Solar Alignment

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Sunrise, Lincoln Memorial, March 20, 2013

               I sometimes think of the planet earth as a spaceship carrying its passengers through the universe or, more accurately, in an orbit around a star we call the sun.  In less than two weeks, our earth will reach a significant moment in its orbit, known to those of us in the northern hemisphere as the vernal equinox.  In non-technical terms, this is the time when the two bodies are perfectly aligned, essentially face-to face.  Neither northern nor southern hemispheres are tilted away from the sun and the day is the same length as the night.  This year, that moment will occur at 12:57 EDT on March 20.

                Over the millennia the spring equinox has been celebrated in many cultures as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration.  As a photographer in Washington, DC it symbolizes the phenomenon of solar alignment.  This is the time of year when the relationship of the sun to the architectural plan of the city becomes really interesting.  On the day of the equinox, the sun will rise at due east on the compass.  The city’s layout, based on Pierre l’Enfant’s original plan, put the Mall on an east-west axis.  For example, a line drawn due west  from the center of the US Capitol Building will pass through the center of the Washington Monument and the center of the Lincoln Memorial.

                Why is that important to photographers?  Because that is the only time of year that an image like the one above is possible.  Most photographers know that the golden light of a perfect sunrise lasts for only a few minutes after the sun clears the horizon.  But on almost every day of the year, the sun rises at an angle that will cast a shadow across the statue of Lincoln inside the monument—a shadow caused by the columns in front of the statue.  But on a few days around the equinox, the sun during those golden moments is located at due east or close enough to it, that the light passes directly into the interior and perfectly illuminates the statue. Image

Sunrise, March 20, 2011

                 If conditions are perfect at the critical time, and it is rare that they are, you will have about 20 seconds to catch the statue with the shadows just brushing the left and right edges of chair on which Lincoln is seated. In the photographs above, you’ll see that the shadows are not quite perfectly aligned.  That is because one or more people were obstructing the view of the statue.  Nevertheless, I had better luck a few days before the fall equinox of 2001.  Ironic, because this was my first attempt of the solar alignment at the Lincoln Memorial.

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Sunrise, Lincoln Memorial, September 14, 2001

                There are other examples of solar alignment in the city, some intentional and others more likely an accident.  Some have disappeared as new buildings have been erected or other obstacles to the sun’s light have appeared.  One example is the Andrew W. Mellon fountain located at the tip of the Federal Triangle where Pennsylvania Avenue and Constitution Avenue intersect.  The fountain’s basin is decorated with the signs of the zodiac positioned so the sign of Aires is touched by the sunrise on the day of the vernal equinox and faces the sun from then until April 20th. (Source: James M. Goode, Washington Sculpture, Johns Hopkins University Press, page 447)  Unfortunately, the effect is difficult to appreciate because the fountain has not been well maintained and the branches of the trees are increasingly obstructing the sunlight.

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Sunrise, March 21, 2010

           A few minutes later, I captured the image below which was taken just on the west side of the little park where the Mellon fountain is located.

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Sunrise, Federal Trade Commission Building March 21, 2010

One thought on “Solar Alignment

  1. Pingback: It was a good plan, but…. | photographybykent

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