Dawn approaches. On Eighth Street NE, the only chirping comes from the smoke alarm with the drained batteries at the top of the stairwell in a short brick duplex. An agitated pit bull-Labrador named Precious scampers around John Johnson, 22, as he turns on his point-and-shoot camera. John’s older brother, Lewis, stirs on the couch.
“I’m going out,” John says.
“Mmmkayhrmph,” Lewis answers, turning to face the cushions.
John opens the front door and steps out into the quiet tension of his neighborhood’s final sleep cycle. He looks left, then right, his dreadlocks whipping. He decides to go left, at 4:40 a.m., to see what he can see through his lens.
First, a roadside tree split in half by wind or lightning, across from Catholic University. John holds up his camera and snaps a photo of its splintery break.
“I see a damaged, beaten tree, but I do not see it destroyed,” he says. “I wanted to capture it in case they tear it down.”
For three years now, at least once a week, John has ventured into Brookland during what he calls the most captivating, least viewed hours of the day to indulge his passion for photography. He started his hobby after taking a course in an after-school program. Now that he works a dishwashing job — which, on the weekends, lets him out just before sunrise — John has become especially acquainted with the dying night around Brookland.
Neighborhoods change in small ways every day, John says, so he likes to capture and preserve details before they disappear, before the sun rises.
He walks onto the median at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street NE. A traffic light shines redness on a bough of leaves. John raises his camera above his head and zooms. Click.
The gnarled base of an uprooted tree. Click.
A manhole cover bathed in orange floodlight. Click.
The spokes of bicycles lined up in a row. Click.
One of the first photos that John took was of his mother’s lawn chair, the one she sat in when she was feeling good, the one from which she’d chat with neighbors. She died three years ago from compounding health problems and a bad heart, and now it’s just John and his two older brothers in the house. He took the photo of her chair to help him remember who used to be in it.
The joggers are outside first. Then the Metro drivers, moving NOT IN SERVICE buses into position by the Brookland station. John ventures into a shadowy grove of trees off Seventh Street NE and aims his camera up at black branches framing the navy sky.
“The opening to the sky is almost heavenly to me,” he says. Click.
He stops at an Exxon to buy a Mountain Dew. In the middle of 10th Street NE, he takes a photo of a flattened aluminum soda can. One day, he’ll go to photography school. Maybe he’ll be a National Geographic photographer. Or a psychologist who does street photography on the side.
First, he’ll get his GED. Classes start at the end of the month. He’ll keep managing his learning disability and dyslexia. He’ll keep taking photos and printing them in his room. He has more than 800 photos stored on his computer. He and his brother Lewis, an aspiring hip-hop artist, are collaborating on a booklet called “Photos and Verses: Stop and Look.”
At 6:02 a.m., half of the eastern sky is baby blue. A curtain of clouds covers the other half, except for a gash on the horizon that bleeds pink. John stands on the bridge over the Metro tracks, the bronchial honk of the Red Line echoing underneath.
Click. The photo comes out almost entirely black.
“If I had a good camera, that’d be something special,” he says, eyes trained on the horizon, where scarlet light begins to rupture the clouds. “I think that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Traffic swells along Monroe. Sparrows twirl upward. The sun hasn’t yet risen, but it’s no longer night.
Most people don’t get to see the sunrise, John says, so that’s why he takes pictures. So there’s a record.
“For anyone who’s feeling down, wait a couple hours and the sun will rise, and then you have a whole other day to do good things,” he says.
John walks back to Eighth Street NE, over the sidewalk he’s memorized, and sits on his stoop, near where his mother used to be on good days. He watches dawn shimmer into day and then goes inside to sleep.