How I Lost the Washington Monument – by Simon King

Despite how far I feel I’ve come both personally and professionally over the last few years there are still times where I’m really knocked back a step, and reminded just how much further I need to go in order to get to where I want to be. I’ve only been making photographs since 2015 – and the work I’m proud of from those early years is very lightweight indeed! Picking up film gave me a kick, and through 2017 and 2018 I worked hard to establish myself, and figure out the direction I wanted to take. 2019 was my first year of shooting film only, digital only when shooting for clients, or when assignments required a fast turnaround. 2020 was the same – in fact I don’t think I shot a digital image after this assignment in early March, after which I was entirely focused on documenting the unfolding global stories which started to permeate everyday life.

While this feels like a lot, it means only two and a bit full years shooting film at all – a tiny amount compared to those whose careers span decades. I’m nowhere near 1000 rolls shot, which means all of this is technically still my early work. Early work means lessons learned, and a recent lesson was that no matter how well thought out my workflow may be it only takes a small mistake or miscalculation at any stage to totally ruin a frame.

I use stand development for almost everything I shoot, and an advantage of this is that it retains excellent highlight detail. This allows me to make my exposures a little more freely sometimes, so when shooting high contrast scenes I am usually more comfortable erring on the side of maintaining shadow detail.

When photographing recently in Washington DC I was actually being quite careful with my exposures, as I really wanted my images to come out well. I was on the steps by the Lincoln Memorial and working on a scene involving some members of the National Guard who were posted to the top of the steps.

What I didn’t realise at the time, and as you can see from the snapshot of the contact sheet here, is that the difference in exposure between the Washington Monument, and the bright midday sky, was not all that great. The soldiers were under shade, and have come out very well exposed, and I remember adjusting my settings to try and meter a balance between the highlight and shadows. The Washington Monument is a highly reflective brilliant white marble, so I simply must not have realised just how little difference there would be between it and the sky in my images. If you look at the negatives, it is definitely faintly there, so it may be possible to recover in the darkroom. As far as my digital scans are concerned however, it is entirely lost.

Invisible – centre of frame.

This is a shame, and while the resulting images are *fine* they just aren’t what I was going for, as I was specifically working the monument into my compositions.

Just about visible here, but not distinct at all.

This means that in these frames something just feels like it’s missing. I had this in mind when developing the other roll I shot in that area, and used about 2ml less Rodinal than I normally would. This brought the Monument back for a few of those frames, but none were as powerful as the main image I’d missed out on, which was quite a simple one with just the soldier, his rifle, and the monument.

A frame from the roll with the adjusted chemistry – an improvement.

Even in these, you can see just how faintly it’s visible. All of these are on Ilford HP5+, a very robust film in even the worst of circumstances. These must have been circumstances even beyond that! Exposure method was consistent between the rolls, so the development approach is the only thing offering these different results.

Still faint, even on the darker exposures. Very low contrast situation.

This was not the biggest mistake I made during this trip – that’s a story for another article, and an even more rookie error, but with far greater consequences. As far as lessons learned from this experience, I will keep a far closer eye on more nuanced elements of my frame, especially when it is very brightly lit.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article! I wish it had never happened :/ but hopefully there’s something for people to take from this! If you want to read about more mistakes I’ve made then this article here, and this one are for you! I’m currently working on curating and sequencing my work from the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, as well as the other work I produced during my most recent time in the States. I’ll be self publishing this work, so to keep up to date on that, and my other projects, follow me over on Instagram. In the meantime, I’ve collected together some of my work from my trips to the States from 2019, 2020, and most recently 2021, into a “digest” which can be found here.

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11 thoughts on “How I Lost the Washington Monument – by Simon King”

  1. That’s a tough scene to shoot, but you are correct in that you can get a much better range in a darkroom enlargement than you can with dSLR scanning. You could try scanning for highlights, then for shadows and then for somewhere in between. Merging them might give a higher dynamic range but I haven’t tried this before.

    At any rate, the title of the article and the concept of intentionally blowing out the monument is actually a really cool idea. I really enjoy the title shot.

    1. Thanks Kevin! Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing how these come out on darkroom paper – definitely going to be one of the first negatives I work with once I have access to my local place again. I hadn’t considered HDR scans, I’ll look into how attainable that would be with the Plustek I’m currently using.

      And the number of people telling me I could get away with saying it was intentional is pretty funny – hopefully it’s something that someone chooses to do at some point, but definitely not what I’d had in mnd 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the piece!

  2. I like it! It’s a fantastic interpretation of an often photographed location. The ghostly image of the Monument is something I wish I’d done during one of my trips to DC (alas, always for work with little or no time to wander about photographing things).

    1. Thank you so much Roger! Again, if only it had been intentional I could claim to be a groundbreaking genius ;). Maybe one day…
      And perhaps next time you visit you can do it with full intention!

  3. If you gave the soldiers extra exposure to prevent their being silhouetted against the sky, I am not sure that even a yellow filter would have saved the Monument from oblivion. Tough exposure situation that even stand development couldn’t help -would HDR have salvaged it?

    1. I agree – HDR was suggested by someone else, and it’s something I’ll figure out with my scanner and try. I think in the Darkroom I’ll be very carefully masking, which ought to offer me some further detail. Thanks for your comment!

  4. I dunno, I like it as is! The faint ghost of the monument being there, but difficult to see, is interesting. I don’t think it has to be intentional to be good. 🙂 Even if your scanner doesn’t do multiple scans for high dynamic range, you can still just try scanning for the highlights. If that still gives you blank skies with no monument, then the details may not really be there at all in the neg. If it does get you the monument back, then you know you can recover it.

    1. Thanks Jeff! There is something about them, perhaps it’ll grow on me in time.
      I can see the monument on the negatives so I’m sure there’s a way! It’ll just take a bit more work figuring it out. I’m grateful for yours and everyone else’s suggestions!
      Thanks again!

  5. As a long-time architectural photographer, you need to wait for the right time of day and the right position of the sun before photographing buildings. There is no magic film or camera setting. You don’t photograph the Washington Monument straight on, with the sun at your back and expect to get a decent picture. You need to examine various sun angles and angles of view.

    1. I’m sure this is true but I was not after an architectural study. When time is limited while working with a temporary situation compromises must be made. The workflow you suggest might result in a lovely image but not necessarily the right one for that moment.

  6. Digitally: Scan it twice for highlights and shadows. Or, first try “developing” it different in Camera Raw and then merge the two files (same idea) or real shortcut, just use your history brush in a one stop shop, In the darkroom , flash sky/monument area and also use split filter technique both for burning and for base exposure. (Also known as high/low). Dodge the soldiers of course especially to get a little more detail on discernible features. Shortcuts on location ? Fill flash or reflector. Both create different looks so may not be desirable, Fill flash at very low power like 1/16th or less might have worked

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