A moment of serendipity as I was photographing the red granite pharaoh’s head in the British Museum caught the face of a passer-by in the lower right corner breaking through a beam of light, an equally enigmatic expression on their face as on the Pharaoh’s. In the far background, a second Pharaoh looks on.
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.
Today the Palazzo Barberini houses another great art museum, home to two Caravaggios, a version of Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII of England, and Bernini’s bust of Cardinal Barberini among many other masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque painting. Here is the entrance facade as designed by Bernini, seen from the entrance courtyard with its central fountain.
A detail of one of the water jets in the fountain:
A staircase leading up to the rear gardens from the coachway underneath the palace. To the left out of the frame is the famous stepped ramp to the rear of the garden also designed by Bernini. Sometimes when you’re photographing, you get into this mindset of one type of image or another – for example, I had been shooting black-and-white film, and when composing this, I was still in the black-and-white headspace. I was thinking about the tones of the scene and the gradations from bright to dark. I don’t know if I even realized at the time I was shooting in color. When I was editing through my negatives, I saw this one and thought, “gosh, that’s likely to be a throwaway shot, but I’ll scan it just in case”. I wasn’t sure it would be sharp enough, because my memory of the space was that it was exceedingly dark and I winged it with a handheld exposure, roughly 1/4 of a second.
Well, you can see what happened. Not only was it sharp, but I seem to have mastered serendipity. The colors in the scene are beyond beautiful – the subtle blue from the cold light of the palace shadow seeping down into the stairway from the garden entrance to the rich golden hue of the paving stones and the plaster on the wall.
Poking around the grounds of the palazzo, I saw two massive carved stone coats of arms lying on the ground in a side service yard. One was the papal coat of arms of Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII. To be expected – this was his palace. This one, on the other hand, is a bit surprising – the papal coat of arms for Paul V – Camillo Borghese. During the years of their respective papacies, the Borghese and Barberini estates were neighbors, and Scipione Borghese, the Cardinal Nepotente to Paul V, was a friend and fellow art enthusiast with Maffeo Barberini. After Urban VIII’s death, the Barberini palace was seized and not returned to the Barberini family for some years, but neither the Pope doing the seizing nor the pope who returned it to them were Borghese. Both families (Borghese and Barberini) were one-papacy families, unlike the Medici with four, and the Della Rovere with two.
I know I was being very abstract or at least impressionistic with my earlier Commuter Diaries images, so in that sense these are a break from that line, and don’t quite fit. But they are about the commuting experience, so they have the potential to belong, if I develop enough images for them to blend in and make sense, and aren’t just outliers.
The first one is a woman waiting for the bus at my origin bus stop. Early morning, headphones on, anticipating the impending arrival.
This second one is a gentleman waiting downtown at Metro Center, peering down the street in hopes of spotting which bus is arriving next, anxious for the final leg of his journey home.
I think the latter is more successful because of the stilted angle, which makes it more dynamic and tense. I snuck that one by pointing the Rollei sideways, and had to live with what I got.
I have to keep reminding myself that sometimes it’s good to be loose and free with things, and that not all images have to be tack sharp and perfectly focused to be successful. I’ve been ruminating about this one because the composition is a bit unbalanced, and there’s a little motion blur to it, because it was another grab shot as I walked by and I didn’t have time to perfectly compose and focus it.
I think it’s a good object lesson from the original purpose of the series – taking long exposures that were not planned or structured in any way to free me up from being too formal. Even if this isn’t a fully successful image in some sense, it’s useful as a reminder to be relaxed and open to possibilities.