Letters From London

Photograph by Matthew Summers-Sparks

Dense Photography

Snapshots from a trip can seal a memory forever, yet boxes of vacation photos dilute what really happened. How to take a picture with a thousand meanings.

I had probably the biggest idea I’ve ever had concerning photography as I stood at my and my wife’s usual post-work meeting place, the corner of Tothill Street and Storey’s Gate, on a chilly late-November evening. Across the street, spotlights coated the front of Westminster Abbey with white light, setting it in sharp contrast to the dark navy-blue sky. Coronation site of kings and queens, holder of state funerals, and 750 years old, the Abbey is also pretty. In the two months I’d worked in the neighborhood, I’d snapped two dozen photos of it.

As I framed what would become my mildly groundbreaking photo, I realized that, along with the Abbey, part of the Houses of Parliament was visible in the camera’s screen. If I shifted a couple of paces to the right I could also include Big Ben and even part of the London Eye, the huge Ferris wheel on the opposite side of the Thames. By stepping into Tothill Street, I could cram an iconic British phone booth into the shot, as well as a double-decker bus and a London taxi, which rolled into the scene every minute or so, and the corner of the Methodist Central Hall Westminster—the building where, in 1946, the U.N. General Assembly first met. I snapped the photo.

What I captured isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing photo; rather, it was the first example of my new approach to taking pictures, which I’ve taken to calling “dense photography.” Rather than a simple shot of the Abbey standing stark against a night sky, I had the Abbey standing stark against a night sky, plus the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, a double-decker bus, a London taxi, and the birthplace of the United Nations mashed into one glorious shot.

As mildly revolutionary as this technique might be, I have the sense I stumbled upon it too late.

Four years ago, shortly after acquiring our first digital camera, my wife Carolee and I went on a weeklong vacation, throughout which, finally freed from the restraints of wasting film, I snapped shots with wild abandon. When we returned home and printed our favorites, the stack wound up filling four one-inch-deep boxes, which we hauled out to my grandparents’ kitchen table the following weekend.

After my grandmother had looked at a couple pictures—”That’s pretty,” or “That’s nice,” were her responses—she glanced at the small wall of boxes yet to view and was overwhelmed.

“Wow,” she said. “You sure took an awful lot of pictures!”

She’s who I thought of after shooting that first dense photo. She passed away two years ago, but I like to think that if I’d shown her, say, just four dense photos of our vacation, no matter how poorly composed, she’d have enjoyed the show more.


* * *

Now, instead of snapping several photos of several things, I also take occasional, “dense” photos of many things. I have also developed this dense-photography walking tour of London, which allows you to compress many of the sites of this beautiful city into just four handy photographs:

Photograph 1

Snap the photo described above, shot from the corner of Tothill Street and Storey’s Gate (preferably during the colder months, when leafy tree branches won’t fully block the London Eye).

Photograph 2

Stroll down Storey’s Gate, cross Great George Street and continue up Horseguard’s Parade and walk along St. James’s Park. At the Mall, scuttle into the street, then turn to your left and snap a photo of St. James’s Park and, in the distance, the Victoria Memorial, and Buckingham Palace.

Photograph 3

Return to the sidewalk and walk away from Buckingham Palace, toward Trafalgar Square. In front of King Charles’ statue, near Whitehall, snap a shot of the square, which is anchored by Nelson’s Column and flanked by statues of several leaders and four giant lions, plus an entrance to a Tube stop, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the National Gallery with a modestly sized statue of George Washington on its lawn. Snap the shot when one of the few old-style double-decker buses, the Routemaster, rumbles into the frame.

Photograph 4

Walk down Northumberland Street, walk along the Victoria Embankment, beside the Thames. From the east side of the Waterloo Bridge, snap a photo of six more sites, including the Thames, the Tate Modern, the South Bank, the OXO building, the Gherkin, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.


* * *

While I appreciate the closely packed nature of dense photography, what I enjoy most are the memories and idiosyncratic elements that can be incorporated into the shots. For example, my sister Miranda and her longtime boyfriend Alex were our first family members to visit from the U.S. They arrived on Thanksgiving morning, and we made pieces of a traditional Thanksgiving meal: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, and a fresh pumpkin pie.

(In late October, we realized canned pumpkin was not in most grocery stores or supermarkets, so Carolee decided to carve, roast, and drain pumpkins herself. Right from the first pie—we would make six from late October through Thanksgiving—the dessert was ideal, a treasure. Two of the pie’s first tasters, a couple from France, subsequently requested a copy of the recipe. I emailed the endorsement to my mother—Carolee used my grandmother’s recipe, the same grandmother who got tired of so many photos. My mom printed the message and gave it to my grandfather, who seemed proud that his wife’s recipe was becoming popular internationally, something that will probably never happen with dense photography.)

In the new photo, everyone stayed where they were, but Miranda turned her head from the camera, so she was looking at the river with her jaw slack. Late that afternoon, a clear, windy day that was chilly enough to call for caps and gloves, we began to share with Miranda and Alex some of our favorite areas in the city, walking from the south side of Westminster Bridge toward the Houses of Parliament.

As we walked across the bridge, I asked Miranda, Alex, and Carolee to pose for a modestly dense photo with the Houses of Parliament in the background, along with the Victoria House, Big Ben, a London taxicab, a bus, and the Thames.

I snapped the shot, then Miranda said, “Try one like this, too.”

In the new photo, everyone stayed where they were, but Miranda turned her head from the camera, so she was looking at the river with her jaw slack. It’s an echo of one of my sisters’ and my favorite photos, taken after our family’s visit to Meramec Caverns near St. Louis in the mid-’80s.

On that trip, after about 100 of us had toured the cavern, the park’s photographer arranged us on risers; he was making a souvenir photo. Looking at the print, my family was perched in the upper-left corner, buffeted by 95 strangers. While my mother, sisters, and I smiled dutifully, straight at the camera, my father, positioned at the end of the riser, well, we’re not sure what happened. In the instant the photo was snapped, he was in profile, looking away from the camera, toward something beyond the photo’s white border. What, exactly, caught his attention is a mystery—he claims he can’t remember what he saw—but the reason my sisters and I chide him about the photo is his expression: His jaw is slack, his mouth wide open, as if whatever caught his attention was so unbelievable that he lost control of his mouth.

So while his expression might have been a yawn—a consequence of taking us all on a day-long outing—the photo is open to interpretation: He looks to be shocked by what he sees beyond the photo’s frame, as if he’s seen a battalion of crazed gorillas emerge from Meramec Caverns, angrily rumbling toward the rest of us. After an ensuing ruckus, zoologists and police would look at the photo and say that those of us smiling so stupidly never would have had a chance against the angry apes had it not been for one resourceful man. “There’s just one guy who had the sense to notice what was going on with those gorillas,” the chief would say, gazing at the photo, before the pointing decisively, squarely at my father, mouth agape, recognizing the approaching gorillas. “One man was aware of his surroundings and he saved 99 lives today. Good thing he found that pile of bananas.”

In the photo we shot on Thanksgiving, Carolee and Alex smile straight into the camera as Miranda apes our father’s pose from 20 years ago at Meramec Caverns, staring down the Thames at a squadron of crazy gorillas paragliding toward the bridge—and only she can warn us. With that extra layer of memory pressed against the day and the dense sights of London, I steady the frame and click.