April 1, 2012

Seldom Scenes

Photographer Colin Winterbottom gives D.C.'s most famous icons a fresh look

  • By: Dennis Hockman

For more than 16 years, Washington, D.C., photographer Colin Winterbottom has been bringing a unique perspective to the capital’s national monuments and federal buildings. And for the past 12 years, he has been recapturing the essence of our nation’s most recognizable places from surprising vantage points or as they are being restored, revealing sides seldom seen.

“Getting access during historic preservation gives me the opportunity to get up close and see the rich textures and surfaces,” says Winterbottom, whose work requires him to perch on scaffolding, wedge into roof trusses, or dangle from an attic door. The result is an ongoing project that challenges our collective notion of these places, often portraying them as if for the first time.

But Winterbottom’s project is about more than just capturing these places from unusual perspectives. “Many fine photo collections have honored great national landmarks,” he says. “Other series have studied infrastructure and industry.” Winterbottom’s goal is to feature both, side by side, showcasing not their differences so much as similarities.

A photograph of the disused underground water filtration chambers at the Civil War-era McMillan Sand Filtration Plant, for example, shows the obvious grit one might expect. “But the repetition of vaulted curves going off to the distance,” says Winterbottom, “provides an unexpected elegance reminiscent of cathedral architecture.”

Winterbottom’s impulse to compare gritty infrastructure to world-famous monuments, though, is more than visual. “We tend to look at these places as gleaming symbols of the ideal society. But when I visit them during preservation projects, the details and textures show greater complexity and even flaws. Time has the same effect on our democracy; it needs the same vigilance and care.”

To see more of Colin Winterbottom’s project juxtaposing monuments with disused infrastructure sites, visit colinwinterbottom.com.

Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived in historic apartments and houses all over the United States and knows that all old buildings have stories to tell if you care to find them.

Through Partners in Preservation: Main Streets, your votes will help unlock $2 million in preservation funding for historic Main Street districts across America.

Vote Now