Bob Cullen Photography | A Summer Morning in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

A Summer Morning in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

July 20, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Washington has some world-renowned splendors and some that are so obscure as to be almost hidden. Everyone knows about the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin. When they come out in late March or early April, the tour buses line up and unload, and you have to be careful not to be jostled into the water. I like the cherry blossoms, but, like any good Washingtonian, I relish the places in the city where buses never line up. Places like the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in the far reaches of the District, by the banks of the Anacostia River.

A Civil War veteran named Walter Shaw bought the land that now holds the gardens back in the 1880s. According to the National Park Service, Shaw was from Maine and he missed the water lilies he used to see in the ponds up there. He started planting tropical flowers, particularly lotuses and water lilies that need to stand in water. For them, he built a series of ponds delineated by raised dirt walkways, almost like rice paddies in Southeast Asia. In the 1930s, Congress bought the gardens from his daughter for $15,000. They came under the purview of the Parks Service, just like Yellowstone and Yosemite.

But though they were in the middle of a growing metropolitan area, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens were not nearly as often visited as the parks in the remote reaches of the American West. One reason, I am sure, is that the neighborhood immediately around the park became black and poor. It is still black and poor, filled with low-rise public housing, auto body shops, and other establishments that marked it as a no-go zone for many white suburbanites. Despite free admission, the KAG remained a bit of a secret. When I go, I usually see no more than a dozen people,

Recently, the numbers seem to have ticked upward. Maybe gentrification, for all its flaws, has made white people more willing to venture into black neighborhoods. Maybe social media and the internet have spread the word of the gardens more than the Parks Service could. For the last few years, the Parks Service has even organized a little week-long Lotus and Water Lily Festival in mid-July, when the flowers are at their peak.

The lotus is a venerated, even sacred object in Hindu culture. The flower, when it opens, sits high above the murky waters from which the stem emerges. It's easy to understand why, for Hindus, the lotus can symbolize the potential for beauty and enlightenment to spring from the turbidity of human nature. The other flora of the gardens, while perhaps not quite as spectacular as the lotus, are all beautiful in their own ways.

As a photographer, though, I prefer shooting the fauna of the gardens, particularly the winged kinds. The gardens abound in bees, butterflies and dragonflies. They're tougher to capture than a lotus blossom (like the one at the top of this post). The lotus blossoms stay where they are, and it's pretty easy to make a beautiful image. The winged creatures dart about, and the approach of a photographer seems often to make them particularly skittish. 

On top of that, they're tough for my auto-focus lenses to capture. I can point the camera at a dragonfly, but the lens and sensor may see a point of greater contrast behind or in front of the dragonfly and fix on that point. I get a blur red dragonfly. Or I don't manage to get my monopod on the ground and my lens pointed before creatures fly away. On a summer morning in the gardens, I will see a dozen interesting pictures of bees and dragonflies in action for every one that I manage to get into the camera.

Still, at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, it's impossible to spend an hour and not come back with some good images.



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