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Eastern Shore Revisited

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Twice a year, in October and May, Judy and I try to scrape together at least two or three days to visit our friends Regina and Jonathan on the Eastern Shore, on the tiny island of Chincoteague, Va.

Besides being welcome getaways in the midst of our fall and spring wedding seasons in Washington, these trips to the shore are, for me anyway, a visit to the site of my first real photographic triumph: the place that I chronicled in my first photography book more than ten years ago.

Back then, I was a newly-minted professional photographer who had been taken by the urge to do a book of pictures about the quiet, tranquil Eastern Shore. I already had one book under my belt, a biography of John Glenn, but that had nothing to do with photography and everything to do with my previous life as a political reporter in Washington.

I had been testing my wings as a freelance photographer and writer in the late 80s and early 90s, and found myself slowly but inexorably drawn to the Eastern Shore–its peculiar rhythms, its slower pace, its plain beauty, its friendly, accessible people. Visiting friends who had bought a small cottage on Chincoteague to use on weekends and in retirement, my wife Judy and I were immediately aware of how calming was the drive over the imposing Bay Bridge. And how more calming still was the much shorter drive along the causeway into Chincoteague, and over the tiny bridge that spanned the channel, leading into town. And because we always were visitors to this tranquil place, whenever a phone rang it was never for us. To an ex-newspaper reporter like me, this in itself was a transforming event.

The friends who had bought that original retirement place introduced us to Regina and Jonathan, themselves big-city transplants, who owned a great shop that is now the best shop, gallery and coffeehouse on the island.

The transformation of the Maine Street Shop and Gallery into the Main Street Shop and Coffeehouse was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Consider: every summer Judy and I live at our summer place in Lubec, Maine - the easternmost point in the US. It's gorgeous, it's tranquil, the folks are wonderful - I did a book about that place too. But good coffee? Fuggeddabahdit. I have to have my French Roast shipped to me from a gourmet shop in Ellsworth, hours away.

A latte? Gimme a break. The nearest place you can get a really bad one is nearly an hour's drive downcoast.

But on Chincoteague, Jonathan can whip a great one up for me whenever I want it. And it's free. (Don't tell him I said that.)

Separated by the Chesapeake Bay from the mainland, and seemingly light years away from the bustle and noise of Washington and Baltimore and Annapolis, the Eastern Shore developed at its own pace and with its own identity. "About this time," James Michener famously said in his novel Chesapeake, "the custom arose of referring to the Eastern Shore with capital letters, as if it were a special place; this tribute was never paid the western shore."

The people here, especially those in the more out-of-the-way rural areas like Tangier, Hooper's, Parksley or Pocomoke, are different from their urban cousins–if they have any at all. Venture by mail boat to one of the most remote corners, Tangier Island, Va.–as I did to make pictures for my book–and you find people who still speak in the up and down cadences of their centuries-dead forebears from Devon and Cornwall in England. And it doesn't take a heap of searching to find 'Tiggers or Pocomokers of a certain age who still lament the building of the Bay Bridge as a dubious intrusion into their low-decibel lives.

Setting out to photograph all this was a challenge and a treat. I learned one lesson early from Judy, who not only is my wife but my professional partner as well. Most people are flattered if you ask to photograph them. It shows that you find them or what they are doing important enough to record for posterity and, for all their initial protestations that: "Oh I'll break your camera," after a while if you are polite - and persistent - enough, most folks will acquiesce.

That's when the magic happens. That's when you disappear. When you no longer are viewed as a threat or an intrusion, you become invisible and then can make some marvelous pictures.

Other times, a more formal approach is called for, especially with a large group. That's what happened when I photographed the Chincoteague Fire Department - and wound up blowing fuses up and down Main Street.

I wanted to avoid the crowds and chaos of the annual summertime pony penning, when the storied Chincoteague ponies swim from their habitat on nearby Assateague Island to Chincoteague and, guided by a phalanx of Chincoteague firemen-turned cowboys, trot down the town's main street to the fairgrounds, there to be auctioned off, with proceeds benefiting the Department.

It's a great photo-op to be sure, the last Wednesday in July, and one that I heartily recommend. But I wanted a more formal group shot of the fireman in uniform in front of the firehouse - with just one pony in the middle. No sweat, I thought. And the firemen loved the idea.

But when I showed up on the agreed-upon evening in September, I knew right away something was wrong.

"Oh Geez, was it tonight?" somebody asked me.

We re-scheduled for one month later and I made sure in the meantime to plaster the firehouse with reminder notices.

When the time came in October, everyone showed up in uniform, and the pony couldn't have been more cooperative. But one month later also meant that there was that much less evening light to shoot by so I had to uncork every high-powered strobe and floodlight I owned to light the scene.

All went fine until the lights went out on Main Street.

Happily, the fire chief at the time also was the police chief, so he had his men direct traffic around me as others scrambled to reset the breakers and let the shoot proceed.

Then there was the lady preacher in her storefront church. My portrait of Rev. Hattie Ewell, exultant while preaching The Word, looks like a wonderfully spontaneous grab shot made during a service. It was anything but. Rev. Ewell graciously let me set up umbrellas and strobelights in her church and, after a Polaroid or two, I was ready to photograph her. I said, "why don't you preach to me?" hoping it would draw her our. But Hattie was like so many of us - terminally camera-shy.

Fortunately, the reverend's sister happened by just then. Much more outgoing than Hattie, the sister quickly figured out what we needed. Over the next five minutes, it was call-and-response, with Hattie growing ever more relaxed in front of my Hasselblad. This shot shown here came near the end, with Hattie joyously citing some of her favorite scripture. The moment was as fleeting as it was frenzied, and I pressed the shutter. If it's in focus, I thought, that's the keeper.

It was.

Faces of the Eastern Shore came out in 1992. I'm proud of its wonderful reviews. In 1998, expanding on the idea of combining my words with my photographs, I finished a larger, coffee-table book about rural Maine entitled Down East Maine: A World Apart. Currently Judy and I are working together on a book about Venice in winter.

But for us, the Eastern Shore always will be a special place, a place to be thought of in capital letters. Now, when we return to Chincoteague, it is to be with Regina and Jonathan where, when we are not walking on the beach, or sautéing softshells, or driving slowly through the Assateague wildlife refuge, or watching a spectacular sunset, I wonder aloud whether I ever will come back, not just to visit friends, but to photograph a sequel.

The chances are I will not.

Judy, who also is a sculptor and much more of an artist than I, notes that she never could recreate one of her pieces, even if she wanted to.

I know what she is saying. You really can't go home again.

But it is nice to visit.

[Main Street Shop and Coffeehouse, corner of Main St. and Maddux Blvd., Chincoteague, Va. www.mainstreet-shop.com]

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 through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Judith Goodman
That’s me on the ladder trying not to blow any more fuses as I use every light I own to make a group portrait of the Chincoteague Fire Department for my book on the Eastern Shore.

© Frank Van Riper
Given all the hassle, the shot looks terrific. And everyone’s eyes are open - I checked.

© Frank Van Riper
Rev. Hattie Ewell was a wonderful preacher, but not before the camera. Her sister, working behind me, was able to draw her out for this wonderful, spontaneous-looking, portrait.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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