Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Forbidden Pictures

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Check out this dramatic picture of the top of the Capitol Dome. The almost eerie absence of pedestrians on Capitol Plaza below signals an earlier, less-crowded, time when Washington wasn't overrun with tourists seemingly all year.

Look closer and you'll see the real giveaway: the cars are all vintage 1930s and '40s.

Today, if you were to make an aerial picture of the top of the Capitol Building the way news photographer Joe Roberts did way back when, I will guarantee two things:

– Somebody will offer you big bucks to either own your picture or publish it.

– You will be able to use those big bucks to pay bail money and fines, assuming you and your plane hadn't been shot out of the sky first.

Roberts's dramatic image, made from a blimp more than 50 years ago, literally is illegal to make today because of security restrictions that limit airspace around major Washington sites like the Capitol Building and the White House. Times being what they are, the Secret Service and other security types who are paid to be nervous have decreed that there simply is too much risk of terrorist attack to allow aircraft to fly over these important government buildings, except under the most unusual, restricted conditions.

Things were a lot simpler – and the rules as to what could be done to generate a saleable news picture a lot looser – when guys like Joe Roberts lugged their cameras, tripods and flashbulbs from job to job in the federal city in the 1920s and '30s.

Staging news pictures, especially for feature stories, was not nearly the no-no it is today. It probably is a safe bet, for example, that boxing champ Jack Dempsey, on a visit to Washington in 1924, did not have at the top of his list of things to do laying a wreath at the tomb of Woodrow Wilson in Washington's National Cathedral. But setting it up guaranteed a neat shot, which Roberts made – and quickly sold.

Roberts and his small band of Graflex-carrying (or a hand-cranked newsreel camera) compatriots probably were closer to their sources than would today be acceptable – drinking Prohibition-era moonshine with revenue agents, for example. But Roberts, who worked for the old Hearst-owned Washington Times in the '20s and '30s, also helped usher in a whole new generation of news photography, based on capturing events as they happened. Joe Roberts, it is not too far wrong to say, helped define the role of the modern photojournalist.

He died in 1994 in his 90s and is remembered as an inventive, intuitive news shooter who made his name, first for shooting spot news, and then for his three decades as a world-traveling photographer for National Geographic. He also was a charter member of the White House News Photographers Association.

Recently, Steve Hash, owner of Photo Pro in Kensington, Md., purchased the rights to Robert's huge archive of vintage black and white images of Washington and is offering them for sale to collectors. They can be had as conventional prints or as computer-generated Iris prints. In either case, the negatives have been scanned and cleaned of all traces of dust and other flaws, resulting in beautiful, pristine, prints.

In an interview Hash marveled at Roberts's artistic as well as technical expertise.

"He was the Ansel Adams of the sports photography business," Hash noted, pointing out one dramatic image among many of the sports shots in his archive. In the shot, made at Washington's old Griffith Stadium, a college football player who is leaping over a line of defenders, is caught in midair, almost parallel to the ground. One must remember that this was the heyday of the Speed Graphic, a bulky, 4x5 sheet film camera made by the Graflex company of Rochester, N.Y., which never heard of a motor drive or of a telephoto zoom lens. Today, many may take such action shots for granted – I do not, having tried, and failed dismally at, sideline sports shooting. To see work like this, made with such comparatively "primitive" equipment as Roberts used decades ago, is humbling.

Bob Madden, the veteran National Geographic photographer who now edits the magazine's Web site, remembers his late colleague and friend as "a very upbeat person" who easily made the shift from the Speed Graphic to medium format, to 35mm – something not all of the old-time news shooters were able to do.

"He was a problem solver," Madden added, "the kind of guy who would be fascinated by any number of things." For example, Madden recalled a story from Roberts's early newspaper days when he was assigned to photograph a well-known Olympic diver. Rather than simply make a headshot of the athlete and call it a day, Roberts came up with the idea of documenting in a series of photos the twisting dive that was the swimmer's specialty.

Today, recording such a dive would be fairly easy: set the camera's motor drive on rapid, pick a high shutter speed, and keep the shutter release pressed as the swimmer did his thing.

But of course Roberts didn't have that option. So, after observing the dive and figuring its intricacies, he had the swimmer do the dive once, then again – and again – and again, until Roberts had more than a dozen individual photos that, taken together, created a perfect aerial sequence. The dramatic pictures made the front page of the LA Times, much to Roberts's, and certainly to the exhausted diver's, delight.

During his long career at the Geographic, Joe Roberts shot color almost exclusively, traveling the world and staying in exotic spots for months at a time – in the grand tradition of one of the last glossy magazines to spend real money on real stories of real impact. It was a treat and a revelation recently to sit in Bob Madden's cluttered, memento-filled office and go through literally hundreds of Roberts's slides. A life and a career on Kodachrome and Ektachrome.

Still, I am drawn back to Roberts's early black and white work, from the yeasty time when covering Washington was not the structured minuet of photo-ops and fussy staffers that it too often can be today.

Any man who knows it's important to kiss the top of the Washington Monument – as Roberts did when he photographed a repair crew in its lofty aerie – is my kind of guy.

To see a selection of Joe Roberts's vintage bxw work, call 301-933-3350.

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.

© Joe Roberts
Old-time news photog Joe Roberts made this dramatic shot of the Capitol dome from a blimp. In today's security-conscious climate, such a shot would be virtually impossible to take.

© Joe Roberts
Griffith stadium football shot shows Roberts's talent for capturing the moment even with bulky equipment.

© Joe Roberts
Joe Roberts, "a very upbeat person" and a hell of a shooter. Yes, that's the top of the Washington Monument.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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Pre-Digital Prestidigitation