Unseen Washington: Photographer David Deal sees the city's hidden side

Photographer David Deal goes deep into the city's true infrastructure.
By Steve Hendrix
Sunday, July 25, 2010

We know Washington as a city of words, not steel. Unlike other great American metropolises -- the belching hubs of industry that grew from riverside mills and deep-water ports -- this one was founded expressly as a seat of concepts, a factory of processes, a sleepless grinder of appeals and revisions. Washington: Rule Maker for the world, Brief Filer, Taker of Censuses, Player with Subparagraphs and the nation's Form Handler.

Our major industry is representation. The work may be riveting, but it doesn't feature many rivets. The work of Washington just doesn't lead the mind to ponder the literal machinery of the city, the brawny hidden infrastructure of the public sector.

As a bodily place, Washington is all about its marble game face, the pillars and blocks that serve as both the symbols of democracy and its physical plants. That's not true in other cities, where the supporting cast of tunnels and catwalks enjoys its own kind of grimy renown, a celebration of massive scale and urban prowess. In some places, an outright mythology shrouds the catacombs and underworlds that lie beneath the bustle. New York has crocodiles in its sewers. Washington has unnamed sources in its parking garages.

But there is a hidden infrastructure behind Washington, and David Deal sees it. Deal, a well-known Washington portrait and sports photographer, has more recently been braving cobwebs, dark stairs and hardened functionaries to seek out the cloaked, the abandoned, the restricted and the faded. Deal has long nursed a fascination with the District's endoskeleton, the utilitarian spaces that are as crucial to the working of the city as they are removed from its curbside appeal. As a onetime architecture student, he reveres these utilitarian nooks of the human environment. As a photographer, he exults in their magnitude.

"I love that these places are often bigger than the settings they support and no one ever sees them," Deal says. "Most people don't give a second thought to the scale of public works necessary to make a big city work."

Behold the hidden. Look up, as you are meant to do, at the soaring 100-foot-plus stone ceiling of Washington National Cathedral. Through Deal's lens, we see farther, into a space just beyond, vast in its own right, above the choir ceiling and beneath the leaden roof. It has a name, of course (cathedral builders are mad for labeling): an overcroft. It's the attic of God, a 30-foot vault laced with trusses and floored with the rough-cut stone ribs of those soaring interior arches. Here is the mighty rib cage of a great building, sheltered by a startlingly fine tracery of riveted steel. But it also is a spectral passage, with a flare of utility light beckoning us toward some ecclesiastical other side. In the detailed foreground of Deal's photo, individual trowel marks dating from 1917 are visible in the veneer of mortar over the stones, each one an eternally frozen moment of individual labor. A cathedral's grandeur is meant to evince a higher presence in human endeavors. But within the hand of God, Deal finds the fingerprints of an Italian stone mason. Somebody built this place.

That's the revelation of Deal's photographs, the big tools and strong hands that labored unheralded. There are no people in these scenes, but they are silently populated by generations of steamfitters and metalworkers and stonecutters who assembled the city, and the engineers and supers and valve readers who keep it running now. In the blower room, where dozens of fans the size of bungalows pump fresh air through the Third Street Tunnel, the scene is hospital-tidy, the floor clear beneath the massive shock-absorbing springs. Someone is taking care of things down there with the kind of safety-first, anal-retentive fuss we would want from the folks tending to our big machines -- if we were to think of them at all.

There's a comforting timelessness of these views of solid, old structures. As we load more and more of society's weight onto the gossamer of fiber optics, it's reassuring to note something as brutish and comprehensible as a concrete pillar, a well-maintained truss, the same burly plumbing that drained our grandfathers' tubs. Deal captures, and enlarges, this link to simpler days with a light that looks as though it was preserved in a Mason jar sealed in the 1940s. (His technique was the same for each of these photographs; he shot on 4x5 film stock with a Chamonix view camera using vintage Schneider lenses stopped to the smallest possible aperture and exposures of up to three minutes.)

Structural spaces are geometric by nature, and many of these images are elemental salutes to shape: the cochlear spiral stairway of the water tower at Fort Reno, the crescent sweep of the old trolley station beneath Dupont Circle, the twin disks of the Blue Plains settlement ponds. "There's a beauty in that pure functionality," he says.

And there's an elegance in the once-grand. Deal has a subcategory of interest in hidden spaces: the public places that now sit forlorn, abandoned and moldering invisibly, sometimes in plain sight. The most surprising of these is the old Uline Arena, a cavernous cylindrical dome in Northeast near the New York Avenue Metro station that is overlooked by thousands of Red Line commuters a day. A former hockey arena now doing duty as a filthy parking garage, it is an urban cavern with a remarkable pedigree: It was the site of the Beatles's first American concert. The boys set up just about where a Toyota Tundra with Virginia plates can be found on most work days.

Whatever the fate of the arena, which is owned by a developer and sits in a part of the city being hotly remade, Deal has ensured that it gets another moment of our notice. And we do see, turning our heads at the click of his shutter, surprised by these glimpses of the city's dark matter, the spaces that are everywhere around us, colossal and unseen.

Steve Hendrix is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at

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