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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Friendlier Skies?

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

In the terrible wake of September 11th, my wife and I had to decide whether we still wanted to go through with our planned trip to Venice the last two weeks of November.

We have been working on a book about Venice in Winter for several years now and this trip was to have been our second extended stay there in less than a year.

Like so many, I felt a selfish need to stay home, to cocoon – to frankly stay the hell out of the line of fire. If anything my wife Judy felt these urges even more strongly, compounded by the desire to be near our three small grandchildren at a time when the entire world seemed to have gone mad, or at least that part of the world that equates America with everything evil.

I'm embarrassed to say that this inveterate city dweller even thought briefly that we should pull up stakes in Washington, DC and move fulltime to our summer home in Lubec, Maine – one of the most beautiful, and isolated, parts of the US.

Kind of pull the covers over our head and hope everything would blow over and return to normal.

But then I got angry. Angry that some fanatical SOB with a direct line to God, Allah, Elvis or the Man in the Moon was going to dictate how I lived. Angry that a project on which we'd worked so hard was going to be jeopardized, even temporarily, by a vile religious Mafia that takes pleasure in the murder of innocents.

Judy and I had given up blood, money and tears to this tragedy. Now it was time to resume our lives and, in our own way, let the scum know we weren't going to be cowed.

We returned to Venice. Which, of course, was nothing like MacArthur returning to the Philippines during World War 2, but in some small measure it felt that way to me.

And we came back with great pictures.

Still, foreign air travel at a time of high worldwide security meant there would be some changes in the way Judy and I planned and packed for our journey. Happily, the precautions I took, both with our equipment and with our itinerary, paid off. For the most part, our trips to and from Venice were so uneventful as to be boring.

Here's what we did:

To avoid any problems with more stringent carry-on restrictions, Judy and I reluctantly left our compact Tamrac rolling strongbox camera bag at home, preferring to divvy up our camera gear between us into two much smaller conventional camera bags. Judy's was a medium size Tamrac shoulder bag; mine a beautifully battered old Domke bag. Each of us had only one other carry-on item: Judy a backpack that doubled as her purse, I a canvas briefcase. [Note: even though our Tamrac rolling bag meets most carry-on specs as to size, a more prevalent problem nowadays is weight, with many airlines being far more hardnosed about this. I chose to simply avoid the hassle.]

In all we carried six cameras, including a toy and a point-and-shoot. In Judy's bag were a Nikon N90 and N8008 body, and three lenses, a 24mm wide, as well as 35-70mm and 70-210mm zooms. (She also packed a small lens bag so that when walking through Venice she did not have to use her much larger shoulder bag to carry her lenses and film.) My Domke held a Leica M6 with one 35mm Summicron, a Mamiya 6 medium format camera with one 50mm wide angle lens, a Leica Minilux P&S, and a plastic Chinese-made Holga camera, customized to take long-exposures as well as conventional ones. (More on that in a future column.)

In addition to a Minolta spotmeter, I had with me a tiny, yet remarkably powerful, Metz Mecablitz 34 compact flash unit, hardly larger than a pack of cigarettes. (More on that in future columns, too.) As we did on our last trip, I packed a small Gitzo tripod and ball head in with our luggage.

Happily, I was able to have all our film hand-inspected at all security checkpoints: Dulles, Paris (our connection point both coming and going) and Venice. This was especially important to us since ours is a black and white, largely available light, project that uses tons of Ilford's great Delta 3200 film in both 35mm and medium format. The 3200 film is arguably the most light-sensitive conventional bxw film in the world, and therefore the most potentially susceptible to harm from radiation.

I am aware of – in fact I have reported on – two separate studies several years ago that held that virtually all carry-on X-ray machines in the developed world are harmless to film, even film with a high ISO. However, the damaging effect of X-ray is cumulative (just as it is in humans) and multiple passes can be harmful, especially to high-speed film, though perhaps not as harmful as many fear. My goal is to get as many hand-inspections per trip as possible, so that an occasional unavoidable pass through X-ray will pose no real threat to unexposed or undeveloped film. In future columns, I hope to do some supervised real-world testing, not only of X-ray machines, but of the far more dangerous (to film) CTX luggage scanners that soon will be in use at major airports nationwide to better detect weapons and explosives in checked luggage. NOTE: Never, Never put film in checked bags. Under the right circumstances, CTX scanning can and will destroy new or undeveloped film.

Before our trip I took all of our film, both 35mm and 120, out of its wrappers and placed it all in clear plastic bags. I had a lead bag as a backup if I were forced to place film through X-ray.

At Dulles, on our way out of the country, a very pleasant but thorough security guy inspected every single one of our approximately 70 rolls of film with a chemical-sniffing wand. Note: As of this writing, passengers in the United States have the absolute right to demand hand inspection of film under FAA Reg. 108.17, Part 108 – Airline Operator Security. In Paris, while making our connection to Venice, a separate cop was called over, who gave the bags of film a fairly cursory inspection before letting us through. Note, too, that there is no absolute right to hand-inspection overseas.

On our return trip, leaving Venice, I hit on what may be the best approach to get through this process un-X-rayed.

I walked to the conveyer belt and gave everyone a big "Buon Giorno!" After placing my coat, briefcase and camera bag on the belt to go through X-ray, I simply put my bags of exposed and unexposed film in the plastic box along with my watch, change and other metal objects. The inspection of all this stuff was thorough, but quick. Note: when the young woman at the gate started to tell me the film could safely go through X-ray, I simply smiled and said "Molto sensitivo; ho bisogno per ispezione per mano. Sono professionale." ("Very sensitive, I need hand inspection. I am a professional.")

Through all of these inspections, I wore my congressional press credential, but didn't wave it anyone's face and tried to be as pleasant as I could be under the circumstances. I also tried to make our lives easier by giving us as much time as practical between connections. Going over, we had a 3-hour layover in Paris, which meant we didn't have to run like hell to go through security again and race to our gate. Coming back, we only had an hour and 15 minutes (next time, we'll make an earlier flight out of Venice) but still were able to get through in time (barely).

On balance, I learned a few things from this post-9/11 trip. First, was that the recommended three-hours-early check-in time for the first leg of a trip may be unnecessary. We cooled our heels plenty at Dulles, though we did spot what seemed like a miles-long line for one Northwest Airlines flight. Our Air France flight out of Dulles was fully booked, too, but that line went much faster. Go figure.

Second was that I really liked not having a ton of stuff with me as carry-on.

Third was the peace of mind that comes either from buying film on location or having it processed there. This time I did not have to buy film, but I did have two separate labs process our negatives. (I had contact sheets made in DC on our return.) This allowed us to make sure our cameras were working properly and that we were getting great stuff. Just as important, it freed us from any X-ray worry about these particular rolls, since X-ray and other zapping doesn't affect film once it is processed.

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.


©Frank Van Riper
Lead-lined film bag from Domke will hold 20 or so rolls of film. I kept it as a backup if I had to put my film through airport X-ray screening.


©Frank Van Riper
This above all...Peace. Happy Holidays to all from Frank and Judy.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Death of the Digital Happy Snap?

Murphy's Second Law

Moby C, Joe McNally & A Tribute to Heroes

Five Flags Over Broadway

Fred Maroon Remembered: Forever the 'Amateur'

Anthrax and Zapped Film -
Unintended Consequences