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This is one of the most viral photos of Seattle. Here’s why it went big

Six years ago today, Thatcher Kelley took this photo of Seattle. His plane was getting ready to land at Sea-Tac Airport, and he wanted to capture this stunning view from his plexiglass window.

That picture is now one of the most viral photos of Seattle ever. It’s been shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media, and digital staff at KING 5 — who helped launch it to stardom — refer to it simply as “The Photo.”

Why did this particular pic get so popular? We asked Thatcher, who grew up around here and lives in SeaTac, to tell its story…

Break down the moment you took the picture in 2011. What made you grab the camera?

I was on a flight from L.A. to Seattle. Usually the flight path takes you over downtown Seattle and does a 180-degree turn to land. This particular day the plane made a much later turn farther north, perfectly placing downtown Seattle. The angle and composition of the mountain, water, city was perfect and I knew that was the shot. So I quickly grabbed my camera and shot away. I got it just in time before the wing got in the way.

When did you first realize that the photo was a hit? How did all that feel?

The day that I took it, I submitted it to a local news station because they feature photos from the area during the weather report. They used my photo, then posted it on their Facebook page. It immediately blew up from there.

[This was KING 5, by the way. Evonne Benedict, who runs audience engagement at KING, heard about the photo from a colleague and suggested the station share it out on social. “It just kept being shared and shared and shared!” she told us.

“To this day, the senior members of the digital team refer to the shot as ‘The Photo.’ It taught us so much about partnering with our community to create share experiences. AND it helped us build a strategy of reaching OUT to our audience to share their stories,” Evonne said.

Last year, KING 5’s Evening News did a whole story on the photo.]

What about the picture do you think made it connect so strongly as a portrait of Seattle?

People love the Seattle skyline. People from Seattle love it. People who visit love it. It has all the great elements: beautiful mountains, interesting waterways, and modern, iconic buildings. But no one really sees the city from the angle I took it from. So that was not only fresh to so many, but it perfectly incorporates all the great parts of the city into one photograph.

What are some of the memorable things you’ve heard from locals about the photo and why it’s awesome?

The first week after it went viral I walked into a busy Starbucks and every laptop (at least 10) that I saw had my photo as their desktop background. I thought that was really neat to have a photo that so many people connect with, and it’s a photo that I connect with. I had it on my desktop background and couldn’t stop staring at it. I’m happy to provide that same experience for others.

What’s your favorite part of that picture? The mountains, the water, the buildings…?

I love being able to point out different places. I can recognize certain obscure buildings, parks, etc. and point to them. I probably like most that Mt. St. Helens is in the shot. I never expected to be able to see Helens from Seattle, much less get a photo with downtown Seattle and Mount St. Helens composed nicely in the same photo.

How did the photo travel online? What did you see when it went viral that surprised you?

Reddit. I don’t do Reddit. I’m already too obsessed with other online forums and I’ve managed to stay away from Reddit. It was entertaining to see comment after comment from passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive, and bitter-contrarian Reddit users. They just didn’t want to believe that the photo was real. I was accused of photoshopping everything and making all kinds of wacky changes. I get it. It’s a really well-composed (credit to the flight path more than me) shot with a unique angle that no one sees the city from. It’s almost too good to be true. So I get why people tried to disprove it. In reality, it’s a single photo, with only contrast, color adjustments to cut through the haze and get the lighting to look how I remember it. I might have erased a boat or two on Lake Union to make it smoother.

I also remember being berated at least three times by people demanding that I stop claiming to have taken the photo because apparently the photo was actually taken by one of their friends. So apparently it’s good enough that people are telling their friends that they took the photo just to impress them…or something like that?

What’s happened with that photo since?

I’ve sold a handful of prints over the last few years as well as licensed it to a few companies for online and print use. It can still be found on various business websites. I’ve had postcard and calendar offers, but to be honest I think the photo deserves more than to be slapped on a calendar or postcard. I’m pretty particular in how I print my photos. And I want people to only view the printed image with the highest of quality and standards.

We heard that the photo helped you convince your wife to move here. How did that go?

She’s a native Southern Californian and absolutely loves the sun. Anyways, on our first date I told her that if we got married, one day I’d drag her up to live in Seattle. So four years later I cashed in on that. The photo didn’t convince her, but it sure did help.

Thanks to Thatcher for sharing his thoughts, and to reader Greg Scruggs for connecting us! See more of Thatcher’s work on his website.

By Mónica Guzmán
Mónica is the cofounder and editor of The Evergrey. She's been a Seattle journalist for a decade and adores this city.

  • One of my favorite pix of all time. Thanks for sharing the backstory.

  • Just want to note the sweet irony that Thatcher put his watermark on the photo exactly covering the Adobe Seattle’s Watermark Café (in Fremont between the Aurora Bridge and the Fremont Bridge).

  • Dave Kelley

    The King 5 colleague was my other son Joshua Kelley, Thatcher’s older brother. The closing photo of Thatcher with his camera at Ecola State Park, OR is my photo. Oh, by the way, my wife and I paid for the plane ticket!