The Rain Didn’t Keep Us Away

An innovative photo opportunity on the National Mall

Matthew Breitbart

This past Saturday, I kept nervously glancing out my window hoping the rain would eventually stop. I had agreed to participate in Rochester Institute of Technology's Big Shot Photo that night. While I was excited about the event, standing in the rain for 45 minutes seemed like a less-than-ideal way to spend a Saturday night. This year's photo, the 25th shot, was slated at none other than the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Because the photos are taken at night, proper exposure relies on flashlight-toting volunteers to provide lighting. That's where I came in.

It never did stop raining, so I headed out, Smithsonian umbrella in hand, partly comforted by the words of one of the event's organizers, Michael Peres: "Sometimes a little bit of inclement weather might provide some interesting outcomes that none of us expect. The intrigue is what’s going to happen." For instance, the wet, slick rock of the building could reflect the light in a more interesting way than a dry surface would. He had a point.

As I turned the corner near the front entrance of the museum, the crowd came into view. My worries about a skimpy turnout disappeared. A volunteer would later lament that he had too many people and wasn't sure where to put them. Peres estimated the crowd at 800. I got ushered off to the rear of the building to help light the trees. Our leader assured us that every job was important, even that of us "Tree People" as the group took to calling itself. (If you look at the image, we lit the trees between the Washington Monument and the museum.) Most of the group was RIT alumni—the large number of DC-area alum was one reason the project ended up on the mall, Peres said.

Shouting and cheering signaled the opening of the shutter, and we all began waving the flashlights up and down. The exposures were about a minute each. The concept is to "paint with light" using the flashlight beam and camera flashes. Because of the long exposure, motion is blurred and the individual paths of the flashlight are lost in a seemingly uniform illumination. The whole thing was over in less than 30 minutes.

Some of the volunteers escaped the rain at the sold out reception inside the museum. Museum director Kevin Gover said he was thrilled when RIT approached him about doing the shot here. "We like to think of ourselves as one of the fun museums, and the Big Shot fits right in," he said. During the ceremony, two Native American students from RIT donated art to the museum, a Native American professor offered a traditional prayer and Grammy-award winning singer Joanne Shenandoah (mother of one of the students) sang with her daughter.

At the end of the ceremony, Peres and others projected the image onto the wall above the atrium. In the final shot, the building seems to loom over the viewer, a result of the wide-angle lens used. The sky took on a surprising reddish hue. What do you know, the poor weather did make for a great photo after all.

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