As a Critic Might Say: ‘The Work Illuminates, Reaches New Heights’

There are those who visit El Castillo pyramid at Mexico’s famed Chichen Itza, point their cameras, click, and move on.

And then there is Rich Scarpitta.

Mr. Scarpitta got the photograph he wanted of the 1,000-year-old Mayan temple with the help of five aides over the course of three days, including 30 hours of what can only be called hard labor.

The 46-year-old photographer from Astoria, N.Y., specializes in hours-long nighttime exposures of sites and structures; while the camera’s shutter is open, he jumps into the frame with a flashlight, directing the beam at the camera while he moves the light fluidly around details. In the finished shot, the light appears as a luminous line.

Mr. Scarpitta has taken similar photos in England (Stonehenge), France (the American Cemetery at Normandy) and in the U.S., where he has shot the baseball field in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the center court of Flushing Meadow Park tennis stadium in New York City. “The form and shape is important to me,” he says. “And the experience.”

Mr. Scarpitta sells limited editions of his prints, and his work has appeared in print ads for major companies. The work is often grueling. Dressed in black to mask his presence in the shot, Mr. Scarpitta races over and around his subject. Time exposures are as long as four hours. For the cemetery shot, he traced 431 crosses and three Stars of David. For the tennis-court shot, friends helped him pop camera flashes 6,000 times to simulate a crowd; he outlined every cord on a net.

For the 78-foot-high Chichen Itza pyramid, Mr. Scarpitta enlisted the aid of three American friends and two enthusiastic local Mayans. The six men worked on the project for three nights, tracing the walls and steps (91 per side) of the pyramid. “We looked like organized fireflies,” Mr. Scarpitta says, adding that the nighttime scurrying was difficult because the pyramid’s surface was uneven and often slippery. He also had to lug a 22-foot ladder to the top of the pyramid to outline its temple. One helper sprained his ankle the second night of shooting; they all had to dodge lizards, bats and at least one rattlesnake.

But Mr. Scarpitta believes the end result is worth the rigor. “It has a powerful shape,” he says of the pyramid. “It was designed to be difficult to get up. As you ascend you become humble. We were all kind of quiet at the end.”

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