Each year I return to my hometown around the time that the sakura Japanese Cherry Blossom trees bloom around the Potomac River Tidal Basin within West Potomac Park in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. It’s a gigantic tourist draw: folks from all over come to revel in the changing of the seasons. The past few years have also seen what I can only describe as an exponential increase in photographers as well, which I’ll add, is not a bad thing by any means (except perhaps for the joggers who seem to think that running along the basin despite the throngs of tourists and tripods is still a wise decision–I guess it’s just a stubborn stand of principal or something). One of the more amusing behaviors that I’ve taken note of over the past few years goes something like this…setup tripod, frame shot, watch a handful of phone, IPhone, and tripod photographers move over your shoulder to see what you’re looking at. I get a kick out of it. Sometimes, if I’m being honest, I just screw around with the whole thing, setting up and aiming my camera at the oddest things–like a light post–to see if anyone will rush over to shoot this amazing find that I apparently found amidst the feeding frenzy of activity!
As fun as it can be at times though, from a creative standpoint the Cherry Blossom Festival is always more of a disappointment than a fulfilling exercise for me. Its not that the scene is unattractive–the trees and the monuments make for really beautiful scenics; it’s the atmosphere that is not good for me personally. There’s no adventure; no work; the process is one giant shortcut with the main attraction severely overcrowded. In a strange way, it brought to memory my experiences at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains where lines of cars would crowd together and inch along a perimeter road in search of bears–just odd and unnatural feeling at its core. I would much rather walk the Potomac River Tidal Basin unencumbered than to drag my gear around and seemingly be in everyone’s way simultaneously as I block sidewalks or picnics or jogging parties with my splayed tripod legs and back breaking pack. Real estate can be precious down there when the trees are flowering and the busses are unloading the masses one after the other. You see, for me photography is about feeling, both conveying it to a viewer, but also, and more importantly–perhaps prerequisite–feeling something myself before I ever engage the camera. Other photographers have described the feeling as “magic” and I think that sums it up about as well as any descriptor. Something in the landscape–whether it be a waterfall, river, vista, pattern or even the atmospheric conditions themselves–has to impart a feeling onto me as a photographer first and foremost. A confirmation that I’ve found something special, something unique, something worth communicating through a photograph, something magic. And that’s where the Cherry Blossoms typically fall apart for me. The drive into the city is hectic; the parking a mess; the amount of people impossible to work around without being in someone’s way or vice versa and so on. It’s just too much for me to find my creative pocket. For the most part, I’m happy just seeing it as a tourist and viewing other photographers’ work.
With that said, I seem to always make my way down to the event, camera gear in tow, to learn my lessons over and over again. This year, my first trip down was on a dreary Thursday morning where the winds were a nuisance to sharp photography and the skies did little to add anything worthwhile to the frame. Most of my personal concerns were validated and I walked away, again, with nothing to show for the effort. It was technically the PEAK conditions on that day. Unlike many folks though, I’ve never cared for peak. My favorite photographs of the Tidal Basin Cherry Blossoms (and this translates to lots of other similar subjects as well) is the day that the trees begin to drop their bounty onto the ground. It was when I started to see posting on Facebook claiming that “it’s over,” or “the Cherry Blossoms are done,” that I began to perk up at the thought of getting back down there!
About a week after my initial trip, a Wednesday, April 15th, I returned for another crack. And this time, unlike years of previous attempts, I actually found some magic! Whether or not I translated any of that to a frame is another story altogether. It started with an easy drive into the city and primo parking along Ohio Drive. The previous weekend had seen the technical end to the weeks-long Cherry Blossom Festival. Most folks were likely headed back out of town and as I mentioned, the word on the street was that the blossoms were done, cooked. The prior evening it had rained pretty hard and consistently, so I knew that the conditions would be weighted more heavily towards nature, which excited me. I crossed the wet grasses of the public baseball fields behind the Roosevelt Memorial and descended to the waterfront walkway. The blue color spectrum of morning had yet to fully infiltrate the darkness of night. Instead of people and tripods, I found abundant standing water reflecting calmly the trees above (once the National Park Service arrives at first light an individual works a broom to push all this water back off the walks and into the Tidal Basin). My first visitor was a beaver, swimming nonchalantly alongside the walk. Without warning or concern, he decided to hop up onto the sidewalk, a slippery black shape before me, working and chattering his teeth as if to floss out the morning’s meal. Just down the walk I made out two more beavers. Wildlife in D.C.? This was surely an odd morning. But perhaps, this was just the magic that would put me into a creative mindset! They showed just about no interest in me as I passed other than as a potential nuisance to their morning routine. As the blue hour of morning set in, it was clear that the fallen bloom had blanketed everything, from the walks to the benches to the handrails (it was downright slippery along the granite in places). It was without a doubt, a magical scene. Unlike any I had personally encountered in Washington D.C. before.
As an unaccomplished night shooter, I didn’t do a great job capturing any of those early conditions, but once the sun came up I did work a section of walk around the tidal basin that I had scouted and shot during the autumn color change a few months back (did you know that the cherry trees turn orange in autumn?). I loved the drape of the trees and the gnarly stance of the trunks along the waterway. There were considerable increases in crowds once the light emerged, but I guess the events of the morning had me shooting relatively hard regardless. It was just enough magic to make for a great morning and likely just enough to have me dragging my feet back down to next years’ festivities to see what I can find! Below you can see a handful of my takes from the morning of April 15th. Hope everyone is getting out and about and enjoying the spring season!