ON A clear afternoon not long ago I was lucky enough to be sitting at a window seat on the left side of a plane returning to Washington from Boston -- the right place to be at the right time, I suddenly realized, when the pilot locked the plane onto the Potomac River course heading southeast toward National Airport.
I knew what was coming, but even so my heart skipped at least one beat as the view appeared, laid beneath us like a perfect dream: the unique ensemble of buildings set in green, the magnificent kite-shape with the White House and the Jefferson Memorial at its lateral tips and the awe-inspiring spine from Lincoln to Washington to Grant to the great white dome of the Capitol.
I won't soon forget the experience. If the view was breathtaking, the reaction of my fellow passengers was positively astonishing. The tight little cabin of the plane became a cylinder of excited sound as they stretched and crouched and leaned to see from the tiny windows, clapping and cheering: "Bravo! Bravo!"
If Washington has ever had a madly appreciative audience, this was it, I thought, and only as we touched down at National did I realize what actually had occurred. The other passengers were still chattering away enthusiastically -- in French -- and I remembered having stood aside in Logan Airport while the large group was ushered onto the plane, obviously the final connecting link of an international flight from Paris.
To this day I wonder about the mixture of emotions that provoked the spontaneous outburst: flight fatigue, for sure, and a sudden recognition of Paris in Washington in the sweeping lines of the city's monumental core, and maybe even a foretaste of things to come. Most likely French people are taught in school that the capital of the United States was planned by a Frenchman. And then, many people hold preconceived notions of the capital city as a thing of shining beauty.
The incident came back to me as I leafed through "Washington, D.C.," a sumptuous new book of color photographs published by Abrams at a sumptuous price: $50. There is a certain amount of the real Washington in this book, for it is at least partly true, as J.C. Suares says in his introduction, that the camera "knows no prejudice and never passes judgment," but it is more than anything else a collection of dreamy color images (136 in all, taken by 47 different photographers), a sort of super souvenir book confirming archetypal images of the place: the Capitol is photographed magnificently a hundred times it seems, the Lincoln Memorial almost as often.
All great cities are subject to such fawning by photograph -- Manhattan's skyscrapers in 100 variations, San Francisco's foggy hills, the charm of Parisian boulevards and cafes -- and yet the result is almost always disappointing. Is this because, if you know the city, the reality of it is a hundred times more vivid, a thousand times more complex? Or simply because repetition fazes the brain, or because the formula (one "people" shot for every two archetypal views) is so predictable?
Or is it that the mind's image is so bright, even a beautiful photograph can't come close to it? Sometimes I think that I imagined the applause that day on the plane, and yet it really happened, and Washington really is a splendid city.