Steven Gottlieb, like other successful Americans, wanted to give it all up, throw away the whole thing: the three-piece suits, the briefcase, the testimony before congressional committees, the career in law and its codicils, the family sedan, the regular hours. And the ache that burned his insides with his question: "What do I want to be when I grow up?"

In a mid-passage crisis, Gottlieb, 38, an attorney-turned-corporate executive, quit.

"I wanted to be passionate about my work," said Gottlieb. "I knew for sure I wanted to be a photographer when I began to dream about shooting pictures. I never dreamed about points of law."

Now Gottlieb has arrived. At least he's reached one important destination on his passage: "Washington: Portrait of a City," a remarkable book of photographs literally showing Washington in a different light. The first printing sold out before its June 1 publication date.

In three weeks of May, here's what he received: a glamorous $1,000-a-day assignment as a free-lance photographer; a van with a roof deck from which to shoot; two Leica cameras and six lenses on loan from Leitz; a one-man photo show in Washington's Midtown Gallery (1630 Connecticut Ave. NW through June 16); the right to wear blue jeans to work; the full support of his wife, attorney Louise Mathews; more time to play with and photograph their sons Jason, 4, and Brian, 8; a trip to Israel to play in and photograph the tennis tournament in the Maccabiah Games; free tennis rackets; after 25 couch hours the approval of his therapist; and the mystified surprise of his photographer-writer father.

Not long ago in his pleasant Chevy Chase, D.C., house, Gottlieb talked business on two telephone lines alternately while sending the housekeeper out to deliver copies of his photographs. His wife was at her law firm, where she practices real estate law 50 hours a week.

Slickly mounted photographs hang on the walls of the living room. Tennis trophies parade across the shelf above the door in the small sitting room.

In Gottlieb's basement studio-study there are more pictures on the wall, including a photograph of him as a child and a portrait of a jazz musician by his father, a calendar by a photographer who shoots western subjects, and the photograph of his colleagues wearing false noses. A desk, a sofa, a wall of books. Where's the darkroom?

"I don't have one. Like a lot of photographers who only shoot color, I trust to Kodak. I worship Kodachrome. I send the slides down to a Florida studio for enlargements."

Gottlieb is the new breed of color photographer, who leads a life in the light, planning each shot in detail, not relying on the second chance of the darkroom.

He was 5 years old when his father William Gottlieb, a writer and a still and film photographer, told him the time had come for him to go to work.

Gottlieb was his father's model, smiling and playing through eight books and 100 filmstrips, as well as serving as his father's gofer. The boy got to hold his checks briefly before they went into his college fund. At 14, a year or two after he had his own camera, his father fired him as a model. "He said I was over the hill. I guess I had lost that look of innocence he needed."

Steven Gottlieb says now he thinks he went to law school as a way of distancing himself from his father. "I was trying to find something of my own. A silly thing. If you have a talent, you should use it. It's sad it took me so long."

As a kid, he says, "I was argumentative, articulate. Everybody said I should be a lawyer. In law school, I realized I didn't like law. But I'd spent all that money and all that time. So I thought I should give it a try -- a big Wall Street law firm, Wald, Harkrader & Ross; the Office of Management and Budget; director of environment for United States Synthetic Fuels Corporation."

"The salary was good. I traveled. The work was interesting. I liked the people. Yet I had a deep sense of malaise. I didn't want just another job."

He remembered the lessons of his family: "My grandfather was Jacob Potofsky, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. I went on conventions with him. He was so wrapped up in what he did, he ignored the rest of the world."

His father, he said, "likes what he does. What he does matters." Now Gottlieb has realized "I absorbed so much from my father."

Recently, the son had a sudden assignment to shoot a cavernous warehouse, something that would take the lighting team of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to illuminate. He called his father. "Fifteen minutes of coaching from my father and I could handle it."

His new enterprise isn't his first attempt at breaking away.

In 1979 he started Photo-Graphics Gallery, showing the work of other photographers. "My wife thought it was a terrible idea. She was right," he says. "I promised that after a year, if it didn't work I'd go back and make an honest living. I lost $15,000 in 14 months. As she pointed out, I also lost the $38,000 salary I would have made. The failure of the gallery hurt me deeply and the shock continued."

So he went back to work as general counsel for the Synfuels Corp. and became director of its department of environment. He liked the job and took lots of photographs, including one of his colleagues wearing false noses (except one whose nose was big enough) at a congressional hearing.

Yet photography was always there, the seducer of the sedate lawyer.

Early in the morning, late at night, weekends and holidays, like a man with a mistress or a secret vice, Gottlieb took pictures.

"I thought for a while I could do it part time. I did a couple of assignments on weekends, holidays. But I couldn't juggle it. I felt too divided. For a while, my wife's reaction was that I should wait a year and be sure.

"I shot pictures for five years. I put them all together into a prototype of the kind of book I wanted to publish. Then a friend talked Al Hackel at Acropolis Press into giving me 10 minutes. When he finished looking at my prototype, he offered me a contract. I designed the book to juxtapose pictures to set up a vibration, like music, tuning forks, to meld together into something new."

As a photographer, he's not really interested in photographing Life. "I don't have the desire to photograph misery in Ethiopia. Not that I don't see poverty and anguish. But I have a positive view of things. I want to show beauty, solid and permanent."

His view is not always reality. He photographs patterns, details, contrived, arranged, assembled, abstracted. "I'm trying to capture the essence of the subject. Most photographers talk about the light, the texture, the form. I'm trying to focus on the heart."

His images of Washington are all his own.

Driving by the Department of Housing and Urban Development building, he saw that each raindrop on his car windshield "was a little lens, but the day was too gloomy for the depth of field I needed. So I went back on a brilliant day and sprayed water on the windshield and shot through it."

He photographed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by stepping back and letting the whole Washington monument reflect in it. He shot the Kennedy Center's Hall of Nations from a seven-foot ladder. He made a double exposure of scaffolding for the old Willard Hotel and its sign. He waited more than an hour to capture the picture of a man with a briefcase going into the Supreme Court. His only problem as a photographer is his fear of heights. His first commercial job was riding 10 stories up in a crane.

Gottlieb received a $2,000 advance on the book and plowed most of that back into buying copies of the book. He shared his percentage with the author of the text and introduction, art critic Frank Getlein.

Even considering that he'd made no great financial windfall, his wife was convinced by the book. "I didn't say to her I wanted to be a professional photographer. She said to me, 'Why don't you think about it? If you hesitate because you don't think I'd like it, you're wrong. I'll support you in this.' That opened my mind. I realized there was no question for me. I was ready."

Now what's the possibility he'll give up photography for his other passion, tennis?

In 1982, Gottlieb ranked No. 1 in the 35-and-over age group in the Middle Atlantic region. He and his father have won father-son doubles competitions all over the region. He will represent the United States in the Maccabiah Games (an Olympics-style event in which Jews around the world compete) in Israel next month.

At the moment, he's hurt his back again and he's off the court, a severe discomfort for him. "Tennis is like sex for me," he says. But still, he adds, "I knew I would never be a big-time tennis player. But I think I can be a big-time photographer. I would trade all my tennis trophies for this book. Well, maybe not all of them."