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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

'Photo Hero'

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

A postcard from George Covington, the blind photographer from Alpine, Texas, in the weeks after September 11th combined George's flag-waving patriotism (no surprise since he worked in the first Bush White House), his knack for self-promotion (after all he did have a book to sell), his own penchant for the ridiculous (the image was really an artfully done composite of a landscape and a group portrait), as well as his eye (albeit clouded) for lovely females.

On the front of the postcard was a picture of George, American flag in one hand, white cane in the other. He was standing, or so it appeared, in the middle of the Texas desert, flanked by two lovely and very real young women. The blonde brandished a six-shooter, the brunette a rifle.

"Covington's Desert Roses," read the headline above the picture. "Blind Justice, West of the Pecos."

In case anyone missed the message, at the bottom of the postcard was the legend: "Okay Taliban, we're gonna kick ass!"

It was clear George hadn't mellowed any from the last time we spoke, back in 1993, when he allowed as how his white cane, which he only had been using then for about six months, was "great for scattering yuppies."

And the postcard said that George was coming to town. I had been warned.

Though Covington ostensibly was coming to deliver one of the many lectures and speeches he gives every year about the need to better weave people with disabilities into the fabric of our society, he also was hitting DC to talk about his latest book, Photo Hero: A Satire of Photography. This new book is about as far as one can get from his last effort, a very serious tome about accessibility.

This book is a howl – a politically incorrect take-no-prisoners dissection of photography in nearly all its self-important manifestations, with assorted other annoying groups roasted for good measure. Covington knows, or has worked with, damn near every photo superstar of the past several decades, and a number of them show up in his pages in embarrassing portrayals, their identities only thinly disguised.

Anyone who has suffered through a lecture by a stunningly arrogant photographer/artiste; anyone who has felt ripped off by a photography school; those who have been looked down upon by art directors or picture editors 20 years their junior will find something to laugh at in this surprisingly readable book.

It is a miracle that this self-published paperback – usually a sign of a forgettable author writing even more forgettable prose – hangs together at all, given its penchant for the sublime, the ridiculous – even the supernatural. That it hangs together hilariously right through to its conclusion was, to me, anyway, a great excuse to get together with the author for lunch.

Covington, a youthful 57, looked great striding through Clyde's on the arm of his (and my) friend and colleague, Washington architectural photographer William Lebovich. In the course of lunch, any pretense of a three-way conversation was quickly dropped. Bill and I clearly were there to be George's straight men.

During the meal, while George held forth and tried not to drip coleslaw from his crabcake sandwich onto his shirt as he gestured, I tried to count how many names of prominent photographers he actually dropped. It was a losing battle, but it did serve to reassert George's right to skewer the profession he has been in for years.

But first a little background for any who haven't heard of this guy, or who are wondering about the apparent oxymoron, "blind photographer."

George Covington was born in Texas with woefully imperfect eyes. In fact he was born legally blind, with 20/400 vision in both eyes, the result of a combination of deficiencies that would make his sight forever uncorrectable. Today he has less than 5% peripheral vision, and even that is slowly failing. "As long as I can see to photograph, I never will be blind," George has written. He literally never leaves his house now without a digital camera, both to record his surroundings and to pursue a huge portrait project, to capture on pixels or occasionally film all the residents of his tiny west Texas town. "The blurs of mountains and mesas become visible in my prints," George said, "when I observe them through a 15x magnifying lens and a great deal of light."

With degrees in journalism and in law, Covington has lectured, taught photography to the visually impaired and for a number of years was Vice President Dan Quayle's top advisor on accessibility and disability issues. Besides promoting ways for the visually impaired to better navigate and appreciate federal buildings and museums through the National Parks Service's Office of Accessibility – one of his major accomplishments while at the White House – Covington has run numerous workshops here and abroad, bringing photography's promise to a group many assumed it never could touch.

He credits two great photographers, Elliot Erwitt and Arnold Newman, with giving him the "encouragement to go forward in my work," and now considers "Arnold and Augusta Newman my photographic parents."

[During lunch, George relayed a story about having dinner with the Newmans in New York some years ago and then joining them at a lecture Arnold was giving about a show of his work. "Arnold said, 'come on, I can get you a seat in the front row.'" George recalled. He followed the great photographer into the hall, and then was floored when Newman, in a clearly expansive, if not strictly accurate, declaration, listed George as one of the influences on him.

"I said, 'I wanna transcript of that!!'"]

It is this kind of irreverence that permeates Covington's book.

Photo Hero has this "simple" plot: Super-rich Thomas Adderly-Phillips 3d, the idle scion of an industrial dynasty (and erstwhile photo buff), has a rare blood disease and little more than a year to live. He has no kids of his own and even his ex-wife has taken back her maiden name. To leave some imprint on this fragile earth, Taps, as he comes to be called, hires an aging, burned-out, cynical – though superb – photojournalist, Anthony Slone, to turn him into the most famous photographer in the world.

Slone, estranged from his son and depressed over the death of his wife, finds in Taps a way to vent all his anger and frustration. It also helps him deal with the bizarre turn of events in his own life that recently has made him the world's most renowned shooter: A cache of hitherto unknown Nazi war plunder turns up, containing, in addition to several Old Master paintings, an early photo portfolio by...Anthony Slone.

This new clout, and the fawning attention now paid to him by the photo establishment, combine with Taps' bottomless bank account to let Slone pursue his plan to make Adderly-Phillips famous. Before he is through, Slone, Taps and the reader encounter a lesbian biker gang, gods and goddesses, international terrorists and enough thinly-veiled photo-biggies acting like perfect fools to prompt, if not howls of laughter, then at least a succession of knowing chuckles from anyone in the photo game.

Photo Hero: A Satire of Photography by George A. Covington. 240 pps. 1st Books Library Available in electronic form ($4.95) Softcover ($10.95) Hardcover ($15.95)

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

JoAnn Klingemann
George Covington may not be the world's only legally blind photographer, but he's probably the best known. Also a lawyer and journalist, he is a former White House aide and has lecured about accesibility issues all over the world.

There is nothing politically correct in George Covington's book, Photo Hero: A Satire of Photography, but it does provide a biting and all-too-accurate look at photography and photographers.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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