Speak, Memory, of Archival Gold

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Thursday, September 21, 2006; 3:18 PM

It's hard to believe that 40-odd years have passed since I went out shooting with my friends in New York.

I was in high school in the Bronx then and the regimen most often involved shooting on weekends. But there were times when the urge to take pictures induced us to cut classes during the week.

One such time was when my friend Marty somehow wangled a chance to make test photos of a real live model for legendary magazine designer Sam Antupit. [To this day I don't know how Marty pulled this off -- we lost touch when I went to College.] All I know is that we showed up at the midtown apartment of a gorgeous model who then graciously suffered our awkward shooting (and, I suspect, salivating) as she struck Vogue-like poses for us, dressed to the nines in midtown Manhattan, as curious onlookers passed us by.

I never saw the photos that Marty made, and he never made it to Vogue or any other big-ticket magazine that I know of.

But what a great story! What a great memory! Besides the model's graciousness to two dorky high school kids, the other thing that sticks in my memory is the makeup mirror in her apartment -- a huge thing, bordered all around in light bulbs -- the first time I'd ever seen one in real life.

Photographs are the images of memory and their emotional, and sometimes even their monetary, value increases with the passage of time. [Case in point: though I suspect it would not be worth a lot, I would love to have saved a large BxW panorama photo that was taken of my junior high class in front of the Capitol Building in Washington nearly 50 years ago. The reason? The Capitol was undergoing massive renovation then and much of the building was obscured by scaffolding. It would have been a nice historical anomaly to have from that era, but the photo is lost.]

Happily, I did not lose a series of negatives and contact sheets that I made decades ago and that I came across some months ago in the darkroom. They were labeled simply "NYC Project" and just looking at the contacts flooded me with memories of decades passed -- shooting on the fly in the smoke and friendly shadows of McSorley's Old Ale House near Cooper Square, making photos of the worn wood benches on the old Staten Island Ferry, shooting the famous Coney Island parachute jump, photographing a housing protest near Gracie Mansion, making nighttime time-exposures at Idlewild Airport (later JFK), documenting the nightshift exhilaration and boredom at the old New York Post, where I was a copyboy, working in Central Park, etc., etc.

All these outings produced pictures that remain strong even four decades later. And photos like that are the brick and mortar of memory because everything -- everything -- changes over time. In looking at these photos again through the filter of many years passed, I am amazed at how they resonate in me -- not just because there are among them some first-rate images, but because everything is so different. The beautiful, almost sensual, wooden benches on the ferry are long gone -- you can troll the internet now for architectural remnants from these great old boats. The Coney Island parachute jump, a relic from the 1939 World's Fair, is long shut down and sits like a set of elegant and vertical dinosaur bones in Brooklyn, where it is viewed fondly as "Brooklyn's Eiffel Tower." Even random street scenes have heightened interest, if only for the old clothes and bulbous cars.

The simple fact is: vintage photographs can be valuable simply because they are vintage, i.e.: simply because they are a genuine, truthful; slice of life from an irretrievable past. When vintage photographs also are beautifully composed and printed, they can be artistic--and commercial -- treasures.

And I made photographs like these, unintentionally, when I was a teenager, simply because my friends and I loved to go out shooting.

In fact, going out shooting, with Marty, or with my other photographer friends, gave me my first taste of documentary photography and photojournalism -- and brought home how strongly words and photos can affect people.

Once, for example, while in high school, New York City teachers went out on strike. It was a brief walkout, as I recall, but traumatic for us, the students, and certainly for our teachers.


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