beauty in brookland
April 9, 2017
Recently I was out shooting, as I often am, exploring a lesser-known neighborhood in Washington, D.C. called Brookland. I stopped on an overpass to take a picture of some train tracks in front of a giant brick building with “BROOKLAND” brushed across it in big white letters.
“Excuse me,” I heard a voice behind me say, “but is there beauty in that?”
A little confused, I pulled my camera away from my face, turned around, and asked the woman behind me what she meant. She went on to explain that she’d seen people taking pictures of that particular spot before, but she just didn’t see the beauty in it. I answered her honestly, but could see it wasn’t the answer she was looking for. I simply told her I supposed there was some kind of beauty in it for me, but that I couldn’t really answer that for her.
As I explored the rest of the neighborhood, I thought a lot about her question. Was there beauty in it? And also, did it matter? All photographs aren’t necessarily about beauty, after all. What I love about photography is its ability to tell a story, to illustrate a range of qualities, emotions, and moods. Whether or not there is beauty in a particular frame isn’t really the right question at all.
I walked around the neighborhood, contemplating this notion, and what it is that I actually do.
I had just visited the largest Catholic church in North America, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I’ve always harbored a great appreciation for churches. Maybe it’s because they’re beautiful in their grandeur, but for me it’s always had more to do with the story they tell.
I walked past houses decked out with religious statues and stained glass, and wondered what kind of neighborhood this was. The overwhelming number of “Choose Life” license plates and bumper stickers boasting prayer puns told me the Catholic University of America played a hand in defining the character of this part of town. I headed over to Smith Public Trust for some lunch, and thought over a beer while I took pictures on the patio.
As I hiked further into the northeast corner of the city, I found a Franciscan Monastery and toured its grounds and catacombs before heading out of Brookland. I took many more pictures, and wondered if there was beauty in any of them.
I circled back over to U Street for the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl. Snap snap snap. Then I hung out for a while at a bar called Right Proper for some beers and good company. Click click click.
All of the pictures I take are not about beauty, I finally resolved. And they don’t have to be. I had wandered deep into the northeast corner of D.C. to find some interesting parts of the city, beyond the obvious beauty and appeal of the National Mall. And that’s not to say that Brookland isn’t beautiful, or that there isn’t beauty to be found everywhere—I believe that there is, depending on how you define beauty, and how hard you are willing to look for it. Those are the things that I search for—and maybe there is beauty in them after all.