I never thought I'd find myself lying near a flower bed behind the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. That kind of behavior could definitely raise a few eyebrows in Washington. But here I am, and I'm not alone - five other people are stretched out beside me.
Don't get the wrong idea. We're not up to anything illicit. We're on the ground, cameras in hand, on the orders of E. David Luria, a photographer leading us on a Washington Photo Safari.
Luria swears that we can get a great shot of the building from this angle. And because we've all paid him for just that kind of advice, we drop to the ground and start focusing. As I get the circa-1888 structure (the former home of the State, War and Navy departments) in my sights, I can hear Luria behind us, shouting tips and checking our form.
Luria, whose photos have appeared in more than 80 national and regional publications such as Time and Washingtonian, as well as on many postcards sold around D.C., has conducted his photo safaris since 1999.
"Washington, D.C., is one of the most beautiful and photogenic cities in the world," he says. "I wanted to create a unique opportunity for people to learn how to take postcard-quality pictures."
Every Wednesday and Saturday morning, Luria offers his basic "Monuments and Memorials" workshop, a 3 1/2 -hour outing to such popular sites as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Union Station.
Up close and personal
On a recent Saturday, I join a half-dozen other amateur shutterbugs in Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, where Luria begins his tutorial. He asks us to demonstrate how we hold our cameras, and he sees that we need some pointers.
"Make a table out of your left hand, wrap your fingers around the lens and focus from the bottom. When you hold the camera correctly, you look like a professional," he says.
Michele Marx of Crofton is happy to get Luria's advice. Several photos she took recently had dark shadows in them because her finger sometimes blocked the flash. "I thought I knew how to hold a camera," she says. "But in the first five minutes, I've found out what I've been doing wrong."
Our next lesson: how to avoid taking "typical tourist pictures." With the help of some visual aids, Luria stresses the importance of identifying subjects. "Don't put your subject in the middle of the picture. And you don't need stick figures," he says, standing awkwardly at attention with his hands by his side. "If you want a picture of a person, get up close."
For photographing people, he recommends that we have them stand to the side and turn their bodies toward the camera, which proves more flattering than photographing them straight on. That goes for buildings too, which Luria says also look better at an angle.
"A squirrel's a perfectly fine subject," he notes, holding a close-up photo of one. "But you have to get down on the ground where the squirrel is." Ditto for taking pictures of kids.
"Good pictures can be taken with any camera," he adds. "They're all just boxes that let light in." Safari participants can use any type of camera, from disposable to digital, although on this day most of us tote the 35 mm variety.
As I approach our first subject - Clark Mills' equestrian statue of President Andrew Jackson in the center of the square - I try to remember Luria's tips. I survey the area, noticing where the sun hits the bronze horse and rider. I look for ways to frame the statue with trees or buildings. I make sure to aim from different angles. After a few minutes, we gather like school kids around Luria, who shows us the pictures he took with his digital camera and points out why some work and some don't.
Normally, we'd also photograph the White House. But since Pennsylvania Avenue is under construction (a security improvement/beautification project), we head to our next stop, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
While there, we not only get down on the sidewalk, we also climb on the base of the nearby First Division Monument (a column honoring members of the U.S. Army's First Division killed in World War I). Standing on higher ground allows us to photograph the entire building without angling the camera up.
We get a few strange looks from people, but Luria assures us it will all be worth it.
On the grounds of the American Red Cross headquarters across 17th Street, we stop at Motherland, a statue commemorating the Red Cross response to Armenia's devastating 1988 earthquake. Sculpted by Frederic Sogoyan, it features a mother protectively cradling her baby. Luria encourages us to take photos from various angles, both to capture the mother's facial expression and to practice our portrait-taking techniques.
"Statues are people frozen in time," he says.