H Street Northeast is a neighborhood in major transition. It was in the 1950s and 60s an important retail and entertainment corridor for the African-American community in DC, along with the U Street corridor in Northwest. Along came the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, and then in the 1970s and 80s the rise of the drug epidemics, and H Street turned into pawn shops, liquor stores, and abandoned buildings. In the early 2000s, property developers turned their eyes toward the area for the relative abundance of cheap real estate as the next new place they could revitalize and get rich in the process.
These first four shots here represent the old side of the neighborhood – liquor stores, barred windows and businesses that clung to life through the lean years.
This set are the changing face of H Street – fresh paint, new entertainment venues, coffee shops and chic pubs.
The not-so-visible dark underside to this is that the past residents (lower and middle income African-Americans) and the businesses they used to operate are being pushed out not only by the housing redevelopment that is driving real estate prices up by several hundred percent over the span of a decade or less, but by the changing retail landscape – when enough businesses on your street have gone from selling fifty-cent cups of coffee and five dollar lunch deals to six dollar cappuccinos and thirty dollar tasting menus, your old clientele aren’t coming around anymore. If you were already operating on a shoestring, it can be cost-prohibitive to reinvent yourself.
On the same day I went to Fort Foote, I kept on driving south into Maryland until I got to Fort Washington, proper. Fort Washington the fort is located in Fort Washington, the town, and to arrive there you drive through some rambling suburban tracts. Like Fort Foote, Fort Washington sits on the banks of the Potomac River atop a peninsula formed by Piscataway Creek’s entrance into the Potomac River. It, however, was not intended to be a temporary site but rather has been occupied and fortified since before the War of 1812. Its use as an active military base ended after World War II, but most of the structures you see were built between 1800 and 1918.
These first two images are of the gate in the early 19th century fortifications. This was the entrance that connects the hilltop fortifications to the water battery at river level.
The water battery structures date to the first decades of the 20th century. You can see they are much lower, made of steel and concrete. The front side is protected by an earthen berm. The bunkers would have held the troops manning the now-dismounted cannon and communications equipment to control the batteries from within the fort.
There is something both ominous and at the same time hopeful about these structures, viewed from the land side. The bunker doorway looks like an entrance to the underworld.
The stairs, however, now stripped of their weaponry, point to an upward journey, facing the unknown. They’re the prow of a ship, a pathway to adventure, or perhaps a Mayan temple at whose top great mysteries will be revealed.
The clouds above tease the possibility of rain, but it will be a gentle rain, not a thundering downpour. They’re the gateway to the horizon.
These are details of the fifteen inch Rodman guns and their emplacements at Fort Foote. I apologize for the delay in posting this second round. In this set of images I was focusing on the textures of the ironwork and the geometric patterns and repetition in the gun emplacements. There are endless circles and semi-circles repeating throughout, from the barrel of the gun itself to the wheels to the tracks to guide the traverse. They take on a bit of a crop-circle kind of feel: looking at the remnants makes you wonder if they’re the leftovers of an alien civilization.
Because these are in the (encroaching) natural environment, I’ll grudgingly classify them as landscapes, but I think of them more as documentary work given the subject matter.
Serendipity plays a major role in my life. A couple weeks ago I took a mental health day mid-week and decided to visit some of our local history. My original intent was to take a short road trip to see some historic houses in northern Virginia, but they (the Woodlawn Plantation and the Pope-Leighy House) were still closed for the season. Instead, I thought I’d take a quick drive down Indian Head Highway into southern Maryland and visit Fort Washington, created to defend the capital city from river attack in the early days of the Republic. The current structures date from the years after the War of 1812 to the first decade of the 20th century. The main fort was designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the man who laid out the design for the streets of Washington DC.
On the drive down Indian Head Highway, after only a mile or so I saw a sign saying “Fort Foote Park”. I decided I’d detour and check it out. I really didn’t know much of anything about Fort Foote other than I presumed it was part of the Civil War-era defenses of Washington DC. My presumption about it was correct, but there’s a lot more to it than you might expect given that description. Most of the 68 defensive forts that ringed DC are now little more than some mounded dirt with a plaque commemorating what they were. They’re overgrown with trees and grass and cross-cut with walking trails, city streets, and even housing developments. Fort Stevens, the location where the only sitting United States President ever came under enemy fire, today is barely a half a square block, hidden behind a post-war church, 20th century homes and shops, and hemmed in by city streets.
Fort Foote has been spared much of that indignity. Fort Foote (named after a Union admiral who was killed in action in 1863 assaulting Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi river) too is overgrown with forest, but the earthworks remain very much in their original configuration. It owes its survival in part due to the location on a 100 foot tall bluff facing the Potomac river, too awkward a site for proper development. Two of the mighty 15 inch Columbiads (also known as Rodman guns for the man who designed them) remain in situ, and the ammunition vault’s crumbling ruins (also known as a “bombproof”) can be seen and scampered over by enterprising and nimble youth.
The Rodman gun was a major innovation in cannon technology. Due to a radical change in forging technique, they could be made much stronger and safer to be fired repeatedly without risk of the powder charge exploding the gun itself. The design was so successful that eventually the United States had nearly 450 of them providing coastal defense. The 15 inch Columbiad version could fire a 200 pound projectile some 5000 yards and penetrate ten-inch steel armor at that range. The guns at Fort Foote were never fired in anger. The smaller 12 inch and 8 inch cannons that topped the earthworks were removed by the end of the 19th century when the fort was decommissioned. Today, only a handful of the 15 inch Rodman guns remain in existence, the majority having been melted down or in some cases entombed in concrete to add support to the improved fortifications they once defended.
The notches on the back of the Rodman gun, along with the large, relatively flat “knob”, are signatures of the design, and indicative of some of the innovations. By making the “knob” large and flat, it made it much easier to hoist the cannon for moving it and loading and aiming – a common problem with smaller guns that had a much more traditional knob on the rear was that the weight of the gun, when hoisted in the air, would stress the join between the barrel and the knob and it would break, sending the extremely heavy barrel crashing to the ground, crushing anyone below, ruining the gun, and possibly discharging the shot if it were loaded.
The Rodman cannons were mounted on platforms that would enable them to be withdrawn below the earthworks to be loaded, and then raised when ready to aim and fire, reducing the exposure of the gunnery teams to enemy small arms fire. This wheel with its tubes to take wooden levers would have been used to raise and lower the gun on the pop-up mount.
I’m a big public transportation junkie, so when I heard they were finally launching the DC Streetcar on H Street Northeast (a public works project over a decade in the making and long overdue – the tracks have been in place for two or three years now), I was so excited I ran over after work last Friday to see it and ride it only to find out I was a day early! So I satisfied my urge and photographed the streetcar at the Union Station end of the line, catching it at sunset. The shiny new car reflected not only the setting sun but the buildings across the street, bringing the surrounding urbanscape out of frame back into the picture.
Here is a different view of the streetcar, waiting at the Union Station end of the line, looking down H Street. H Street was, fifty or so years ago, a thriving business district catering mostly to a middle-class African-American clientele. Then along came the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and then with the 1980s, the cocaine and crack epidemics. H Street was devastated.
Obviously now, not so much. It has transformed starting in the early 2000s with the real estate boom. Perhaps the turning point was the creation of a large condominium complex, Senate Square, on the grounds of what was originally a Catholic school and later the Capitol Children’s Museum. Now, pawn shops and lake trout joints are being replaced by artisanal coffee roasters, fancy pubs serving British-Indian fusion cuisine, and cultural outlets like the Atlas Theater and the Rock n’ Roll Hotel (which is not a hotel, but a bar and concert venue). Instead of a Murry’s, the neighborhood is now sporting a Whole Foods.
When finally fully operational (at the moment, the streetcar only runs less than half the length of installed track), the streetcar will connect Union Station and the governmental core of the city to east of the Anacostia River, a long-suffering neighborhood where good jobs and access to quality goods and services have been sorely lacking.
There’s something to be said for natural light portraiture. I love studio portraits for the creative control you have- there is no light in a studio portrait but what you put there – if you don’t want it, don’t add it. Working with natural, available light, though, can help you be a better studio photographer as well because it teaches you to really see the light in the scene and understand what you’re looking at. To make a great natural light portrait, you need to look at where the light is coming from, how to position your subject in the scene to maximize the light you have, and where is the best quality of light.
Here I was with my mother at ABC Home, a giant (and I do mean giant- seven floors in two buildings on opposite sides of the block on Broadway, including two restaurants) interior decor store in Manhattan. We were on one of the upper floors of the main store (carpets are in the other building across the street), and there was this beautiful diffuse afternoon light pouring through the giant windows. I positioned her so she was bathed in this light. It’s a very flattering light for anyone, especially for women. The light may have been soft and flattering, but even though we were on the 4th floor, we were indoors and buried in the canyons of Manhattan buildings, so the light was quite dim, forcing me to shoot wide open with my Rolleiflex.
One of the great benefits to the Rolleiflex is that since there is no mirror to get out of the way when taking the exposure, you can easily hand-hold exposures that would otherwise be a challenge – this was maybe 1/30th or even 1/15th of a second. Another trick that’s easy on the Rolleiflex is placing focus at the edge of your depth of field, especially useful when you’ve got a busy background that would be distracting if it were sharp. The reason it’ easy on the Rollei is that when you’re looking through the waist-level finder, you can look to the side at the depth of field scale on the top of the focusing knob and quickly roll the focus point to the far end of the depth of field without having to take your eye away from what’s going on in the viewfinder. You can’t do that easily with an SLR which has the DoF indicator on the top of the lens barrel.
I’ve noticed that as the series continues, my style of shooting it has evolved, which is a good thing. The photos are becoming more consistent, especially in terms of composition. The camera is placed on a level with the object, which usually means much lower than eye or even sometimes waist level, and more frontally square to the object.
The hydrant is in a suburban Florida cul-de-sac where the tallest things around it are date palms, and they’re not massed together to form a giant wall, so the lighting is direct sun, not a diffused sky. I’ve been looking at it and trying to decide how well it fits the series – I think it does on the subject matter and the compositional level, but until I shoot more objects in suburban or rural environments it feels weird because the background isn’t walls or windows or passing traffic, but grass and trees.