Keeping your eyes open for ways to turn the unoriginal into the unique is a tough skill that needs constant work
Michael explains how a little bit of research will pay dividends and reveal a new world of photographic opportunities
keeping company with last month’s Stranger Things is the kind of investigation that might not at first seem to have much to do with creativity, but it can make or break a shot. Many people treat creativity as mainly being about flashes of inspiration, even strokes of genius, and yes, it really does happen like that. Just not always. In every creative field, from painting to film-making, the background work not only prepares the method, it often actively creates it.
Really famous places can be painful to photograph, because you start by knowing that, more or less, anything you try has been shot before. Every angle covered, in every light, so what’s the point of reproducing what countless other people have done before?
It’s a peculiar and frustrating problem, because famous places are usually famous for good reason. On the other hand, there’s the sneaking thought that there just might be some new way out of the problem. If it’s your first time in front of them, there’s likely to be a lot to admire and to want to capture with the camera. Moreover, as in this case, it may be part of your job to shoot it. The Lincoln Memorial has featured endlessly in more images and films than are worth counting. Yet I still had to make a photograph for a book I’d been commissioned to shoot on Washington DC. It didn’t have to be an architectural shot; it could be anything recognizable that would go with a written description of the story behind the building and the over-famous statue of Abraham Lincoln.
This was a commission, so there was no question of just avoiding the shoot and going on to something else. This is where due diligence comes in: the answer in cases like this usually lies in research. Because iconic sites like the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and this have been covered from every conceivable viewpoint, any new image is likely to owe its freshness to a particular moment in time. So, what happens in or around the Lincoln Memorial? Any special events coming up? The problem with those is that they’re date-stamped, which is not so good if you want the picture to be, more or less, timeless. Anything typical or regular? This means finding the right people to ask in the
right department, which just takes some work. There’s a little trick when it comes to researching structures and monuments, and that’s maintenance. Every one is maintained by some department, and that can sometimes mean the possibility of getting special access, but in any case means that these people, every so often, do something to it.
That suggests a photo op. It turned out that at that time, once a week, the statue was cleaned. Very fortunately, this happened early in the morning, which in summer meant attractive lighting (the statue faces east) and hardly any tourists getting in the way. At a stroke, my problem was solved. All I needed to do was to turn up and be guaranteed some sort of picture that would be different from most. I didn’t even need to apply for any kind of permission or entry.
That’s not quite the end of the story, because it’s one thing to know that a little event will take place at such-andsuch a time, it’s another to translate that
into a picture that captures a moment. There’s some anticipation required, and some nimble reaction to get the best out of it. I mean, cleaning’s not high on the list of fascinating human activities. But in this case it would certainly involve someone clambering up the statue, and the simple scale difference between a man and the stone Lincoln ought to offer a possibility, which it indeed did.
In the end, it narrowed down to a very few workable moments. In fact, to be rigorous, it narrowed down to just one best shot which, no surprise, has the brush on Lincoln’s nose. This happened at the moment I was framing it as a horizontal.
Cleaning the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC
In the shooting sequence, I had to explore the best viewpoint and framing for making the strongest combination of the two elements: statue and cleaner
Our globetrotting Contributor at Large, renowned photographer and prolific author Michael Freeman, presents a month-by-month masterclass that’s exclusive toN-photo, in which he explores his tried-and-tested paths to more creative photography. Michael has published dozens of books on photography, including the bestselling Perfect Exposure.
If you enjoy this article and want to learn more, there are 50 more paths to be discovered in Michael’s new book Fifty Paths to Creative Photography (NB: all 50 are different from those that will be featured here in the magazine)
Finding a fresh way of shooting the Lincoln statue is a challenge to the imagination. Two earlier attempts were the statue alone, and then when the figure of a child appeared in frame