A Capitol tour that won't bore you

Thousands of visitors who tour the Capitol each year miss some of its most extraordinary sights. To fully appreciate them, they would need a very flexible neck. Or a good cot.

But now, longtime photographer Marty LaVor has revealed some of the Capitol’s hidden treasures with a new book of photography, The Capitol, See It Again for the First Time, Looking Up.

LaVor’s niche, which he employs with great flair, is upward-looking photographs using a fisheye lens. Sometimes, LaVor lets the Capitol’s unique architecture and artistry speak for itself. Other times, LaVor’s keen eye for geometry, light and reflection creates photographic works of art out of otherwise ordinary forms and shapes.

“Most people just don’t stop and look,” LaVor explained. To the typical visitor, or even to most of the Capitol’s longtime denizens, “staircases are just staircases.”

But with the right lens and framing, a stone staircase can become an abstract creation. LaVor shot the second-floor circular staircase near the Speaker’s office from above, producing an effect like a snail’s shell. Another staircase, looking up from the Russell Senate Office Building, is uneven and disorienting. A Hart Building staircase, lit from above, looks otherworldly.

Grand staircases in the House and Senate provide another subject group.

LaVor shoots many of the Capitol’s antique chandeliers. Sometimes, he includes an ornate mirror in the shot, creating a kaleidoscopic effect.

The Capitol’s Victorian lighting provides dark backgrounds to some of LaVor’s views. He never used a flash. Sometimes, he positions the corner of a room’s ceiling at the center of his shot, disrupting the symmetry of antique moldings and light fixtures.

For visitors who must endure quick tours that skip many of the Capitol’s most decorative rooms, LaVor provides an insider’s view. Some, like the Senate Reception Room, are usually seen only by members and lobbyists. For his ceiling shot of the room, used on the book’s cover, LaVor held his camera against a mirror, doubling its historical frescoes.

Other rooms, like the House men’s “private room” (bathroom) are closed off to the public. (This may be one of the few rooms in the Capitol where occupants take the time to examine the ceiling.)

LaVor has had a longtime interest in the Capitol. He retired as a senior staffer to the House Education and Labor Committee in 1980. He said he had no intention of the doing the book on the Capitol, after pushing his wife’s patience with previous photo projects.

One day, he says, he was in the Capitol, and happened to have his fisheye lens with him. “I had no idea why I had it,” he now says. The special lens provides a panoramic 360-degree view and distorts objects on its periphery.

LaVor says he started in the crypt on the Capitol’s first floor — hardly the building’s most elaborate space. “I looked up and I took the picture, and said, ‘Wow, I have not looked at this building. I’ve got to start looking around this building.’”

LaVor has used the technique in a previous book on Washington.

Proceeds from sales of the new book and a poster will go to the Capitol Historical Society, and it is for sale at the group’s stand on the first floor of the Capitol.

Ever the staffer, LaVor knows how to reach a powerful audience. He has distributed the book to all members of Congress and plans to give copies to senior staff. “I love the Congress, and I love the Capitol,” he said. “Hey, what a deal.”