The Ugly Business of Capturing Beauty

by Brett Davis, ’17

Dill.Color (2).jpgI’m crouching in the soil next to a dill plant, dirtying the business casual pants that have no sane place in a humid D.C. summer. Beads of sweat, turned milky from sunscreen that’s given up the fight, drip onto my camera screen. This, in turn, blocks my view of the dill that I’m determined to present glamorously. After loud sighs and soft profanity, I finally give up and sit down—in good company amongst the bugs that’ll soon start crawling up my legs.

Videography is ugly business.

With any luck (not to mention hours of post-production work) the ugliness of the filming process will be hidden and the final product will be a strictly beautiful affair. While film can take on many purposes, the goal of my current project—a virtual tour of the gardens—is mainly aesthetic. It feels almost oxymoronic that the extraordinary beauty of these gardens is captured through such ugly and ordinary means.

A lot of jobs are like this: custodians spend nights plunging toilets to keep great palaces looking fresh for visitors. Statisticians weed through oceans of data to reveal trends hidden within. A fast-food worker fries chicken paste in a greasy, rat-filled kitchen and sends forth a pristine batch of chicken nuggets. All of these roles are on a spectrum of the glamor, and the exhaustion, that they provide. But in each case, beauty, loosely-defined, emerges from the mundane jobs of people everywhere.

Museums are like this, too. In its capacity as a gallery, the mission of Dumbarton Oaks is to collect, preserve, and present the beauty of Byzantine, European and Pre-Columbian culture. Part of my job here has been to document museum activity from top to bottom—from directors discussing the building’s roof renovation to interns monotonously sorting through thousands of coins. None of it seems particularly extraordinary, and yet the product of it all certainly is.

InternFun (1).jpg

To some, the character of modern videography and social media presence may seem mismatched to an institution which spans back three quarters of a century and is dedicated to the study of materials ten times as old. Yet at its core, the process and aims of videography mirror that of the museum itself: each concerns mundane or ugly work aimed at capturing, preserving, and presenting beauty.

Why do we do it? Perhaps having passion for something means seeing beauty through the mess. Michelangelo used to say that he could see the sculpture withina block of marble, and similarly (on a much more modest level) I’m beginning to see the shot that could make that dill plant look fabulous. Just like how the museum staff can see the future exhibit framing that will help artifacts shine. Or how the garden staff can see the flowers rising from a plot of dirt and weeds. Work, then, really just becomes the process of getting from the vision to that beautiful reality.


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