The National Portrait Gallery, located in Washington, DC’s historic Chinatown neighborhood, is a rarity in the Nation’s Capital: a hidden gem of a location for beautiful engagement photography! The vast majority of the good venues for taking couples portraits — the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the White House, the US Capitol and Theodore Roosevelt Island, to name a few — are known around the world. They are great for giving wedding and engagement pictures an unmistakably Washington feel, of course. Nothing says Washington, DC like a photograph with one of the city’s famous landmarks in the background.
Some couples want a little something more, though. They want something that is Washingtonian in character but as special and unique as their love. That is where venues like the National Portrait Gallery come in. As part of the Smithsonian Institution’s network of museums, the National Portrait Gallery is without a doubt a Washington icon. But it is also a little bit off the beaten path, meaning it gives every couples portrait taken there a distinctive look and feel. So fiancés who have their engagement photography done in that museum get the best of both worlds!
The desire to create an art gallery in Washington, DC, dedicated to showcasing portraits of the most famous and historically significant Americans dates at least to 1886, when the president of the Massachusetts Historical Society began trying to establish an American version of the National Portrait Gallery in London. For a variety of reasons, the project never got off the ground, and the creation of a portraiture museum in Washington languished for decades. Though wealthy Americans continued to donate their private portraiture collections to the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Government in the hopes that a National Portrait Gallery would be created, it was not until Washington’s historic Old Patent Office Building was threatened with demolition in 1957 that the museum project gained real urgency. The National Portrait Gallery was officially founded in 1962 and officially opened its doors to the public in 1968.
What is particularly nice about the National Portrait Gallery, from a wedding and engagement photography point of view, is the way the museum is arranged. The gallery shares the Old Patent Office Building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and each institution has one long hallway on each floor with smaller rooms adjoining them. The smaller rooms were designed to hold specific installations or series of portraits, and the doorways leading from the main hallways into the spaces are great for framing fiancés who pose inside.
As you can see in this particular image, putting a pair of future spouses inside one of the little rooms and photographing them through the door gives the impression that the picture is unplanned, unposed and real. That is an effect we strive to create whenever we pick up our cameras, so venues like this are perfect for our approach to wedding photography. We simply asked the couple to go sit inside the room, look at the portrait hanging on the wall and feel free to cuddle and snuggle each other, while we stood outside and took some beautiful portraits of them that looked completely natural.