. “I like the way he names the photos with addresses. It sort of gives you an idea of place. We know how to get there. It’s kind of vernacular, old-time Washington,” says Siegman.
“People drive through these parts of town and say, ‘This is a run-down neighborhood; it’s disgusting. I just want to drive through and get out of here,’” Watling says. “But it’s a lot more interesting than their own neighborhoods….When I’m taking these pictures, people ask me, ‘What are you doing, sir?’ and I’ll have a conversation with them.
“A lot of times in the suburbs, people are driving to the store, then driving home,” he continues. “Drive to this and drive to that. But in the city, it’s too hard to park anywhere, so you’re walking and breathing in the environment around you.”
It’s also in the city that colors and textures collide in fusions rarely seen in suburban architecture. One of Watling’s favorite works in the gallery shows three wide bands of wall-covering in a vertical stack: plywood painted sky blue beneath a stripe of red brick beneath a sheet of unpainted plywood that’s edged with a row of nailheads.
“What first dawned on me was this blue,” Watling says. “Then I got closer and saw the brick coming together and then the wood. And I really like the splatters of blue paint on the brick.”
Those kinds of unplanned meetings of texture and color occur most frequently in the cityscape. “I could probably spend five years or more,” Watling says later, “photographing the buildings along Georgia Avenue.”
For the time being, Watling, 29, devotes a Saturday or Sunday morning each week to charting the District on foot or skateboard, camera in tow. “I grew up skateboarding in the inner city,” he says. “I think that’s why I’m drawn to little aspects of buildings. Ever since I was 10, I’d look everywhere for a place to skate. I’d say, ‘I want to skate those stairs,’ or ‘I want to skate that wall’—constantly looking at little things.”
“It relates back to this in a lot of ways,” he says, indicating a wall of pictures with a sweep of his hand. “Whenever I’m driving, I’ll look for a photo opportunity.”
As a kid in the Minneapolis suburbs, Watling found in his skateboard what he’d later come to associate with photography: the thrill of being alone, in complete control. Team sports had always turned him off. “On a skateboard, I could do whatever I wanted to without a coach telling me what the hell I had to do. I could just walk out the door, glide down a hill,” he says.
Watling enrolled in his first photography classes at St. Paul’s College of Visual Arts, but it was during a semester at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (where he remained until arriving in Silver Spring a year and a half ago) that he moved beyond the nuts and bolts of shooting and developing. “I developed a freer sense there,” he says, lighting a Newport. “The professors said, ‘Go shoot something and bring it back, and we’ll critique it and build on what you want to do,’ rather than telling me what they wanted.”
His current day job, as a graphic designer with a firm in Silver Spring, doesn’t always afford the same luxury. He designs a trio of magazines on shoestring budgets, including Adam, a fledgling glossy in the tradition of Maxim. “I didn’t get to design the first issue,” he says. “So I’m left working with what somebody else wanted it to look like.”
On a warm Saturday morning in April, Watling sets out from Dupont Circle toward 14th Street, where he opens his bag and pulls his camera from a red knit cap. He spies a pay phone whose metal shell is painted the rich burgundy of the brick wall behind it, which belongs to a carryout joint that advertises pork chops and crab cakes on yellow sheets of paper in its windows. He moves in for the shot, then gravitates toward a nearby plywood sign painted with fish and sausage specials.
Watling likes to capture snippets of text, though none of those types of shots made it into the current show. He’ll approach the word “breakfast” painted onto the side of a restaurant and capture just the “fast,” an unlikely, almost facetious souvenir from a slow-cookin’ Southern-style eatery.
While Watling is shooting a dry cleaner farther up the street, a jogger ducks down to avoid his lens, and I ask if he gets upset when people unexpectedly pop up in his pictures. “No, I like that,” he says, reaching into his bag for an envelope of photos shot surreptitiously a few days before, carrying the camera at his hip. Flipping through the stack, I see a gaggle of women waiting at a bus stop, a graying man reading a paper on a park bench, a pretty 20-something chatting on a cell phone.
“That’s why I need to bring a ladder with me,” Watling says suddenly, pointing across the street to a long, drab building hung with a monstrous sign that reads “SHIRT LAUNDRY” and, below that, “SHOE REPAIR.” Watling’s drawn to the structure’s upper half, a thick band of plywood dressed in a peeling coat of baby-blue paint and studded with big silver vents. “It’s not the same if you have to angle up,” he says, pointing his camera skyward. He crosses the street and takes aim at a bank of windows filled with once-white Venetian blinds dusted by grime into different shades of yellow and brown.
Thirty-six pictures later, Watling muses out loud about his dream project: a series of photographs that absorb every inch of the seven-mile stretch of Broadway that leads from downtown Oakland to Berkeley, a route he’d walk occasionally during his West Coast days. I ask where he’d exhibit such a colossal project. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’d have to put it out in the street.” CP
Jake Watling’s photographs are on view Tuesdays and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. to May 7 at the Painting and Sculpture Studio, in the rear of 1617 S St. NW. For more information, call (202) 745-0796.