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Murphy's Second Law

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

In Vincent Patrick's terrific new novel Smoke Screen, Frank Belmonte, a slick jewel thief, is laying out the plans for a pre-dawn heist at a posh hotel in Manhattan – a plan that will involve taking a number of guests prisoner in a hotel anteroom while the thieves clean out scores of safe deposit boxes.

Frank figures the most people he will have to worry about at that hour is fifteen. But he says, "Allow three more oddballs off the street. That's eighteen."

"What kind of oddballs," one of the other crooks asks, annoyed.

"Who knows?....Some limo driver .... A Con Ed guy checking out a gas leak. Don't be surprised if a [expletive] UFO lands on Fifty-fifth street and a couple of extraterrestrials march into the lobby. Murphy's second law."

"Murphy has a second law?" another guy asks.

"Yeah...The first law everybody knows – anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Murphy's Second Law says that several things that can't possibly go wrong will also go wrong. And it happens all the time. I'll testify to it..."

Who knew that for all my years as a reporter and a photographer, I have lived by Murphy's Second Law?

And may I be so bold as to advise you to do the same?

Especially in photography, you often have only one chance to get it right. One time when you will be at this great location under this great light. One chance to make good pictures at your cousin's wedding. One opportunity to photograph this famous, notorious, glamorous or otherwise special person before he or she goes out of your life forever.

Guarding against the unexpected and the potentially disastrous becomes even more critical when you make your living making pictures.

Oh sure, on a corporate job, if you screw up you might be able to do an expensive re-shoot. But you think you'll ever work for that client again?

And speaking of weddings, it's bad enough to come up craps as the bride's hotsy-totsy amateur photographer cousin. But what if you had been hired (as in being paid real money) to capture this hopefully once-in-a-lifetime event? You can't tell the newlywed bride that you'll make it up to her at her next wedding.

Who knows why I have this paranoia about being prepared. Maybe it's because I was an only child. The old saw says "Never worry about only children; the thought of failure never occurs to them." To which I would reply that, in fact, the thought of failure always occurs to us simply because we always were expected to behave like competent little adults by our parents, aunts and uncles.

But maybe I'm this way because I'm a Virgo. Virgos are supposed to be hyper-organized, classic Type A overachievers who have everything plotted down to the last second. While I certainly admit to being wound a little tight whenever we are about to travel (this is my wife's least favorite time with me, I suspect), the hyper-organized part just ain't so. I could illustrate this by running a picture of my desk, the place where I am now writing this very column. But that would be wrong. It also would be ugly as sin – a hopelessly cluttered desktop clogged with several years' worth of detritus, including interview notes, press releases, books, clippings and pens that don't write.

If you put a gun to my head, I'd have to say the main reason I've been fairly lucky in achieving what I've set out to achieve as both a writer and a shooter is that I spent twenty years as a reporter on a daily deadline. This is simply the best training for organizing one's thoughts (if not one's desktop) and it also helps you appreciate how many things can conspire against you as you hurry to make your first edition.

Translate this into photography and think of making your first edition deadline as coming back from an assignment, a vacation or whatever with great photographs every time.

Important: success here relates only in part to making sure your cameras work. Half the battle is getting there on time. That's why, when Judy and I shoot a wedding out of town, we tend to go overboard giving ourselves travel time. Why? In Washington, the idea that there may be traffic (Murphy's First Law) is the least of our worries. I simply assume that, if we have to travel the better part of an hour to get somewhere – and especially if that travel involves going on Washington's notorious Beltway – there will be at least one accident or overturned truck to eat into our travel time and keep us from arriving on time for the ceremony (Murphy's Second Law).

Having suffered through at least one catastrophic camera failure (an errant shutter blade that ruined a good third of a job many years ago), I am justifiably paranoid about our equipment. Judy shares this feeling, I am happy to say, so when we get our gear ready for an assignment, we usually make sure every camera we will use at least has been inspected and fired, and its batteries checked. The same with our flash units. But if we assume that the batteries in a camera might need changing on the job (Murphy's First Law), we also assume that a camera will seize up, a lens drop (trust me, I've done this) or a camera body fall to the cold hard ground (Murphy's Second Law). That's why on any commercial job we shoot, damn near everything we carry – every piece of equipment, from flash, to exposure meter, to camera, to lens, to high-voltage battery pack – has at least one backup, just in case.

Does Murphy's Second Law apply to people too? I think it does. For example, when shooting a series of portraits for an annual report, we may have everything nailed as to promptness and preparedness. But the clients? Well....

If we assume that some of our prospective portrait people may show up late (Murphy's First Law), we also assume that some are going to show up with the grandmother of all bad hair days or with a phosphorescent blemish that we will have to shoot around (Murphy's Second Law).

Solution? We always carry a hairbrush, a mirror and makeup. Not to mention a sewing kit and gaffer's tape for balky hems.

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.

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