Field Trip! Field Trip!

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Thursday, July 27, 2006; 11:55 AM

As a school kid growing up in New York, I always associated the words Field Trip with getting out of work, or at least with putting it off for a while, as my classmates and I traipsed through a museum or a park with our teacher, feigning interest. (After all: the Museum of Natural History was light years removed from multiplication tables or spelling tests at P.S. 90 in the Bronx.)

During the summer, as a camper at what was billed at the time as "a progressive Catholic camp for boys" that included daily mass, daily rosary and prayers before and after meals, field trips most often meant an after-dinner bus or truck ride in an around Hackettstown, N.J., before we headed back to camp for cookies and an outdoor movie. (No prayers before the movie, I should add. In fairness, I also should add that I had a ball during my six summers there.)

In later years, just before high school, field trips could take on an artsy gloss. Once, my junior high class went to a matinee performance on Broadway of "The Miracle Worker," starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Patty Duke, then the child star who electrified the stage with her portrayal of a young Helen Keller, even came out to talk to us after the show. [It's good to have field trips in New York.]

I bring this up because for years I had been asked by camera clubs and other photography groups whether I could lead a field trip or similar excursion so that members could see how I (or how my wife Judy and I) worked on location.

In a similar vein, we often had been asked by wannabe wedding shooters whether they could assist us when we worked weddings, the better to soak up our technique and get a better idea of how to deal with the high-stress, albeit lucrative, world of wedding photography.

In every case, I politely turned down these requests.

Aside from the discomfort--having people watching my every move as I tried to make photographs--is the very real drawback that the kind of work I do, especially for my books, cannot be done in a crowd.

Documentary photography and location portraiture, of the type featured in my books Faces of the Eastern Shore, or Down East Maine/A World Apart, is really a private affair--between photographer and subject--in which I am trying to draw out a person who usually is not at all used to photographic scrutiny. I want my subject(s) to forget I am there, as I interview and make pictures. It's difficult enough to do this one-on-one; try doing it one-on-three, or one-on-seven, with the bulk of the crowd taking notes or clicking away with their own cameras.

No thanks.

Similarly, at weddings, Judy and I are known for being so unobtrusive that clients often remark afterward that they did not even know we were there. Surely I am not about to jeopardize that by bringing along a novice, who only would call attention to us as we worked.

No thanks and no dice.

But, recently, that has changed, or at least some of it has. And I have a persistent group of photographers-as well as my wife Judy-to thank for helping to make a recent photographic field trip one of the most enjoyable photo excursions in which I ever have taken part.

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