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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Pre-Digital Prestidigitation

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

One of my favorite pictures from my book Down East Maine is of a huge dead whale on the Lubec town beach. To make an unusual shot I wore high rubber boots and tried not to stumble in the treacherous, rock-strewn mud as I composed my picture from the reverse angle. In the photograph the great creature looms in the foreground, while in the background several townsfolk walk on the beach, cloaked in fog.

The fog obscures the horizon so that the whale appears to be floating.

It is a magical image and one that today elicits oohs and aahs. But, from a younger viewer it could just as easily prompt the question, "You do that in PhotoShop?"

To those who think photo manipulation began with the computer, guess again. Playing with pictures has been going on as long as there has been photography. A century ago, a pictorial photographer worth his or her albumin salts could plug a better sky into an image if the sky on the day the picture was made was less than inspiring.

Portrait and studio photographers routinely touched up their wares in the old days to make their subjects look better. But, where today such retouching can be done digitally in a comparative heartbeat, the real masters were those who could retouch, not prints, but negatives using tiny brushes and special pencils so that the desired effect could be reprinted time after time to the client's delight, and without any telltale ink or coloring on the final print.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was a copyboy on the old New York Post, I would marvel at how the airbrush virtuosos in the art department could obscure or highlight details in 8x10 glossies to make them reproduce better. But my favorite bit was how one guy hid the edge of Benny Goodman's clarinet in what was to be a small bxw headshot of the jazz great. The clarinet rested against the shoulder of Benny's natty houndstooth jacket. Using a tiny camel-hair brush and several different inks, the artist simply houndstooth'd the black clarinet into invisibility.

When I think back to the album cover Judy and I shot more than 10 years ago for MCA records – the debut album of a Uniontown, Pa., rock group called The Zippers – I remember not only the long hours on location but all the time I had to spend afterward in the darkroom to create an effect that today I (or, more correctly, someone else with the right equipment and smarts) could create in minutes.

When Washington, D.C., designer Pat Marshall called us, having seen some of our work in a creative directory, she asked if we could make a picture of a steam engine roaring across the tracks – even if we couldn't get it to move. "Sure," I said, crossing my fingers.

The idea was that since these guys were unknown, it made no sense to run their portrait on the front of their first album. And since they hailed from Uniontown, a gritty blue-collar burg in coal country, a dynamic, brawny and punchy image seemed in order. Hence the idea for a moving steam engine.

Happily, Pat scouted out a couple of train yards so an actual locomotive was no problem. Even getting it to "move" was not really a big deal, since that's why slow shutter speed and flash were invented. (See captions.)

But, as the very first test Polaroid showed, getting the train to look as if it were moving in this way also meant blurring out the bottom of the picture (Picture #2). As you can figure, if we had been able to get the train to rush past us time after time, a stationary camera on a stationary tripod working at slow shutter speeds would have recorded both a moving train as well as a stationary roadbed. But not in this case. Adding to the problem was the fact that the engine that worked best for us happened to be on a siding with no gravel roadbed at all.

Finding an appropriately gritty, gravelly roadbed somewhere else, I made a shot (Picture #3) and knew that, in order to combine the two images, I had my darkroom work cut out for me.

After determining the correct printing exposures for both the moving wheels and the roadbed, I placed a sheet of 11x14 printing paper into my easel and exposed for the wheels while masking out the blurry roadbed with a piece of cardboard (Picture #4). Then I placed that exposed sheet of printing paper into a lightproof box and switched negatives.

A pre-drawn 11x14 cardboard template (actually the reverse side of a piece of scrap 11x14 photo paper) placed in the easel showed exactly how high into the picture the gravel roadbed had to come. With the second negative in place and projecting onto the easel, I used my internal red filter to act as a safelight and positioned my already-exposed paper bearing the image of the wheels.

This time I masked the upper, exposed section and let the bottom portion of the paper take the image of the roadbed. After only a few misses, I got the registration exactly right (Picture #5) and made one image out of two different ones.

Today? Even I know I would simply scan both images, mask what I didn't need, and stitch the two desired pieces together – and in not much more time than it took me to type these words.

Still, I take a perverse pleasure at having done this – and an even more perverse pleasure in knowing that a whole new generation of digital photo gearheads, who can think rings around me electronically, couldn't do this if their lives depended on it.

But of course they don't have to.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Goodman/Van Riper
The Zippers' debut album cover, featuring a gritty, old-time steam engine roaring along the tracks. Here's how Judy and I did it:

©Goodman/Van Riper
Stationary engine is photographed at several seconds-long shutter speed, with flash. As Judy holds the off-camera flash, I am dragging the tripod along the ground. Flash freezes detail, while movement creates motion-simulating blur.

©Goodman/Van Riper
But we still need a sharp gravel roadbed for the final image. We shoot that at a totally different location.

©Goodman/Van Riper
In the darkroom I mask out the blurry bottom of the original picture…

©Goodman/Van Riper
…then print the gravel in its place on the same sheet of photographic paper. Voila! Pre-digital darkroom magic.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Dropped Cameras: An Anecdotal Indictment

The Print Lab Around Your Neck

Wedding War Stories

The Eyes of History

Digital Master of a Barren Beauty

Slick Trix for Kid Pix