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Unintended Engagement Pix

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I confess to a perverse weekend predilection for the Sunday New York Times engagement announcements.

There, page after page, year after year, is the same damn photograph over and over: a bxw engagement picture, probably shot as a vertical but cropped to an awkward horizontal headshot to fit the paper's outdated style rules.

The couples depicted on these pages vary, of course: by race, by personal style, by looks.

But, I don't care: it's the same fairly boring picture. Studio-lit, to be sure, and well exposed. But, oh so boring. And I'm just as guilty of this mindless conformity. The last time Judy and I had a picture in the section it was no better or worse than all the others that surrounded it.

So it stands to reason that when my wife and I are asked to make an engagement or a wedding announcement portrait we like to at least try something different, even as we also fulfill the wishes of our clients for a nice simple picture to send out to the relatives and to the newspapers.

Happily, in Washington, there is a perfect, multi-faceted backdrop for wonderful portraiture. Historic Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown is one of the federal city's tranquil jewels: acres of beautifully kept gardens on what once was an elegant private estate, that is now open to the public.

The place is a natural for all sorts of photographers. Nature shooters love the immaculate gardens; Architectural shooters can have fun documenting the elaborate greenhouse and other details. [Note: Dumbarton generally does prohibit bulky equipment like tripods, etc., so more formal view camera shooting without prior permission is out.]

Street or documentary photographers can make all kinds of images of people, especially in the warmer weather when folks are all over the benches and lawns, enjoying the park's serenity. Fashion shooters have used the elaborate settings for years to make pictures for magazine and ad layouts.

And, of course, portrait photographers like us revel in all the backgrounds that the acres of grounds afford–not to mention the picturesque nooks and crannies that seem designed for close-up work.

My wife and I have worked in Dumbarton off and on for more than two decades. You would think that we had the drill down pretty cold. Yet, happily, working at this place has on more than one occasion led to what I call unintended engagement pictures.

Take the first shot here. It wasn't even shot at Dumbarton Oaks at all. In fact, it occurred almost immediately after a portrait session there. In this case, the couple wanted a standard engagement picture and Judy and I obliged, photographing them in the garden's greenhouse. We liked that site because the surrounding bushes created an interesting backdrop while the diffuse light from the overhead windows created a soft look that we complemented with flash. [In fact, this is an arrangement we have used there at other times, for other clients.]

The pictures, we knew from the start, would be fine. Then, afterward, we retired to a Georgetown bistro for a little wine. That's when I made the picture I really liked: an informal, natural light image of our clients looking into each other's eyes. I was shooting T-Max 3200 at the time, and the gritty look of the high-speed film complements, I think, the caught-on-the-fly nature of the picture.

Years later–just a few months ago, in fact–another couple hired us for similar work and once again we suggested Dumbarton. This time, Judy made a nice, low-key available light color shot near one of the garden's pools. But, again the shot that I keep coming back to is the unintended one.

Because we were working portably–i.e.: no light stands or tripods to draw attention to ourselves and invite the guards' ire–we easily were able to work at a number of different locations. The last one we used was by the glorious and huge beech tree that in some ways symbolizes Dumbarton's great gardens. While Judy worked at making a close-up, I was struck by the couple's relationship with the tree's great roots. I made what amounts to little more than a grab shot with my digital Canon PowerShot G1 and still came away with a keeper, helped immeasurably by the couple's expressions.

And that really is what counts. Lovely though the setting may be, in portraiture the look of your subject is what will make or break the picture. That's one reason models are paid such big bucks: they can turn great, natural-looking expressions on or off at will. When working with average folks, however, that can pose a problem. Half your job is to make your subject feel comfortable before the camera. Having two people making pictures can be a great help, I find, since most times one person will be shooting while the other is engaging the client in (one hopes) relaxing conversation. That's why I love to work with Judy–she's simply great at putting people at their ease, and I'm pretty good at it too, when she is working.

To give you an example of just how good Judy is at this, take a look at what I think is one of the best wedding portraits I ever have seen.

Judy made this picture more than 20 years ago–before we met, in fact–and was working alone and by available light. I'm sure it helped that she knew the couple [in fact they and the two gorgeous daughters they subsequently had remain our very close friends.]

But see how the lighting, gesture and composition work to make this picture so good. Peter's sinuous form seems to emerge from the tree and his connection to Elizabeth is perfectly natural. Her expression radiates warmth. Note, too, how the connection between the two is subtly reinforced by Peter's holding Elizabeth's bouquet and, of course, by the way she holds onto his left hand.

Maybe I'm prejudiced, but I don't think engagement portraits get any better than this.

Truth to tell, though, this is not an engagement portrait, at least not in the traditional sense. Peter and Elizabeth used the picture on a very elegant card to announce to friends and family their "elopement and ensuing marriage."

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.


© Frank Van Riper
Washington's Dumbarton Oaks is a great backdrop for portraits, but sometimes the keeper of the day can come in a bar. That's what happened after Judy and I finished an engagement portrait session and headed to a Georgetown bistro for a little wine. High-speed film and available light shooting let me capture this tender moment.

© Judith Goodman
Years later, Judy and I returned to the park to photograph this couple's wedding announcement portrait. Judy's color image was just what they wanted–relaxed, and informal.

© Frank Van Riper
Still…I have to say I prefer this picture–actually a digital grab shot as Judy was getting ready to photograph the couple close up. I don't feel too bad about it, since Judy's spectacular shot (below) was my inspiration.

© Judith Goodman
This is a grandmother of all engagement pix! I love this shot, that Judy made before I knew her. Everything works: the gesture of the couple, the lighting and, of course, the spectacular beech tree as novel backdrop.


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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.

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