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If you lived in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s, there’s a good chance you are familiar with Colin Winterbottom’s photographs. Trained as an economist, Winterbottom turned to photography more than two decades ago, focusing on the city’s monuments and architecture.
Initially, his work became a staple in upscale gift stores, where his high-contrast, grainy images, often taken at night, became popular, even iconic, as the artwork on greeting cards for the D.C. crowd. As time went on, Winterbottom became known for high-quality work documenting the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the National Archives.
Then, on Aug. 23, 2011, came a big break, both literally and figuratively. A 5.8-magnitude earthquake centered 80 miles south of D.C. damaged two of the city’s tallest structures: the Washington Monument and the Washington National Cathedral. Winterbottom secured the exclusive right to photograph the restoration of both buildings, a project that would run into the tens of millions of dollars. This meant Winterbottom would have access to vertigo-inducing scaffolding, allowing him to photograph sights few had ever witnessed, from cathedral roofs to the inscribed, aluminum-tipped pyramidion that crowns the monumental obelisk.
The result is “Scaling Washington,” an exhibit at the National Building Museum. The cathedral images are inevitably fancier, with their filigreed spires and winking gargoyles. Winterbottom’s work here isn’t unprecedented; author Darlene Trew Crist and Robert Llewellyn did a nice job capturing the range of architectural flourishes in the 2001 book, American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone.
Still, Winterbottom adds some noteworthy touches like a triptych of three gargoyles that seem normal until you notice that the quake has shifted each of them several inches off their base.
Winterbottom, using both black-and-white and color images, offers plenty of urban panoramas from the cathedral’s roof and interior shots of its vaulting ceilings. But his finest work from the cathedral project documents its interior light. Winterbottom smartly turns to time-lapse photography, packaged in a high-quality video format, to show how light travels through the cathedral’s stained-glass windows and across its neutral stone walls—a journey as slow as flowing lava and as mesmerizing as a kaleidoscope.
If Winterbottom’s portrayal of the cathedral emphasizes the baroque, then his work at the Washington Monument comes across as bracingly minimalist. The monument’s clean lines give Winterbottom the freedom to contrast its structure with its surroundings, most spectacularly in an image that faces straight down the side of the monument, but which looks down both directions of the mall, as far as dual horizon lines in Virginia and Maryland.
Winterbottom also wins points for creativity with his mounting of a 360-degree image that directly faces the edge of the monument. The monument portion of the photograph is hung three-dimensionally, with the wall jutting outward to create the illusion; the remainder of the panorama is spread out wide and flat.
Even if the wall text overhypes the exhibit by referring to Winterbottom’s “heroic images,” the artist does deserve credit for enduring claustrophobia and dizzying heights to capture something unfamiliar. Some of his images are more workmanlike than inspiring, but that’s appropriate to the subject matter. The exhibit is a divergent but complementary examination of an old architectural duality: soaring designs alongside the gritty work needed to make it a reality.
Through Jan. 3, 2016 at 401 F St. NW, Washington, D.C. (202) 272-2448.