Photographers Need Flashlights to Illuminate Museum

By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

Not doing anything Saturday night? You, your flashlight, your friends and their flashlights are invited to the National Museum of the American Indian at 7:45 for a communal art project of the most unusual sort. No registration necessary -- just bring some sort of lighting device.

As volunteers shine their lights on the limestone exterior of the museum, married photographers Dawn Tower DuBois and Bill DuBois will perch on 15-foot-high scaffolding and take a time-lapse photo of the building, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this week.

Since 1987, Dawn and Bill, both of whom teach photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, have teamed up with fellow RIT professor Michael Peres to take flashlight-illuminated pictures of various buildings.

They've dubbed their mission the RIT Big Shot Project, a name that alludes to the "Big Shots" organized in the 1950s by the Hygrade Sylvania Corp., which manufactured flashbulbs. Sylvania would rig up various buildings (including Egypt's Khufu Pyramid) with miles of wiring and flashbulbs and invite crowds and photographers to watch the bulbs ignite.

The RIT Big Shot was initially masterminded by Bill DuBois and Peres as a way to teach their medical photography students about the use of flash. Since then, this photographic venture -- supported by Nikon, RIT and others -- has taken them from Rochester to the Alamo, New York City, Croatia and the Erie Canal.

When the team traveled to Stockholm in 2003 to shoot the Swedish Royal Palace, King Carl XVI Gustaf was so pleased by the resulting photo that he put it on the front of his Christmas cards for the next two years and had the lighting around his palace reworked to resemble what Big Shot's volunteers had created.

Bill, 62, and Dawn, 58, first decided they wanted to bring the Big Shot to the Museum of the American Indian after visiting the striking, seemingly undulating building last year. Since this Big Shot is part of the museum's fifth anniversary festivities, many members of the Native American community are expected to turn out.

Jamie Gomez, a member of Alaska's Tlingit tribe who works in Washington at the National Congress of the American Indian, plans on bringing her two sons, ages 6 and 9, to the event.

"They're very excited," says Gomez, 33. "They're trying to convince me to let them each bring two flashlights."

Gomez, who will be carrying a flashlight herself, says she'll tote extra batteries in a backpack, just in case.

"To be able to go and get a picture afterwards and say we were there, I think that'll be really neat," she says. Volunteers who give their addresses to Big Shot will be sent a complimentary copy of the photo.

A warm, communal event to be sure, but the Big Shot may well prompt the question: Why flashlights? Why not just . . . one big light?

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